In 1948 Claude-Edmonde Magny published L'Age du roman américain, one of the first French studies devoted to twentieth-century American fiction. Forty years later, Marc Chénetier surveys "new American fiction from 1960 to the present," and it is almost as if we were visiting another planet. For Magny, the "novel" was still a safe value; no longer believing in generic distinctions, Chénetier prefers to discuss "fiction." And whereas l'Age du roman américain focused on the works of a handful of novelists who had already achieved an international reputation, Chénetier, bravely attempting to cover three decades of fiction-writing in America, almost apologizes for not having written at greater length about "the three hundred authors [he finds] interesting."
From Abish (Walter) to Zukofsky (Charles), Chénetier has read everything, and one can only admire the sovereign ease with which he has assimilated his enormous corpus and brings it into perspective for the reader. Au-delà du soupçon, however, is not another guided tour through contemporary fiction. It does not proceed author by author, nor does it follow the current American mania of parking writers according to region, race, and gender. A voracious but fiercely independent reader, Chénetier takes little heed of labels, taxonomies, and hierarchies. His own preferences are fairly easy to detect, and he obviously wants his readers to share the pleasure he has experienced in reading Gaddis, Hawkes, Coover, Elkin, or Gass. But his purpose is less to offer critical evaluations of individual works than to provide a reliable and comprehensive chart of the new territories conquered by American fiction over the past thirty years. Hence his refreshing indifference to such received notions as "mainstream fiction" or even "postmodernism," his disregard of established reputations (Bellow, Updike, and Styron loom on the horizon like fading dinosaurs), and his generous attention to a number of relatively obscure writers.
After carefully tracing the transition from the redefined realism of the modernist novel to the exuberant playfulness of the "new fiction," Chénetier offers a thorough discussion of the intricate formal games of "metafiction." He judiciously refrains, however, from overstressing self-reflexiveness and takes great care to relate the new fiction to the complexities of its cultural setting. Far from narcissistically folding back on itself, the new fiction, Chénetier argues, echoes the theoretical interrogations [End Page 767] of contemporary epistemology, and its best practitioners are anything but irresponsible fabulators. Whatever their contempt for realism and their doubts about "reality," their works are not just about themselves but about the precarious world in which we live. As Chénetier demonstrates, the cultural allegiance of the new fictionists is in fact a double one: they are at once resourceful recyclers of the copious dreck of American mass culture and, like their modernist predecessors, self-conscious inheritors (and ironic manipulators) of the traditions of Western culture at its highest.
Chénetier himself is marvelously at home in both cultures, high and low, and, as a Frenchman, he naturally also draws on the rich background of his own. His ample and ambitious study is the work of an insider who is also an outsider, that is, it has been written from a critical position ideally suited for a balanced assessment of its object. Learned, lucid, and often witty, packed with sharp insights and provocative comments, continuously enlightening, Au-delà du soupçon admirably fulfills its author's aim and should be read by everyone interested in the turbulent fictions of today.