- Lyrical Strategies: The Poetics of the Twentieth-Century American Novel by Katie Owens-Murphy
Our understanding of the American novel is poorer for our adherence to narrative theory, or so Katie Owens-Murphy argues in Lyrical Strategies: The Poetics of the Twentieth-Century American Novel. Indeed, the strictures of such theory have caused us to overlook rich generic interrelations. Critical attention to "lyricality," she contends, offers more dynamic interpretations of language and structure and, in so doing, enables "a more complete understanding of the twentieth-century American novel" (xii). In addition, this call for lyricality helps to dismantle outmoded generic barriers—barriers that ignore how "many of our most acclaimed American novels from the last century contain ontological ambiguities that undermine the traditional staples of narrative fiction" (xi). Since the conventions of narrative theory inadequately account for such ambiguities, Owens-Murphy enlists the "key tropes" (xi) of lyric—"repetition, polysyndeton, metaphor, dramatic [End Page 453] personae, and exclusive address" (xi)—as tools for providing insight into the formal maneuvers of American novels.
Owens-Murphy grounds her suspicions regarding genre and theories of genre in the practices and habits of canonical twentieth-century writers. A brief "Preface" and first chapter, "Genres in Contest," outline the argument that the generic distinctions typically recognized by twentieth- and twenty-first-century literary critics—lyric, narrative, and drama—are pitted in unproductive competition with each other. Most twentieth-century writers, however, do not uphold these genre-based antagonisms. Owens-Murphy calls for scholars to re-discover "important interconnections among literary kinds" (4) by considering the lyrical practices at work in these novels. The remaining chapters in Lyrical Strategies aim to illustrate what we've been overlooking.
Owens-Murphy's chapters are organized according to the lyrical tropes listed above and cover a remarkable range of twentieth-century novels. She excels at explicating novels with a reputation for difficulty. For instance, Chapter 2, "Repetition and Insistence," applies "repetition's role(s) in the lyric tradition" to works by Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, John Dos Passos, and Kathy Acker. Instead of the "progress, sequence, and succession" usually found in narrative, these authors, Owens-Murphy suggests, use lyrical repetition in order to "forc[e] the reader to look backward nearly as often as she looks forward" (44). Owens-Murphy elaborates on similar recursive reading techniques in Chapter 3, "Rhythm and Insubordination." Here she discusses polysyndeton, "the purposeful repetition of coordinating conjunctions" (47), in novels by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy. By flattening the hierarchy of syntax in narrative, this poetic technique draws our attention to "lateral systems of interconnectivity" (55) within these texts.
Owens-Murphy's next three chapters focus on broader poetic tropes. Chapter 4 discusses novels in which metaphor drives the plot; in works by Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, among others, the preeminence of metaphor results, Owens-Murphy concludes, in narratives that focus on "reflection rather than action" (86). Chapter 5 explores how the Victorian dramatic monologue creates unstable narrators in twentieth-century novels such as Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. While providing innovative approaches to well-known texts, these last two chapters perhaps too easily ignore the ubiquity of techniques such as metaphor and too easily collapse the differences between different verse genres. These poetic techniques do not strike me as specifically lyrical: after all, all types of poetry (and prose for that matter) contain metaphor; and while dramatic monologue may have its "lyrical" moments, it is its own verse genre. Owens-Murphy returns to the conventions traditionally associated with lyric in her final chapter's discussion of the "overheard" poetic speaker. By positioning readers as "eavesdroppers" to the lyrical expression of emotions, novels such as Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint ask readers to "negotiate positions for ourselves at the margins of these confessional texts" (158). This negotiation has salutary effects, as readers potentially "suspend judgment for the sake of compassion" (185). A...