- From Modernist Entombment to Postmodernist Exhumation: Dead Bodies in Twentieth-Century American Fiction
In its broadest terms, Lisa Perdigao's From Modernist Entombment to Postmodernist Exhumation provides an insightful foray into territory much mined in recent years: the tension between the material and the discursive; the fraught relationship between the body and representation. Perdigao does so by reading the dead body as the "figure at the utter limit of representation" (1), triggering a crisis of representation in any narrative faced with the equally problematic options of cleanly subsuming it into its narrative logic, or leaving it out to rot. Examining how modernist and postmodernist novels negotiate the problems of representing the dead body in language, and disposing of or preserving it in narrative, this study plots a "shift from a desire to conceal death to a desire to represent materiality, to rescue [End Page 776] what is lost to figurative language in the process of memorialization and transformation" (3). Perdigao thus proposes a new lens through which to view the relationship between modernism and postmodernism, specifically in terms of both periods' concepts of language and of the body, and the way each is of or in opposition to the other.
Perdigao's analysis rests heavily on Peter Brooks's Reading for the Plot, which is to say that it relies far more on modernist Freud than on the more poststructurally popular Lacan. Of course this choice makes sense for an argument whose central trope is of entombment and exhumation—privileging the material body as a pursuable thing that can be buried or uncovered. Perdigao takes Brooks's central argument—that "the modern plot leads to the dead body" (qtd. in Perdigao 3) and then transforms that body in narrative's "totalizing metaphor" (8)—and uses it as a method of reading how plots conceal or expose dead bodies, and thus indicate texts' submission or resistance to the totalizing logic of metaphor. Perdigao employs (through Brooks) Roman Jakobson's distinction between metonymy and metaphor, in conjunction with Brooks's concept of plot as "metonymy searching to become metaphor" (qtd. in Perdigao 10). She does so to argue that representation of the dead body in twentieth-century American fiction shifts not only from "figurations of burial to figurations of ex-humation" (8), but also from renderings via metaphor to renderings via metonymy. Thus, From Modernist Entombment to Postmodernist Exhumation suggests a close relationship between concepts of what narrative "should" achieve and how narrative must achieve it.
Though the book's title, along with its careful introduction, promises a clean and pronounced shift in treatments of the body through narrative changes from modernism to postmodernism, the argument as it develops through five chapters delivers more complication of this easy trope than demonstration, and far less modernist burial than postmodernist exhumation. In fact, of the twelve novels substantially considered here, only one, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, renders a reading that wholly supports Perdigao's concept (via Brooks) of narrative as a totalizing force that transforms the dead body into satisfyingly aestheticized metaphor. Positioning Gatsby as a revision of the earlier This Side of Paradise, the reading makes good use of existing analysis of the novels while offering fresh and convincing readings of both. But by the middle of chapter 1, Brooks's neat formulation appears to lose its relevance as all other modernist novels that Perdiagao examines expose, she argues, limitations and failures of that metaphoric force. Faulkner's Sanctuary and As I Lay Dying, for example, "demonstrate the problems with the burial drive, of the transformation of a chain of metonymies into a totalizing metaphor, the foundations of the modernist trope of entombment" (37). Cather's [End Page 777] The Professor's House and Wright's Native Son she reads as pushing further away from modernist entombment in metaphor, "suggesting the possibility of exhumation" and "the return to metonyms" (51).
The real strength of her larger argument, that the postmodern tendency toward metonymy underlies postmodern renderings of exhumation, lies in her readings of four postmodern novels...