Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Integrity after Metafiction

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Integrity after Metafiction

Article excerpt

Henry James claimed never to have "heard of a guild of tailors who recommend the use of the thread without the needle, or the needle without the thread" ("Art of Fiction" 60). This anecdote is supposed to serve as a climax to the case he makes for the writer's investment in that dissoluble link between and integration of "story and the novel, the idea and the form"--concepts that are equivalent, in his view, to "the needle and the thread." But James doesn't seem content merely to bang the drum of integrity tout court. That's because he knows the novel is too capacious a creature, one that despite its capacity for "giving an impression of the highest perfection" maintains in practice its own "luxurious independence of rules and restrictions" ("The Future" 105). So, what does James do to square these apparently discrepant demands? Faced with a rule less medium that apparently exceeds the systematization of craft but that nonetheless requires the writer give systematic attention to pushing the envelope of her own technique, wouldn't it be appropriate to find a compromise? And so he did, of course, his late style being the ultimate demonstration of what it means to press against the rules of syntactic extension and elaboration while also committing to and developing that syntax as the very embodiment of "the idea" being addressed and expressed.

Yet James certainly wasn't alone in matchmaking cohesion and unruliness. For the example he set of ensuring the novel's integration of form and content, mode and matter, points to an imperative shared by writers who we retrospectively group under the banner of literary Impressionism. Evoking impressions meant not simply thematizing perception for its own sake, or using the senses as a decorative supplement to diegetic action; rather, for novelists like James, Conrad, and Woolf, it meant to evoke "sense that is thought," in Jesse Matz's phrase, "appearances that are real, suspicions that are true and parts that are whole" (Literary 1). The case I make below is for tracing the persistence of this very enterprise as a historically specific response by contemporary novelists to the legacies of postmodernism. This is not to suggest that a certain will-to-wholeness has emerged in recent fiction simply as an antidote to the strategies of formal self-examination and dismemberment that became familiar traits of metafiction as it evolved through the 1960s and '70s; neither is it to claim that writers today ale reinvesting in cohesion, reintroducing the needle to the thread, simply as a way of coveting and recuperating that equally familiar (though rather reductive) perception of modernism's desire, as Leonard Wilcox perceives it, "to create meaning from the flux and fragments of an atomized contemporary world, to pierce the veil, to reveal underlying truth" (198). Rather, it is to argue that a generation of writers working through and beyond the postmodern are practicing what Ian McEwan calls "some kind of balance between a fiction that is self-reflective on its own processes, and one that has a forward impetus too" (Reynolds 20). That "balance" is something we find in Toni Morrison's craft as well, nowhere more so than in Jazz (1992), a novel that followed a decade when Anglo-American metafiction had a late flowering in the work of writers like Martin Amis, Philip Roth, and Graham Swift, whose allegiances to postmodern aesthetics nonetheless turned out to be temporary. (1) Morrison, much like McEwan, has been "very conscious" at the level of composition in "trying to blend that which is contrived and artificial with improvisation" (Schappell 81), just as James trod that fine line between laboring for the "rarest finish" ("The Future" 105) and his acknowledgment that there are no reliable "rules" by which "perfection" can be achieved.

What can such affinities with this earlier modernist ideal of integrity tell us about how writers are reflecting on the politico-ethical potential of fiction in the aftermath of postmodernism, but without those reflections simply lapsing into a new wave of metafictional self-contemplation? …

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