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Poetics Today 22.3 (2001) 706-708
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New Books at a Glance
Narralogues: Truth in Fiction. SUNY Series,
The Margins of Literature
Ronald Sukenick professes ignorance of narrative theory and claims to derive his authority to reflect theoretically on narrative entirely from his experience as a writer of innovative fiction. The profession of ignorance is a bluff. Sukenick is, after all, the author of a prior collection of essays and manifestos on fiction (In Form: Digressions on the Act of Fiction, reviewed in Poetics Today 6  : 801), a theoretically sophisticated history of the postwar American avant-garde (Down and In: Life in the Underground, reviewed in Poetics Today 9  : 680), and much earlier in his career, a book-length exegesis of Wallace Stevens’s poetry. On the other hand, his claim to the authority of a practitioner of innovative fiction is certainly well founded. The author of six novels and three short-story collections spanning more than thirty years, Sukenick figures among the founders and standard-bearers of American postmodernist fiction. In the present book he combines his two roles of theorist and practitioner in a series of pieces—six new (seven counting the introduction), four reprinted from previous volumes—that are simultaneously stories and essays, fictions and theoretical reflections, narratives and philosophical dialogues: “narralogues.” (Presumably a “narralogue” is generically akin to what Sukenick’s fellow-postmodernist Raymond Federman calls “critifiction.”) Moreover the form of these hybrid texts perfectly mirrors their content: they are narrative arguments for regarding narrative as argument. Sukenick seeks to free fiction from the obligation to mimesis—an obligation that has degenerated, in its contemporary form of mass-market make-believe, into what Sukenick contemptuously dismisses as “fictition”—and to renew its lapsed association with rhetoric, an association to which the alternative tradition of the novel, descending from François Rabelais, Marquis de Sade, Laurence Sterne, Denis Diderot, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Victor Shklovskii (in Sentimental Journey), Henry Bataille, Samuel Beckett, and Henry Miller, amply attests. “Narrative fiction,” Sukenick writes, “makes contingent statements about the world—the only kind you can importantly make, when all is said and done—whose main virtue is that they displace even more contingent, less reliable statements while at the same time recognizing their own contingency. The model is rhetoric: a series of persuasive statements that displace less persuasive statements” (p. 71). Each piece addresses, by means of a fictional dialogue or series of dialogues, one or another aspect of narrative’s rhetoricity. For instance, in the first piece, entitled “Gorgeous,” the main topic is the opposition [End Page 706] between univocal “truth” and narrative “versions,” and the situation is a peripatetic dialogue between characters named Jacob and Esau as they approach the Jaffa Gate to Jerusalem’s Old City. The main topic of the second, entitled “Chat,” is rule governedness, and the setting is (appropriately) a French château. The third, “A la Bastille,” addresses literature in its institutional and economic dimension, and takes place (again appropriately) on an American college campus, while the fourth narralogue, “Art Brute,” reflects on writing’s mediated nature, its various modes of existence as print, performance, and digital text. The longest piece, “Narralogue on Everything,” divides into two parts. In the first part, a young novelist named Waldo (presumably an allusion to the popular children’s puzzle “Where’s Waldo?”), a recurrent character throughout these narralogues, reflects on the career, poetics, and intellectual genealogy of who else but Ronald Sukenick, who figures here (perhaps implausibly, perhaps not) as a latter-day Emersonian. In the second part, Sukenick himself appears as a character and conducts a kind of roundtable discussion on the state of the art across a range of postmodernist art forms (painting, music, installation art, and performance art as well as writing). Of the four reprinted pieces, two (“What’s Watts,” on Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, and “Divide”) come...