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Daniel Punday. Five Strands of Fictionality: The Institutional Construction of Contemporary American Fiction. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2010. vii + 240 pp.

Daniel Punday is a big-picture kind of guy. Having interrogated the relationship between two sizable concepts in his Narrative After Deconstruction (2003) and taking on still another large concept, embodiment, in Narrative Bodies (2003), Punday has now set his sights on another expansive topic in Five Strands of Fictionality. Punday specifies that his goal in this book is "to describe the operation of fictionality in contemporary (post-1960) American fiction and culture" (22): a very clear and simple statement of a very complicated project. However, Punday is more than up to meeting this challenge, [End Page 779] and his book is a model for thinking our way through the vagaries of fictionality and toward its productive uses. Along the way, he repeatedly reminds us of the intertwining of issues of fictionality with postmodernism.

Punday's first task is to set about freeing his concern with "fictionality" from obviously related but distracting constructions tied variously to postmodernism, myth, and history. First he takes on the postmodern media culture-centered "popular perception that the fictive has somehow wormed its way into spheres of contemporary life where it traditionally was not welcome" (1). We might think of this as the "bad pomo" understanding of cultural fictionality. Punday quickly explains that his interest is not with "the apparent shift in our sense of reality," but with "the discursive uses of fiction," a potentially positive interrogation of the question of the "work" fictionality does (3). He also distinguishes fictionality from cultural myth, insofar as "fictionality, unlike myth, must have some purpose beyond itself," must serve as some form of "intellectual tool" (4). And, in what is a crucial proposition for Punday, fictionality is an inherently modern phenomenon depending on "the very precise contours of modern thinking about truth and the knowability of the world" (9). Having specified these aspects of the fictional he does not intend to engage, Punday then moves to what he will do, examining fictionality as "an occasion to rethink institutional and disciplinary boundaries" (11). Specifically, he organizes his study around loosely bounded and frequently interpenetrating "strands" that construct fictionality primarily in terms of crafted literary myth, archive building, lying, style, and assemblage.

Punday is concerned with the institutions of literary study, our ways of evaluating and assigning authority and value to fictional discursive texts, a task more and more falling to literary theory (or just "theory"), which becomes a site of "a whole series of debates about the institutions that shape the creation, transmission, and reception of information" (13). Now here comes the tricky part: having teased apart understandings of fictionality that might confuse his analysis, Punday now embarks on a series of combinatory moves in which he explains how questions of fictionality merge with the practices of literary study in general and with American literature as a field of study in particular, with emphasis on the interest in twentieth-century American writing with "markets, consumers, and products" and its focus on instrumental "uses" of literature (19). These turns lead Punday back toward the postmodern issues with "reality" from which he initially distinguished his concern, but now with the crucial distinction that in place of the bad postmodern concern with media culture, simulation, and so forth, "we should see the expansion of [End Page 780] fictionality in contemporary culture as reflecting a variety of forces inherent to the nature of disciplines in America." This alternate view does not necessarily dispute any of the assumptions of the bad postmodern view, but offers an alternative to that view. "By this definition, then, postmodernity is less a cause of the expansion of fictionality, or even an effect of our loss of confidence in reality, and more another name for the period in which the nature of disciplinarity emerges as an observable fact within American culture" (20). The end of Punday's persuasive logic chain is that postmodernism "is more fictional than previous periods not because we live in an age more suffused with entertainment and political spin—although these may be the case—but because it...

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