The Self-Conscious Novel: Artifice in Fiction from Joyce to Pynchon

The Self-Conscious Novel: Artifice in Fiction from Joyce to Pynchon

The Self-Conscious Novel: Artifice in Fiction from Joyce to Pynchon

The Self-Conscious Novel: Artifice in Fiction from Joyce to Pynchon

Excerpt

The Self-Conscious Novel asks why so much modern and contemporary fiction talks about itself. By exposing itself as a mere fiction, doesn't a book turn its back on real life? Why are writers putting mirrors in the house of fiction where windows used to be?

Although accused of narcissism and self-indulgence, texts that contain their own context stand at the very heart of the debate over the proper relationship between fiction and Truth. Should the novel concern itself with the outside world? Or should it refuse to serve as reality's scribe, and seek its justification elsewhere? I contend, in the pages that follow, that by balancing mimetic and anti-mimetic effects -- by acknowledging imitations's limitations -- the best self-conscious fiction may "render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe" and at the same time "not mean but be." The self-conscious novel, that is, may be both esthetically neat and ethically right.

To test these claims, I examine in "The Repertoire of Reflexivity" the array of distinctive devices and themes shared by self-conscious novels, and then briefly survey the genre's distinguished heritage. I offer close readings of five exemplars of fiction's self-depiction: Joyce Ulysses, Nabokov's self-conscious novels, William Gaddis The Recognitions, Thomas Pynchon Gravity's Rainbow, and John Barth LETTERS. Though these fictions employ a common repertoire of devices, the results of their reflexivity are considerably diverse. More recently, writers seem to be moving away from a preoccupation with self-consciousness, towards an accommodation with it. But both modern and contemporary texts confirm that the self-conscious novel is an essentially playful genre that retains its claim to ethical responsibility.

Some excellent work has already been done on literary selfconsciousness; I try to keep track of my debts and divergences in the footnotes. More personally, I would like to thank Ray Frazer and my friends and colleagues at Pomona College for aiding and abetting in the final stages of revision. I am also grateful to those who read and commented helpfully upon earlier versions of various chapters: John Barth . . .

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