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From: Adam Stephanides <adamsteph@earthlink.net>
Subject: Re: Wolfe a conservative writer? (was Re: (urth) Grounded in the text?)
Date: Fri, 08 Dec 2000 12:37:25 

Dan'l Danehy-Oakes wrote:
> Adam Stephanides wrote:
> > I think that Wolfe's concern to "deconstruct" the act of
> > narration, which you touch upon below, makes him a radical writer,
> > although he's not as flashy as some self-consciously pomo writers (and
> > although he sometimes affects an aggressively antimodernist,
> > we-don't-need-no-steenking-critics stance).  I think PEACE in particular
> > is a very radical, even experimental novel.
> Oddly, I don't want to argue this point: but see below.
> I also question whether Wolfe is so much deconstructing as
> reconstructing the act of narration, by (for example) insisting on
> a particular time and place of narration that affect the manner and
> content of the narration. This is not a particularly radical
> gesture; in fact, it's a standard pulp trope. H.P. Lovecraft used
> it (badly) all the time ("They are right outside the door..." or
> "Ia! Ia! Shub-Niggurath, the Goat with a Thousand Young..." or "That
> hideous, three-lobed eye...").

By "deconstructing the act of narration," I don't mean just that Wolfe
specifies the circumstances of narration, which as you point out is
commonplace.  I mean that he also uses this specification to call into
questions the conventions for reading narrative which I referred to in
my original post.  Aside from PEACE, examples I'm thinking of are the
point in TBotNS where Severian says to his readers words to the effect
of "no doubt you're wondering how I'm able to repeat all these
conversations verbatim," when of coulse we haven't been wondering
because one of the conventions is that narrators can do this; and the
revelation at the end of TBotLS.  While I haven't read a lot of
Lovecraft, I doubt that he does this; I doubt, for instance, that he
expects his readers to ask how his narrator can produce a full and
accurate account when in imminent danger from unspeakable monsters.

And, to anticipate a point you may be about to make, I'm aware that
there are a few mystery novels in which what appears to be a reliable
narrator is ultimately revealed as unreliable.  But in the examples I
know of, the conventions are "recuperated" by having either the same or
another narrator correct the first narration and give a reliable
account.  Wolfe doesn't offer such reassurances in the examples I give. 
(Severian, of course, gives an explanation for why he can repeat
conversations verbatim, but this doesn't (shouldn't) put the reader
fully at ease, because now he/she has to wonder if Severian's
explanation is true, especially with the other funny things going on in
his narrative.)

> > > I agree with this; I think it's another way of approaching the same basic
> > > thing I am saying: that PEACE is not about the surface events of Weer's
> > > life so much as it is about the process of
> > > recollection/reliving/reconstruction/falsification (mix 'em and match
> > > 'em, kids! The first one's always free!) by which those events are
> > > related.
> >
> > Which, to return to an earlier point, is not something a "very
> > conservative writer" would be likely to do; in fact, it's exactly the
> > sort of thing the modernist authors of the early twentieth century were
> > preoccupied by.  Nor is it generally the sort of thing people mean when
> > they talk about "putting the story first."
> This is the "see below" above.
> You seem to be pointing at a kind of "experimental" that was very
> experimental indeed in the 1920s, and that most of the pomos would
> sniff at as mere "modernism."

While in some circles the modernists may be considered passe, their aims
(as opposed to isolated techniques) are still not accepted by the broad
reading public, and even the average "literary" novel published today, I
would suspect, is closer in aims and technique to Balzac or George Eliot
than to THE SOUND AND THE FURY or ULYSSES. In any case, a "very
conservative" writer (your words) would reject the modernists, rather
than imitating them.  And I think that in some ways PEACE goes beyond
the modernist works of the 1920s.

> And it is indeed putting the story
> first: but the story being put first is not necessarily the story
> that the reader immediately thinks it is. The process by which some
> events are related is every bit as legitimate a "subject" for a
> story as the process by which they occurred.

If this counts as "putting the story first," then the contrast between
"putting the story first" and postmodernism disappears.  Indeed, one of
postmodernism's characteristic features is to emphasize "the process by
which some events are related" over "the process by which they

> Another way of taking this: the _Thousand Nights and a Night_ is
> about the process by which Scheherazade tells a series of stories;
> further, some of those stories are themselves about the telling of
> stories. I do not think I am calling Wolfe terribly radical if I
> suggest he may have adopted this as a model, particularly given
> the "Nights" references in the novel.

And for this very reason, that prototypical postmodernist John Barth has
also adopted the _Thousand Nights and a Night_ as a model.  Not to
mention the postmodernist tour de force THE ARABIAN NIGHTMARE by Robert
Irwin (whose book on _The Thousand Nights and a Night_, entitled
something like THE ARABIAN NIGHTS: A COMPANION, I highly recommend). 


*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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