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Narrative 10.3 (2002) 244-261

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Indeterminate Ursula and "Seeing How it Must Have Looked," or, "The Damned Lemming" and Subjunctive Narrative in Pynchon, Faulkner, O'Brien, and Morrison

Martin FitzPatrick

Narrative theorists have recently begun to examine systematically unusual varieties of narrative and their effects on the narrative discourses in which they occur. 1 Uri Margolin and David Herman have gone farther, writing recently about the need to defamiliarize narrative's standard case in order to understand more fully, for example, narratives in moods other than the indicative. To these developments I would like to add what I call "subjunctive narrative." Subjunctive narrative is uncertain narrative, marked by an inherent unknowability. The features that mark texts either as the standard case of narrative or as alternative to it often involve facts and knowledge. Fiction in the standard case proceeds very much like historical narrative, that is, it proceeds as if it were history: facts are selected, interpreted, arranged, and presented, in narrative form. To understand standard-case narrative better, the reader must know better, that is, know the narrative's facts and their relation to each other. Perceiving the status of information as fact or something else is central to the enterprise. This "standard or prototypical literary narrative . . . does not possess any theoretical primacy, even though historically it can be viewed as the unmarked case of narration" (Margolin, "Of What is Past" 146).

Narratives presenting not "how things looked" but "how they must or might [End Page 244] have looked," that is, narratives in which significant information is not epistemologically secure, crucially involve the reader by posing the question of how the reader is to interpret the significance of such material. The reader cannot precisely determine the facts of the case in subjunctive narrative. Unable to assign definite status to information as certain or uncertain, as fact or something else, the reader cannot read such narratives according to the standard procedure. Subjunctive narrative differs from the standard case by withholding significant information. In the subjunctive, there are things we as readers wish to know and cannot know. The Crying of Lot 49, for example, poses as urgent the question whether Oedipa Maas discovers an actual world of conspiracies and alternate postal systems or an elaborate hoax aimed at her. The novel also deliberately frustrates attempts to resolve that question.

I argue that this frustration of the reader's epistemic drive serves to highlight semantic properties. In Story and Situation Ross Chambers calls for heightened emphasis on point. Beyond the what and the how, there is the why—the point. The speculative and uncertain dimensions of subjunctive narrative result from disruption of the relation between story and discourse. Many of the narratives I call subjunctive have attracted attention in the past, largely focusing on the features that I emphasize. This attention, however, has generally been concerned with recuperating these narratives to existing models. To do so often entails setting aside the epistemic lacunae that are central to these narratives. I argue from these texts that point must be considered an equal partner with story and discourse in a three-termed rather than a two-termed model. Subjunctive narrative disrupts the exchange between story and discourse in order to concentrate the reader's attention on point. Subjunctive narrative is perhaps most significant, then, as a provocation to revise our understanding of the intrinsic properties of narrative. My analysis of subjunctive narrative bridges classical narratology's procedures of parsing and naming aspects of narratives and "postclassical" ones of considering the "more recalcitrant and less readily formalizable domain of narrative meaning" (Herman, "Limits of Order" 75).

Uri Margolin describes succinctly the standard procedures of narrative and the necessity that we recognize the limits to this model's reach:

The paradigm case of narrative, as described in classical narratology, consists of the PAST + FACTIVE + COMPLETIVE triplet. In other words, the states, actions, and events portrayed are supposed to be past as regards the temporal position of the global narrating voice or consciousness...


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