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  • Novelist-Narrators of the American Dream:The (Meta-)Realistic Chronicles of Cather, Fitzgerald, Roth, and Díaz
  • Ben Railton

Halfway through chapter 3 of Philip Roth's American Pastoral (1997), its novelist-narrator Skip Zuckerman transitions abruptly but crucially away from the first-person voice in which he has narrated the first two and a half chapters and into the third-person limited omniscient perspective from which the remaining six and a half chapters will be written. Zuckerman has, at earlier moments in the chapter, alluded to the novel he would (immediately after the 1995 events being described) write about the character of Seymour "Swede" Levov on whom Roth's book has focused from its first words, but here the shift from meta-fiction to the fiction itself is much more complete and striking, and one that Zuckerman accomplishes in a single five-word sentence: "I dreamed a realistic chronicle." The next, much longer sentence opens with "I began gazing into his life," and then shifts fully into that third-person limited omniscient representation of the Swede's perspective (as imagined by Zuckerman) which will comprise the whole of that chronicle, that novel within the novel. In fact, when Zuckerman writes in that same sentence "I found him in Deal, New Jersey," it marks the last time in Roth's book—which will continue for over three hundred thirty pages—that he uses the first-person pronoun or refers to himself and his role as novelist-narrator in any explicit way.1

Roth's bifurcation of perspective here, effected at a single moment and dividing his novel into two very distinct sections as a result, is, it seems to me, singular in American literature. But the concept of a novelist-narrator producing "a realistic chronicle," and moreover one very much connected to the American Dream to which Zuckerman's language alludes in that moment of transition and to which Roth refers more directly in his title [End Page 133] and throughout the novel, can be productively linked to other significant American texts, and concurrently to an expanded conception of twentieth and twenty-first century American literary (meta-)realism. Willa Cather's My Ántonia (1918), F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), and Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008) all likewise feature precisely such narrating and structuring voices: Cather's Jim, Fitzgerald's Nick, and Díaz's Yunior engage meta-textually with the books that they are in the process of producing about their title characters, and all three similarly admit from their titles and opening pages on that they are to a significant degree dreaming their chronicles of those characters. That is, Ántonia Shimerda and James Gatz bear to My Ántonia and The Great Gatsby roughly the same relationship that Oscar Cabral de León and Seymour Levov bear to Oscar Wao and The Swede; the latter identities are perceptions or imagined versions of the former, and thus a novel about The Great Gatsby (for example) is on multiple levels a fictionalized chronicle of James Gatz's American life and dreams. Yet all four novelist-narrators are at least acquaintances of—and in Cather, Fitzgerald, and Díaz's texts are indeed friends with—their subjects, and so they are in no way simply outside, objective creators of those chronicles. And indeed it is precisely their own, at least somewhat intimate perspective on the lives and dreams of their characters which provides the foundation on which the novelist-narrators build their imagined yet realistic texts.

As complex as both the role of these novelist-narrators and their relationship to the American identities and dreams of their protagonists thus are, it is my use of the term "realistic" to describe these texts—an adjective present in Roth's transitional sentence but likewise in my own central argument here—that is perhaps the most in need of immediate clarification. After all, the presence of these novelist-narrators seems to exemplify the many ways in which all four novels, to differing degrees and in distinct ways, diverge from the realistic tradition as it has usually been defined. Janet McKay, whose Narration and Discourse in American...


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pp. 133-153
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