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350Philosophy and Literature The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice, by Dominic Head; xii & 241 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, $49.95. Dominic Head situates his book in opposition to what he terms the prevailing "short story theory [that] comprises no more than a handful ofoccasional works from which no developing aesdietic emerges," but from which diere does emerge "a static notion of the genre's unity—its supposed reliance on certain unifying devices, such as a single event, straightforward characterization, a coherent 'moment of revelation'—from which an easily identifiable 'point' can be recognized" (p. x). His study argues in contrast "that the short story incorporates disunifying devices which are seminal features of the literary effects produced in the genre" (p. x). This introduction, and the first chapter where he "examines short story theory" and rehearses his displeasure with it, would lead one to expect a major reorientation to die genre. The rest of the book, however, deals primarily with aspects ofmodernist productions without, it seems to me, penetrating to the aesthetic core of the short story proper. Head wants to envisage the short story in new ways by demonstrating that prevailing theories ofdie genre do not easily incorporate the stories that interest him. As he points out, modernist short stories "bear litde resemblance to die notional unified story with its single effect: the denial of a simple, single effect, in formal terms, is usually an integral part of the [modernist] stories' functions" (p. 77). Still, I suspect that the modernists' ambiguous character is no less or more a subject of interest than well-delineated character, that conflicting voices or open endings are no less techniques than unified narration or closure, that disruption is simply one strategy among others. If so, Head has merely shifted from one set ofcharacteristics to another without making any essential alteration in the underlying conception of the genre. While I agree with Head that the short story constitutes a "mutable, evolving . . . genre" (p. 3), I would say merely that within the framework of the short story there is sometimes radical change in the dominanttechniques, strategies, and subjects. Literary definitions ofgenre that are based on such matters inevitably face stormy waves. Authors are expert in bringing sea change without, for all that, getting out of die water. Despite my hesitations about Head's introductory assurances and my disappointment when diey are subsequendy left unfulfilled, the titular promise to consider the modernist short story is richly accomplished. Head points out that the modernist program called for undermining unity, whether in respect to narrative authority or to the stability of personality and, as a result, of characterization . Modernists allowed their stories to be only partially autonomous, dius subject to societal context, which makes Aldiusser useful in interpretation. Fiction from this period also resists a unified voice, and Bakhtin's idea of conflicting voices or dialogized narrative provides help for interpretation. In Reviews351 short, despite the modernists' ambivalent portrayal of character—which for Head is unquestionably the primary subject matter of these stories—rigorous analysis remains possible. In the course of persuasive considerations of stories and collections byJames Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Wyndham Lewis, and Malcolm Lowry, Head convincingly argues that modernist stories are primarily characterized by a sense of tension or formal dissonance and disruption. As the authors build their characters and reveal their inadequacies through confused and often contradictory narratives and conflicting voices, they simultaneously comment on the distorting, damaging social influences that are responsible. For Head the resulting ambiguity does not come from "undecidability," but rather from particular contextual forces that bring complicated motivations and, indeed, intricate forms of consciousness. In varying ways, these authors express "a complex view of the interaction between individual experience and social organization" (p. 139). As Head situates the modernist short story in the "cultivation of paradox and ambiguity, and the fragmented view of personal identity" (p. 185), in the "emphasis on technique" and the "pursuit of social ends through formal experimentation " (p. 185), he admirably communicates the image of a genre that, for those who hold to simple definitions, has been problematized. His readings ofthe five authors that particularly interest him are excellent and should...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 350-351
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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