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French Forum 28.3 (2003) 133-135
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Warren Motte. Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990. Normal IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2003. 242 pp.
In his new book, Fables of the Novel, Warren Motte treats his readers to lucid, in-depth exegesis of ten novels by ten different authors, all of whom have taken part in what he dubs "The most astonishing reinvigoration of French narrative prose since the 'new novel' of the 1950s" (3). Through this series of close readings, Motte interrogates how contemporary avant-garde writers—through both the form and content of their novels—comment on and recast the possible roles the novel can play in contemporary culture.
Motte argues that while the novel is far from dead or dying, the genre finds itself in a decidedly marginal position on today's cultural landscape. Furthermore, he contends that the novelists he studies are themselves well aware of the increasing marginality of their artifacts. Motte's close readings support those contentions by illustrating that that acute awareness permeates the novels on a number of levels, from [End Page 133] radically alienated protagonists who navigate their universes with a great degree of difficulty to themes such as homelessness, alterity, and disenfranchisement. Indeed, all of the texts chosen for treatment in this study share a number of traits, but for Motte, however, their most important common denominator exists on a metaliterary level: each of these texts recounts "a fable of the novel, a tale about the fate of that form, its problematic status, its limits, its possibilities" (5). When examined together, the diversity of these tales of the novel introduce the reader to a "polylogue" (10) that shows that room for generic renovation and innovation remains quite substantial. Some of the wide-ranging strategies for re-evaluating the value and function of literary language include: highlighting the proteiform nature of the contemporary novel, or its status as a genre that has drifted from the center of things; relishing the role of the novel as an undeniably carnivalesque other in contemporary society; meditating on the difficulty of building literary monuments during a historical moment when even national monuments may be impossible to construct; examining how language can not only describe, but be an agent of crime; analyzing how literature stacks up against the cultural hegemony of television; showing how literary language can frustrate a quest for personal or social truth; and, finally, underlining the role literary language can play in the creation of an alienated postmodern subject.
Among the many, many books published in France in the 1990s, Motte selected the following novels as noteworthy examples of avant-garde literature in contemporary France: J. M. G. Le Clézio's Onitsha, Eric Chevillard's La Nébuleuse du crabe, Linda Lê's Calomnies, Eric Laurrent's Coup de foudre, Jacques Jouet's La Montagne R, Marie Ndiaye's La Sorcière, Jean Echenoz's Un An, Christian Oster's Le Pique-nique, Jean-Philippe Toussaint's La Télévision, and finally Lydie Salvayre's La Conférence de Cintegabelle. Motte provides his readers with clear and concise descriptions of the writers' projects as a whole, explaining how the novels he chose to examine fit into their bodies of work. Those summaries are highly useful and should not be overlooked as mere introductory material, as readers will be hard pressed to find the work of many of these living writers distilled in reference volumes.
Motte's analysis highlights not only the richness of those novels and the complex ways in which they play with generic conventions, [End Page 134] but it also highlights the striking appeal and readability of that literary corpus. Motte sees these novelists as avant-garde in the mold of writers like Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec who are masters of formal innovation, but whose work manages to remain reader friendly nonetheless. Indeed, Motte's enthusiastic descriptions attest to the fact that captivating characters, themes, stories and discourses breathe life and freshness into the pages of these works.
Motte chose his authors such that Fables of the Novel...