Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Metalepsis and the Author Figure in Modernist and Postmodernist Fiction

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Metalepsis and the Author Figure in Modernist and Postmodernist Fiction

Article excerpt

This paper traces instances of metalepsis in Vladimir Nabokov's Bend Sinister (1947), John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), J. M. Coetzee's Slow Man (2005), and Karin Fossum's Broken (2006). Contrary to the accepted critical view that associates the device with the postmodern, I will argue that it is rather the disappearance of metalepsis that allows for the emergence of a new, particularly postmodern relationship between the fictionalized author and his or her characters. Following the work of Laura Savu in Postmortem Postmodernists and Judith Ryan in The Novel after Theory, such a newly envisioned dynamic will be read as a symptom of fiction's response to the theoretical debate on the so-called death of the author and, more broadly, to the posthumanist discourse on the dissolution of the liberal-humanist subject. Fiction emerges as a testing ground for the implications of this philosophical and theoretical turn, and metalepsis, the stylistic and figurative articulation of the tenuousness of categorical boundaries, is repeatedly called upon to assist in the inquiry.

Metalepsis can be seen as consolidating the figure of authorial agency through its fictionalized resurrection on the one hand, and as dealing it its final death blow, on the other, through that self-same process of fictionalization. The first is easily articulated; by fleshing out the author-character relationship fiction stays the execution of its author figure and breathes life back into the diminished entity of the creative agent. (1) This is evident in what I will argue are modernist instances of metalepsis, where the momentary fictionalization of the meeting of author and character is often accompanied by a loading of the text with questions of the author's accountability, reinforcing the author's creative and independent agency. The second aligns more closely with a dynamic I will trace in the course of this paper. The transformation of the author figure from the detached demigod who has the power to step in and out of the diegesis at will, to a postmodern author figure who is firmly and inescapably lodged within the diegesis, signals a significant shift in the negotiation of authority and agency. The author figure is no longer that token of modernist impersonality who looks down at his creations while paring his immaculate fingernails. A "tired, middle-aged woman" who wishes to be left alone, the postmodern figure of authority must struggle to assert her role as a creative agent who exercises her power on behalf of another (Fossum 2009, 1). The telling change, then, is that agency and authority are no longer products of pre-established narrative stratification but of a fictionalized negotiation between characters inhabiting a single, level ontological plane. That such a transformation is also gendered only amplifies the conceptual shift and will be discussed further on. An author figure and her character must decide between themselves which is writer and which is written, which is agent and which pawn.

The dissolving of hierarchical distinctions evident in such fictionalized deliberations suggests that the refashioning of the author figure in contemporary fiction renders metalepsis, a narrative device contingent upon hierarchical boundaries, obsolete. The device that has traditionally allowed author figures to step in and out of their own fiction marks a power their contemporary counterparts significantly lack. Such a conclusion points to a central paradox in our practice of distinguishing modernist from postmodernist fiction. We accept that the former upholds the distinct ontologies of diegetic levels while the latter dramatizes a collapsing of such distinctions in the sketching of an enmeshed universe. As the product of a play on existing hierarchical distinctions, metalepsis should thus be seen as a throwback to modernist conventions, one that is antithetical to the anarchic aesthetics of postmodernism. And yet, we often view this narrative device as definitive of the writing of our age. …

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