- Communities in Fiction by J. Hillis Miller
There’s no avoiding the word: the critical voice that animates J. Hillis Miller’s latest book (his thirty-second) is chatty. To be sure, the author of Communities in Fiction has access to Jacques Derrida’s computer files, and his text is thick with references to Maurice Blanchot, Paul de Man, Jean-Luc Nancy, and other heavy-hitters of post-structuralist thought. But he’s not trying to intimidate us: for every reference to Heideggerian Dasein, the reader encounters an observation that, say, the always-becalmed Bay of Sulaco in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (1904) is “a little spooky, if you think of it,” or that the issue of what order undergirds the visible world in Virginia Woolf’s novels is “the big question, all right,” or that Thomas Hardy’s vision of character is “somewhat weird” (157, 239, 104). His one-word commentary on the ironic subtitle of Conrad’s The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (1907): “Ha!” (207). This book’s secret subtitle might be Table Talk of a Deconstructionist.
Miller has clearly crafted this laid-back, (faux?)-naif persona as a matter of critical principle. “I advocate in the strongest terms what I call a double reading of novels,” he writes in the book’s most explicit methodological statement. “In one reading you give yourself, heart and soul, without reservation to reading the novel. . . . The second reading should be performed, impossibly, at the same time. This is the interrogative one, the suspicious one. It is the reading in which you investigate how the magic is performed” (18). Miller’s casual style suits this critical program well: it allows him to tell us, for example, that he takes Hardy’s invented Egdon Heath “straight” enough to wonder how much its tight-knit community has in common with “Deer Isle, Maine, where I now live most of the year,” and to confess that Anthony Trollope’s novels make him cry (126, 89). But this informal voice also delivers Miller’s insights into the rhetorical structure undergirding these reality effects, as when he notes offhandedly that Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878) uses metaphors drawn from landscape to describe characters’ faces and metaphors drawn from human faces to describe landscapes, in a “constant linguistic coming and going” that should—but miraculously doesn’t—undermine our sense of the narrated world’s solidity (94). Similarly, while his interpretation of one of Miguel de Cervantes’s Exemplary Novels (1613) takes its bearings from Derrida’s late seminars on the animal, Miller’s intransigently anti-humanist conclusion is phrased in the most genial of terms: “It is a story about a couple of really nice talking dogs” (303). Miller’s critical voice is a surprisingly supple tool for having it both ways—for basking in the magic of textual illusion even as he tries to see through it.
Such casualness extends to the book’s construction. Communities in Fiction is essentially a series of close readings of six texts: Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867), [End Page 127] Hardy’s Native, Conrad’s Nostromo, Woolf’s The Waves (1931), Thomas Pynchon’s early story “The Secret Integration” (1964), and Cervantes’s “The Dogs’ Colloquy” in Exemplary Novels. As this series suggests, the book has an eccentric relation to Victorian literature per se, and in fact the book’s last full chapter ends with the remark that “definitions of period styles in literature, and even period names in literary history generally, are highly problematic” (307). The book’s titular rubric organizes the argument only in the loosest sense, and Miller frequently has to remind the reader, in the midst of an engaging tangent about the difficulties of taking notes in an electronic book or the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act, that he is coming back to the topic of fictional communities. An opening chapter sketches the discrepant theories of community offered by Raymond Williams and Martin Heidegger: the former is somewhat...