Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

"There's Not One Story That Will Change This": 'The American Woman in the Chinese Hat.'

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

"There's Not One Story That Will Change This": 'The American Woman in the Chinese Hat.'

Article excerpt

In The American Woman in the Chinese Hat Carole Maso states that she "was interested in investigating the collapse of a belief system and what effect it would have both on subject and language" (Moore 189). The American Woman in the Chinese Hat is a novel which is literally about the act of narration. We are told in the first sentence of the novel that Catherine, the narrator, has come to the Cote d'Azur "to write" (5). The text opens with the modernist trope of the expatriate writer familiar to early twentieth-century literature.

Like The Art Lover, The American Woman in the Chinese Hat not only depicts the writing of a novel but also allows us to enter the novel that is being written. But whereas in The Art Lover Caroline's own story and the story of the family she invents are separated by both typography and the use of titled sections, in The American Woman in the Chinese Hat the narratives blur, and, finally, the narratives break down. The novel thematizes both the breakdown of narration and the breakdown of the narrating subject. In this essay I will first examine Maso's construction of Catherine as a woman writer in terms of a breakdown of identity and then discuss the challenge to literary forms articulated in this novel as a disruption of modernist modes of writing.

The American Woman in the Chinese Hat offers a critique of the modernist notion of "genius," the myth of the great, transcendent artist. Specifically, Maso invokes the writing of genius found in Gertrude Stein's work. Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas addresses the notion of genius in terms of the woman subject and the lesbian subject.(1) Maso adopts the modernist notion of genius found in Stein only to disrupt it through postmodern writing strategies. While genius depends on a unitary construction of self, Maso's text decenters unitary subjectivity by alternating "she" and "I" as its point of view: we are simultaneously within Maso's novel and the novel Catherine is writing in her notebook. We see the identity of the woman writer thematized as a very literal emotional breakdown. Maso acknowledges that "I've been looking at mental illness from afar and that has informed all the books."(2) She goes on to link Ghost Dance and The American Woman in the Chinese Hat in this respect: "I think that Christine Wing from Ghost Dance becomes Catherine, or is a version. But I was too afraid when I was twenty-one to write Catherine, and so I gave the suffering, the illness, to the mother back then" (Cooley 1995: 34).(3)

Catherine continually insists that "Except for the cahier I carry, I am just like everyone else" (39) and "Except for the cahier, and the French workbook, and the Chinese hat, and all the crying, I am just like a resident of Vence these days" (40). Such claims would seem to disprove her own desire for genius. Here, Catherine, who exists on the margins of the town, tries to identify with the center.

Linda Hutcheon identifies a central paradox of postmodernist writing when she contends, "The ex-centric, the off-center, is ineluctably identified with the center it desires but is denied" (Hutcheon 60). Not only is Catherine, who exists on the margins of the town, trying to identify with the center but she defines the difference between herself and the town in terms of the documents she carries with her. It is, significantly, always her notebook that creates her status as other. At the end of the novel, as part of Catherine's breakdown, the notebook disappears from the text and she burns her passport, the document that has allowed her legally to remain on the margins of a foreign country. With these actions, she says "she slips out of this last credential of self" (190). Thus Maso establishes the self, even the self of the writer, as discursively constructed. Catherine often asserts her own identity in the novel, but this assertion becomes increasingly troubling as the narrative progresses. Repeated often in the text is the sentence: "I am known as the American woman in the Chinese hat who writes" (7). …

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