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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 375-377
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Christian Moraru. Rewriting: Postmodern Narrative and Cultural Critique in the Age of Cloning. Albany: State U of New York P, 2001. xviii + 230 pp.
Required reading for anyone interested in the dynamics of intertextuality and their bearing on postmodern American fiction, this book reveals an astounding breadth of scholarship, a deep familiarity with debates concerning postmodernism, and an exemplary precision when it comes to critical method. Always grounding his [End Page 375] larger claims in painstakingly careful textual analyses, Moraru disputes the criticism, voiced by right-wing conservatives and left-wing radicals alike, that postmodernism is an apolitical, or rather anti-political, style, worldview, or type of discourse. Instead, through a meticulous examination of the rewrites performed by authors as diverse as E. L. Doctorow, Kathy Acker, and Bharati Mukherjee, Rewriting suggests how postmodern modes of renarrativization can be viewed as forms of cultural critique.
Active, thoroughgoing, and critical rewriting, Moraru argues, is a politically efficacious practice, not an act of withdrawal or a symptom of bookish introversion. Thus, in the tutor-texts examined here, renarrativization is a strategy for transvaluing the more-or-less unquestioned presuppositions, values, and myths embodied within a corpus of quasi-foundational tales by Alger, Douglass, Hawthorne, Poe, Thoreau, and others. Retold, these earlier texts must be reread; indeed, they are no longer "the same" texts as they were before they had to be situated within the larger constellation of works they helped to generate. At stake is a palimpsestic force field in which earlier narratives have become ex post facto precursors to their postmodern rewrites, requiring a reciprocal, mutually transformative mapping of source text into target text and vice versa. While providing a comprehensive account of intertextual affiliations between earlier American tales and their contemporary retellings, Rewriting emphasizes how postmodern narrative functions in powerfully revisionary and politically enabling ways.
Moraru specifies the object of his study in the preface, then uses part 1 of the book, "Rewriting and Postmodernism," to elaborate further on this initial sketch. Rewriting is concerned, in particular, with what the author calls "intensive-extensive rewriting": intensive, in that the rewrites at issue are programmatic, thorough, and overt, as opposed to oblique or coded reworkings of previous narratives; extensive, in that these rewrites "make a [. . .] conspicuous and directly 'critical' ('revisionist' or radical) impact on certain notions and representations." Hence, the rubric of intensive-extensive rewriting encompasses postmodern narratives that (a) rework in detail one or more narratives, and (b) while doing so, put forth a critical commentary "on the sociohistorical ambience—values, ideas, formations, cultural mythologies—within which rewriting is undertaken or within which the reworked text was produced."
Part 2 of the book, "Rewriting and the National Narrative," includes chapters on E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Robert Coover's The Public Burning, and Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy. Exploring how these works intensively-extensively rewrite earlier, authoritative narratives informing America's (and Americans') sense of national [End Page 376] identity, Moraru discusses Doctorow's critical reworking of Heinrich von Kleist's "Michael Kohlhaas," Coover's revisionary take on works by Horatio Alger, and Auster's "transcendentalist rewrites" of Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and others.
Part 3, "Rewriting Race: Models of 'Cross-Fertilization' in African American Postmodernism," includes chapters on Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada, Charles Johnson's Middle Passage, and the "hip-hop rewriting" at work in texts like Trey Ellis's Platitudes. Reed's novel parasitizes slave narratives like Frederick Douglass's and Henry Bibb's (among others), but it rewrites this genre in a peculiarly postmodern way, turning its "'host' style, genre, or intertext against itself, caricaturizing its very claim of 'originality.'" Likewise, Ellis's Platitudes revisits "narrative regimes under which race has been configured since Frederick Douglass," but in this case the text stages a "'reconstructive' displacement of inherited forms and images" that involves a "self-conscious exchange between the characters/writers on the novel's scene of writing and rewriting." In Middle Passage, meanwhile, Johnson affirmatively rewrites Melville's texts, especially...