With the assistance of poststructuralist theories by Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan, The Play of the Double in Postmodern American Fiction evaluates the contemporary role of the doppelgänger. The doppelgänger or double was previously used in Plato's works to explain sexual attraction; in Western folklore to signify imminent death; in premodern English literature to explore the relationship of the soul and the body, reason and conscience, or any number of binary oppositions; and in twentieth-century literature to depict the conflict between the conscious and the unconscious. Traditionally the double has affirmed rational humanist views of an indivisible, fixed identity and universal absolutes.
Gordon E. Slethaug argues that in postmodern literature the double has ceased to function as a metaphor for unity (or aberrational metaphysical-physical conflict and psychological decomposition) and instead celebrates a discontinuous self in a fragmented universe. A self-conscious literary device, it now assesses the human desire to structure language, fiction, and all reality. By specifically applying his theory to works by Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, John Hawkes, John Barth, Richard Brautigan, and Raymond Federman, Slethaug gears The Play of the Double in Postmodern American Fiction to fictional works that depart from the psychological perspectives of Freudian psychoanalysis or Jungian archetypalism, thus setting his work apart from earlier studies of the double.
The authors Slethaug examines are concerned with the de-formation and re-formation of signifying structures in society and fiction: In Despair, Nabokov shows how the doppelgänger has linked analogy, metaphor, philosophical idealism, and transcendental mysticism. In Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon interrogates binarity, putting it under erasure, and affirms binary intersubjectivity; he also looks at the human tendency to equate systems. In Blood Oranges, Hawkes investigates the way in which the twin drives of eroticism and death, commonly viewed in Freudian psychology as antithetical, are similar in subject to transference. In Lost in the Funhouse, Barth presents a dizzying array of doubles that simultaneously use and displace previous significations. In The Hawkline Monster, Brautigan's minimalist metafictive parody of the double depicts our narcissistic view of reality. In Double or Nothing, Federman subverts the conventional double, exposing its gamelike structures and traditional views of life and text.
Slethaug shows that by interrogating the sign of the double each author examined questions the binarity upon which the double is fixed, uses and subverts traditional significations, and reinvigorates a clichéd literary device. This pathbreaking book will engage those interested in contemporary theory, contemporary American literature, and the fantastic in literature.