The Semiotics of Fantasy in William Kennedy's Fiction

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William Kennedy's fame as a novelist grows primarily from his multi-generational tapestry of Irish-American experience in Albany. Specifically, he focuses on rebels and on the codes that define brotherhoods--be they ethnic enclaves, political machines or hobos. (1) To give this cultural portrait substance, he presents it with sharply attentive realism. Disease, mud, and whiskey, ward bosses, priests, prostitutes, journalists, and gangsters would quickly lapse into stereotypes if not particularized with catchy, surprising details concerning their lives and interactions. Kennedy's realism, then, is both predictable and necessary. Not so his fantasy. Kennedy's departures from material reality are sometimes magical, sometimes mystical, sometimes quasi-scientific, and sometimes extra-sensory. Many conform to Tzvetan Todorov's definition of the fantastic as a form in which natural and supernatural explanations present themselves, but neither is ruled out within the text. (2) Critics have called Kennedy's departures surrealist and mystic, but fantasy's lack of generic respect has kept most readers from focusing on these fantastic elements of Kennedy's work. What and how the fantasy signifies in a realist context are the problems that concern me in this study.

Kennedy oddly underestimates his own realistic vein if we compare him to Sukenik or Burroughs, Hawkes or McElroy. In early interviews, he calls his first novel, The Ink Truck, surreal. He links it to the works of Kafka, Beckett, and Rabelais, and he says to Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, "I was trying to leap out of realism because I felt the whole world of Dos Passos and O'Hara, a world I had once revered, was now dead for me. I knew I couldn't do that any longer, couldn't write another realistic line." (3) To Penny Maldonado, he confided, "ethnic novels are dead. Farrell, Dreiser, Baldwin--you just don't want to read that anymore" (7). (4) Kennedy's novels are formally more complicated than those he rejects, but his Albany novels, at least, are much more obviously ethnic novels than they are postmodern, let alone surreal, even though they possess fantastic elements.

Why would a writer combine fantasy with relatively realistic historical material? The readiest explanation is that the author has what Peter Brooks calls a "melodramatic imagination." (5) This mindset quests for the spiritual "in a world where there is no longer any clear idea of the sacred, no generally accepted societal moral imperatives" (209). Such a mind establishes a realm of the moral occult, where "there is no clear system of sacred myth, no unity of belief, no accepted metaphorical chain leading from the phenomenal to the spiritual, only a fragmented society and fragments of myths" (210). Kennedy's fantastic intrusions might represent his testing forms of spiritual order in hope of finding some supra-natural system that would satisfy him emotionally. Kennedy was raised Catholic, though he no longer practices (according to Nelson and Seshachari), and many writers with a religious upbringing seek substitutes for lost faith. (6) Kennedy sketches his sense of non-material possibilities when describing the surreal dimension in Martin Daugherty's life (Nelson, 224). His own experience leads him to state, "I believe in the mystical relationship that exists among things. It has surfaced so many times in my life as to confirm my belief that it's worth writing about, thinking about, trying to figure it out. I don't believe in practicing mysticism as a religion but I do know there are certain affinities and transferences of ideas and confluences of thoughts and interactions that are inexplicable in the ways we usually think or function" (McCaffery and Gregory, 41). A variant on the literary substitute for lost faith might be the use of fantasy in Pynchon (who also writes out of a Catholic background). Pynchon does not seem to be testing alternatives, but rather trying to open space for spiritual possibilities. …