The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature

By Richard Kostelanetz | Go to book overview

On the Guideless Guidebooks of Postmodernism:
Reading The Volcanoes from Puebla in Context

Charles Caramello

Guide-books, Wellingborough, are the least reliable books in all literature; and nearly all literature, in one sense, is made up of guide-books.

Herman Melville, Redburn, His First Voyage

Several recent and highly reflexive books have been structured on the alphabet: from the postmodern prototype, Michel Butor's Mobile: Study for a Representation of the United States, to Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa, from Gilbert Sorrentino's statement of aesthetics, Splendide-Hôtel, to Roland Barthes 's The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes, and A Lover's Discourse. While Sorrentino and Barthes use the alphabet as a neutral principle for organizing content, the alphabet as organizing principle both issues from and largely determines the content of Butor's and Abish's books. It circumscribes authorial choice and produces highly de-subjectivized guidebooks not only to places but to the problematics of constructing discourses about places.

Nominally a guidebook to Mexico and thus closer in content to Mobile and Alphabetical Africa than to Barthes's and Sorrentino's books, Kenneth Gangemi 's The Volcanoes from Puebla also sports an alphabetical structure. Comprising 175 titled sections, alphabetically arranged, in 181 pages, it simulates both the topics and the arrangement of the typical travel book. But its section titles are often vagarious. We find the traveler, for example, "Back in the USA" on page twelve, although he could have documented his return after, rather

____________________
Reprinted from Sun & Moon, nos. 9 and 10 ( 1980), by permission of the author. Copyright © 1980 by Douglas Messerli and Howard N. Fox.

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