- Introduction:Feminist Fiction and Unnatural Narrative Theory
Although unnatural and feminist approaches to fiction and narrative theory have very different starting points, they have several crucial points of intersection. Unnatural narratives employ anti-mimetic events, characters, frames, and/or narration—techniques that not merely elude but clearly violate the norms of realistic representation. In the felicitous description by Ellen Peel in the essay that follows, unnatural texts are "fictional narratives that narrate something very strange or narrate something very strangely." A fundamental point of convergence between unnatural poetics and oppositional politics appears as authors who are political radicals desire to create a revolutionary form within which to articulate and embody their critique of society and its dominant cultural practices. Unnatural narrative employs a poetics that is especially good at doing this. Alain Robbe-Grillet has affirmed that the disruption of traditional narrative practice that he stages in his fiction "has the great advantage of calling attention [End Page 75] to its own artificiality, of pointing to its mask with its own finger, instead of hiding behind the appearance of something natural, in essence, an ideological trap" (5); in this way it exposes the artifice of conventional mimetic orders. "One can only work against ideology," he continues, "on the one hand by pointing it out, and on the other hand by making it grind, so it can be heard, so that it will not be innocent, so that it will lose in fact that beautiful mask of innocence" (19).
We may observe that many of the most exciting experiments in narrative construction by women are failing to acquire or retain the attention they have earned and continue to deserve. As Ellen G. Friedman has recently stated, "for the most part, women experimental writers in the twentieth century were absent from surveys of innovative writing, and they were also absent from studies that focused entirely on women writers" (154). Feminist analysis can identify the political and ideological motivations of various radical narrative strategies, and unnatural narrative theory can draw needed attention to the most radical narrative constructions created by women.
The effects of this conjunction can be illustrated by a brief look at a resonant but virtually unknown feminist story that traduces virtually every realist or mimetic convention: Maya Sonenberg's "Nature Morte." It begins, "In Paris in 1911, the first cubist baby was born to an unwed mother from Avignon. She gave birth to him on the plaza under the tan buildings of the Louvre under a typically gray Paris sky. She was a large angular woman, the planes of her thighs, pelvis, and breasts meeting sharply" (35). The stunningly original transformation of techniques of modern painting into narrative form is given a sharp ideological edge by the author's assigning the boy a mother from Avignon. In the history of antirepresentational art, Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon (the planes of whose body parts do meet sharply), preceded and thereby "mothered" his and others' subsequent experiments in cubism. The poverty and isolation of the mother, who gives birth alone on the plaza, is much more than simple artistic allegory and points to the poor women who were oblique real-life models for Picasso's demoiselles. The mother goes on to provide the sociological motives for her presence in Paris: "Life in Avignon was too stifling, too traditional. The birth of a fatherless child there would have been scandalous" (35). Frequently, even typically, social [End Page 76] convention merges with artistic convention: "the links in society must remain well lit, sharply defined. All edges must be sharply drawn" (36). The work shifts narrative perspectives as a way to re-create multiple visual perspectives; these also disclose differing ideological perspectives. A doctor states that "a tall, dark-haired woman walked across the courtyard and, near the building entrance, lay down and gave birth." He observes that she did not appear to be in pain or discomfort despite the fact that she was lying directly on the stones. He sees the baby as "a brownish amalgam of lines and planes" (38); being a doctor, he wants to examine the child, add something to human knowledge, and distinguish himself in the process...