Academic journal article African American Review

Clarence Major's Innovative Fiction

Academic journal article African American Review

Clarence Major's Innovative Fiction

Article excerpt

"In a novel,"Clarence Major told interviewer John O'Brien "the only thing you really have is words. You begin with words, and you end with words. The content exists in our minds. I don't firm it has to be a reflection of anything"(130). With this statement Major separated himself from the dominantly realistic tradition of both commercial publishing and the academic canon and identified his work with the disruptively experimental style being explored by writers emerging in the 1960s and flourishing in the 1970s and '80s. Whether crafted by Clarence Major and Ishmael Reed or by Ronald Sukenick and Donald Barthelme, such anti-realistic (and even anti-mimetic) fiction has been distinguished by its polemical opposition to the established principles of literary form. These finished novels and short stories are by no means imitations of an action or reflections of the world; instead, works such as Emergency Exit and My Amputations are additions to the world, real things in themselves to be admired for what they are, not as transparent windows to or representations of some pre-existing reality.

That fiction should not be offering a representation marks a change in its historical development, a change Major sees as necessitated by social and technological forces that have made life and our tools for recording it so different from conditions in previous times. Television can give us the news, innovative fictionists argue; novels and short stories can better express our response to the news. And so as the camera's invention prompted painters to experiment with increasingly radical forms of abstraction, our current saturation with television news, print journalism, popular history, and autobiography have challenged fiction writers to find new ways of producing their work. The result has been a transformation of subject matter from a topic of fiction to a record of the writer's activity, a process Roland Barthes has described as restructuring the infinitive to write as an intransitive verb(11). Elements of the real are certainly present in such writing, but under no illusion that they are the work's point. Instead, Clarence Major reminds his readers at every stage how he is using these materials to create a fiction. There is no suspension of disbelief. Quite the contrary: The reader is often asked to help create the work, making his or her reaction an important part of the story.

For all of its abstractness, there is a strongly personal cast to Major's fiction. Part of his anti-illusionistic strategy is to deal with these elements honestly, to use the energy and excitement of his reaction to these events as the substance of his narratives. Although raised in Chicago (on the mid-South Side), his occasional visits to his Georgia birthplace and an especially memorable summer spent there supply the emotional background for both early and recent novels. The Chicago shows are present in his first novel All-Night Visitors (1969), as are the New York City environs Major experienced as a young professional His early aptitude for art, which led to a brief fellowship at the Chicago Art Institute following high school, shows itself in the lyrically expressive style of Reflex and Bone Structure (1975) and especially in Emergency Exit (1979), which includes the author's paintings as integral components of the narrative. Widely traveled as a visiting professor and writer-in-residence, Clarence Major has drawn upon his European experiences for the structure and fabric (and not just topicality) of his equally ambitious novel My Amputations (1986); his own self-portrait graces the cover, a painting of the painter at work on the picture we see. Not in the least metafictive, this disposition to use one's own energy of life is part of a larger, sometimes submerged current in American literature that reached from Whitman and Toomer to William Carlos Williams, Henry Miller, Charles Olson, Frank O'Hara, and Amiri Baraka (notably in Baraka's early fiction written as LeRoi Jones). …

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