Welcome to The Valve
Login
Register


Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

Articles
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

Comments
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

XHTML | CSS

Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

 


Blogroll

2blowhards
About Last Night
Academic Splat
Acephalous
Amardeep Singh
Beatrice
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogenspiel
Blogging the Renaissance
Bookslut
Booksquare
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cliopatria
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
CultureSpace
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Fernham
Ferule & Fescue
Ftrain
GalleyCat
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
Idiocentrism
Idiotprogrammer
if:book
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Kitabkhana
Languagehat
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
MadInkBeard
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Moo2
MoorishGirl
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Philobiblion
Planned Obsolescence
Printculture
Pseudopodium
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
ReadySteadyBlog
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
S1ngularity::criticism
Say Something Wonderful
Scribblingwoman
Seventypes
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Splinters
Spurious
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
Uncomplicatedly
Unfogged
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
Waggish
What Now?
William Gibson
Wordherders

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

“Toward a History of the ‘Big, Ambitious Novel,‘“ by Mark Greif

Posted by Andrew Seal on 08/05/09 at 08:52 AM

The latest issue of boundary 2 is really packed with good stuff, at least for an Americanist: there is an amusing interview with Jonathan Franzen, and I’m working my way through Lee Konstantinou’s article on William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. (I’m finding Konstantinou’s article more fun than the book, actually.) And I’m very eager to get to the McClure/McCann and Szalay dialogue.

As a bonus, Mark Greif’s piece on the “big, ambitious novel” is a great article—ambitious, inventive, and important. Greif begins:

Criticism works by criteria it is willing to name and others it disowns. The “big, ambitious novel” is one of those categories used by nearly everyone to sift and sort new work. Yet it is not respectable. It is more common to conversation than to professional discourse… It exists as almost an atmospheric effect, apparently a natural consequence of the way that novels are written and the taxonomy by which they must be ordered—a category without a history. This essay argues that the “big, ambitious novel” in the contemporary United States does possess a history. That history entered a distinct phase sixty years ago, at the moment another disreputable but resilient concept established its hold in criticism: that of the “death of the novel.” “Death of the novel” discourse existed in modernist discussion before World War II, but its hardening after 1945 changed critical expectations for the major American novel and, ultimately, the sorts of novels that were written and won success. The “big, ambitious novel” as it emerged in the postwar period first appeared in response to, then came to depend upon, the maintenance of a conceit of the “death of the novel.” This was true even or especially after that idea passed out of the possession of critics and into the hands of novelists.

The article mostly focuses on analyzing this post-war moment when the “death of the novel” was being discussed, as Lionel Trilling noted, “from all sides.” Greif draws a lot from Trilling’s essay “Art and Fortune” (published in Partisan Review in 1948, reprinted in The Liberal Imagination in 1950), making Trilling the spokesperson for this moment; his articulation of the “death of the novel” is clear and direct. The novel, Trilling argued, might be considered dead if its internal possibilities had all been tested, used up by modernist experimentation. It might be considered dead if the novel had a historical shelf-life: emerging from a particular social and cultural configuration of forces, if we have now moved into a significantly different configuration, the novel will no longer speak to our times. It might be considered dead if, although circumstances haven’t completely changed, “we either lack the power to use the form, or no longer find value in the answers that the novel provides, because the continuing circumstances have entered a phase of increased intensity.”

Trilling (and Greif) give more emphasis to this last possibility, and it is here that the “crisis of man” discourse I spoke of in the Kafka post makes its strongest appearance. Here is where Trilling bids contemporary novelists to take up the great task of their time: “the restoration and reconstitution of the will.” And here is where Greif brings in the cases of Hemingway and Faulkner to demonstrate how seriously writers began to take this task, and how eagerly critics re-interpreted older texts in terms that would fulfill it.

Greif then turns to the younger generation, the generation of Bellow and Ellison, Mailer and Styron; these writers were consistently slapped down by their elders for being unable to provide the kind of “will of man” narratives which were thought to be necessary for a world reeling from mass death. Then, Ellison and Bellow came out with Invisible Man and The Adventures of Augie March in succeeding years (1952, 1953). This, Greif argues, inaugurated the tradition of the “big, ambitious novel.” By adding the ethnic dimension to the “unmarked, universal man” that the “death of the novel” discourse rested upon, and by reviving old forms of storytelling (the picaresque), Ellison and Bellow were able to claim victory over death:

Of course both men were wrong to think they had ultimately won against the “death of the novel” idea. They had helped create new forms in which to ceaselessly disprove it, however; forms which would develop into the “big, ambitious novels” we still have now. In fact, serious critics ceased to ride the “death of the novel” thesis very hard; it had emerged from certain intellectual concerns of the postwar era that were no longer to be as interesting to them over time. What Bellow and Ellison could not yet see was that the “death of the novel” fear, and the need to disprove it, would not really die out among writers, even as it ceased to be so interesting to critics.

Greif now turns to a few of these writers who took up the “death of the novel” banner: he describes a tradition of essays by novelists despairing over the possibilities of even writing: “Philip Roth’s ‘Writing American Fiction’ (1961) to David Foster Wallace’s ‘E Unibus Pluram’ (1993) and Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Perchance to Dream’ (1996).” There are a few titles that could be added, although I was disappointed to see John Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion” (1967) left out.

At any rate, Greif continues to make a very strong case that it is only by focusing on this ineradicable challenge of the novel’s potential “death” that we can account for the development and success of the “big, ambitious novel” genre: “Vitality becomes its own pursuit in an age when the ‘death of the novel’ is a presumption that never can be laid to rest.” Vitality for its own sake, of course, being one of James Wood’s most lashing critiques in his essay on hysterical realism. Greif notes, however, that not too long after Bellow and Ellison’s inaugural efforts, this genre, and this sense of vitality for its own sake, came to be associated not with a reconstitution of man and his will, but as a deeper questioning, and even an attack:

How did a form of the novel whose birth came in answer to a demand for the “restoration of the will of man”—and first met these demands by speaking from outside, but directed to, the usual stories of human universalism—ultimately metamorphose into that form of fiction most associated with an antihumanism? How, that is, did it become a form understood to exist precisely in order to prove the true impossibility, or meaninglessness, of any “restoration of the will of man”…? This would be the essential question for further research.

I think this is a valuable question, but I question whether it is the essential one; Greif notes that the idea of the “death of the novel” moved from critics to writers, but he doesn’t touch upon the political (anti-Communist) valence this discourse carried when it was being bandied about among the Partisan Review crowd and others on the center-left. This valence did not, I think, travel when the “death of the novel” was picked up by the writers themselves. Absent the political context, the liberal humanism that attached to the discourse became superfluous and, I’d argue, contradictory: the “death of the novel” became attached instead to an idea of “man” or the self as inevitably fractured, not capable of being restored in the way Trilling envisioned. That understanding of man and the self was arriving from different vectors; it didn’t mutate within the history of this discourse.

I have a different question about this history of the ‘big, ambitious novel’: it would seem to me that in the immediate post-war period, the term ‘big, ambitious novel’ would more likely to refer to Michener or Wouk or (a little later) Uris’s novels or Gone with the Wind or its near cousin Raintree County, and I feel some accounting needs to be made for that context. Greif even quotes Michener. I think it would be valuable to recognize that this type of “big, ambitious [middlebrow] novel” must be included in our history, and I think that extends somewhat to the present day. Is something like Middlesex or The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or The Corrections a “big, ambitious novel” or a “big, ambitious (middlebrow) novel?” I think it depends on which critic you ask, and if this genre or form is more of a conversational/journalistic than an academic one, it would seem to me that there is a non-trivial question here. I don’t know if it’s the “essential” question about this genre either, but it’s one that interests me greatly.

At any rate, Greif’s article is really great: I think the essay is a very important first step to talking more seriously and more historically about this genre.


Comments

I agree:  the Greif article is quite good.  I always think of the “big, ambitious novel” in terms of the genre Edward Mendelson calls “encyclopedic narrative” (which Moretti cites in “Modern Epic").  Mendelson explicitly invented the term as a way of praising “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

Encyclopedic narrative doesn’t refer to a really long novel or even a very complex novel, but a narrative (not a novel) that is a kind of state-of-the-art structuring or organization of different types of knowledge, discursive registers, and nation-building themes in prose.

Post-McGurl, I have a feeling that any history of this form would do well to look at the influence of the cold war university, and its organization around different disciplines, different centers of state funding, and the relative levels of prestige of different domains of knowledge.  Pynchon was certainly a “good student” at Cornell in the late fifties, an engineer turned English major, sharply attuned to these issues.

John Barth makes the cold war connection explicit in his essay “The Limits of Imagination” (I’m not sure what year it’s from), where he talks about how he spoke at a conference where George McBundy would be talking about topics like the “limits” of unlimited (American) power, and others on other sorts of limits in different disciplinary domains.  Barth ends up writing about the limits of imagination, the area where he can claim expertise.  It’s an interesting essay.

I think Chabon, Eugenides, Franzen, Powers, even Wallace to a degree fractured off from the original synthesis people like Pynchon and later DeLillo were after.  After the divorce, Powers got the science, Wallace got the funny, Eugenides got the (quasi-)magical realism, etc.  Maybe also absent a cold war context, where it seemed like different disciplines were at war for cultural authority (not to mention state funding), the discussion of the “big, ambitious novel” has shifted from a sense of competition among disciplines toward a sense of competition among different “media.” Contemporary authors are still convinced the novel is just about ready to die—any day now—but they are worried now about a different cause of death:  mediacide.

By Lee Konstantinou on 08/05/09 at 03:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As a non-academic, I don’t have access to boundary 2.  But from the summary of the argument here, I wonder about identifying some specific moment when “the big, ambitious novel” came to be.

I think this loses anything like historical perspective.  The novel has always been a big and ambitious form.  I don’t think Ellison or Bellow were anywhere near as ambitious as, say, Dickens in *Bleak House* or Trollope in *The Way We Live Now* or Norris in *The Octopus*. 

However, modernism broke with this tradition.  There were ambitious novels aplenty, but really very few big ones in the anglophone tradition.  Joyce wrote big, but Woolf and Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and West and Rhys mostly found it difficult to sustain modernist narrative experiments through hundreds of pages. 

And that’s what’s interesting to me about Bellow, Ellison, and Pynchon.  They tried to push modernist experimentation into the terrain of the large-scale realist novel.  That they all return to the picaresque and bildungsroman forms that gave Dickens some of his earliest successes is not coincidental. 

(It’s funny to me, reading reviews of Pynchon’s new novel, that so many of the complaints—ridiculous character names, two dimensional characters, revisiting thematic terrain of earlier works—were leveled at Dickens himself.)

By on 08/05/09 at 06:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Lee,
Very good points; the absence of the university context in Greif’s article explains, I suppose, the absence of Barth. Also missing is some accounting for The Recognitions, which, published in 1955, is a great deal closer to Augie March than to Gravity’s Rainbow. Greif kind of stumbles over this temporal gap (which is partly, I think, why he introduces this question of what happened to turn the affirmative texts of the early fifties into the “antihumanistic” texts of the seventies), and I think there are some texts (like The Recognitions and like Barth’s novels) which are already sitting in this gap and need to be accounted for.

The last point you make is brilliant--novelists do become so much more concerned about the functional differentiation of media being a (further) death blow to the novel. Although wasn’t this already becoming the case in the wake of people like Ong and McLuhan?

Luther,
I think Greif is just using “big, ambitious novel” (which he’s actually taking from the James Wood essay on hysterical realism) as a sort of term of convenience, rather than as a definition. Many people speak of a rather nebulous set of post-war novels as if they belonged to a genre or form, but this genre or form is largely unnamed (hysterical realism was one attempt, and as Lee pointed out, encyclopedic narrative was another). So he certainly doesn’t mean to imply that bigness and ambitiousness were emergent qualities of the novel after 1948, just that there was a genre or form that did emerge, and maybe “big, ambitious novel” will work to name it, at least provisionally. I guess I may be damaging that provisionality by trying to stretch it to include “big, ambitious (middlebrow) novels,” which does turn Greif’s term of convenience into a more descriptive or definitional term. But that’s certainly my fault, not his.

Your points about the broader history of the novel--especially the point about the distinction between the size of modernist experimentation and the goals of the next generation--are really great. Although I think there are some more important modernist works that resemble what you’re talking about--Dos Passos’s U.S.A., for instance. But the return to the scope and type of ambition found in the “large-scale realist novel” is an important context, especially for something like Underworld. Greif also takes note of the fact that Augie March is “nominally rooted itself in the aftermath of the American Renaissance rather than of modernism.”

By Andrew Seal on 08/06/09 at 09:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think what has to be explained is why the realist novel, which attempts to contain multitudes and explain it all, is replaced under modernism by the long or serial poem.  Some of this has to do with the cultural prestige of genre, with many modernists returning to the age-old faith in poetry as a higher, less commercial, more pure, form than the novel. 

But, as Al Filreis writes in his new book on 50s modernism, the modernist projects of Pound or Zukofsky were seen as dangerously political.  So that while political writers like Duncan or Spicer or Olson continue in the serial poem form, other writers seem to return to the Dickensian novel form to write works that have the scope of the modernist long poem without the troubling radical politics.

(I don’t like this explanation.  It’s off the top of my head.  But I do think we too often talk about novelists without considering poetry, and vice versa.)

By on 08/06/09 at 01:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"[W]asn’t this already becoming the case in the wake of people like Ong and McLuhan.”

True. 

Let me try to clarify my claim.  It’s not so much that writers didn’t care about the threat other media posed earlier in the century as that the specific justifications for the so-called big, ambitious novel changed. 

None of Trilling’s quoted explanations for the death of the novel mention changes in media ecology, such as increased competition for the attention of (formerly novel-reading) consumers.  After all, he made the quoted argument in 1948.  You can sort of squeeze out a possible interest on his part in other media from his claim that changing circumstances have rendered the answers novels give us uninteresting, but it’s a bit of a stretch.

“Gravity’s Rainbow” is not very interested in the threat posed by other media, though of course we end up finally at the movies in the seventies.  Pynchon is interested in processes which render humans (or “man") obsolete.  His big bogeymen are amoral technological change and the differentiating logic of corporate social organization (which has its analog in increasing specialization among academic departments).

Wallace, by contrast, could build his entry in the big, ambitious novel sweepstakes around the prospect of nation-wide (global?) mind-killing Teleputer-fueled apocalypse, caused by addictive visual media deployed in an open “Hobbesian” marketplace, and he could likewise pose complex prose fiction as a sort of—wholly inadequate, but necessary—antidote to that apocalypse.

By Lee Konstantinou on 08/06/09 at 03:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Your point about big middlebrow novels is right on.  Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar (1955) was taken quite seriously; James Jones commanded a good deal of respect, as did Michener.

By on 08/06/09 at 04:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d say, as a war novelist, James Jones deserves to command a good deal of respect.  Certainly more than, say, Mailer.

By on 08/06/09 at 08:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther,
That Filreis book sounds really interesting--you’re referring to Counter-revolution and the Word? I’ll have to check that out. And your larger point--about neglecting any linkages between poetry and novels--is very important here, but I have to say I’m not sure how to respond just yet. I’ll have to give that some thought. I would say that I’m not sure that long serial poems replace the novel as the vehicle for containing multitudes during modernism, though.

Lee,
Definitely. But do you think this is a different conversation, or a variation on the old forms of the “death of the novel” conversation?

Andre/Luther,
James Jones certainly was better for the movies, that’s for sure.

By Andrew Seal on 08/08/09 at 09:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"[D]o you think this is a different conversation, or a variation on the old forms of the ‘death of the novel’ conversation?”

Well, Greif’s argument at least is that the “big, ambitious novel” conversation is a “response to” and “depends on” the “death of the novel” conversation:

“The ‘big, ambitious novel’ as it emerged in the postwar period first appeared in response to, then came to depend upon, the maintenance of a conceit of the ‘death of the novel.’”

This seems to me to be a prima facie plausible claim, though much depends on what lies buried in words like “response” and “dependency.”

I don’t know if I have settled views on the death/ambition relation, but I do think that (if it is indeed related to the death of the novel) the “big, ambitious novel” must embed a theory of the cause of death of the novel before it can in any way propose to revive it, transform it, or save it.

By Lee Konstantinou on 08/08/09 at 08:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Regarding “encyclopedic narrative,” I think Northrop Frye on Menippean satire and the philosophical anatomy is worth a mention, too.  I can’t really work the dates, but I suspect that Frye (along with the lesser known, but still important, Alvin Kernan) is responsible for really fleshing out the primary academic classification of big, ambitious novels.  Certainly, Sterne signposts his reliance on Swift, Cervantes, Rabelais, Burton, and Montaigne, but Frye was the first to take those lineages and make evident their otherwise implicit themes and content.

Here’s what he has to say about Menippean satire.  Excuse the long quotation—it’s worth it, though:

The first phase of satire is dominated by the figure of the giant-killer, but in this rending of the stable universe a giant power rears up in satire itself.  When the Philistine giant comes out to battle with the children of light, he naturally expects to find someone his own size ready to meet him, someone who is head and shoulders over every man in Israel.  Such a Titan would have to bear down his opponent by sheer weight of words, and hence be a master of that technique of torrential abuse which we call invective.  The gigantic figures in Rabelais, the awakened forms of the bound or sleeping giants that meet us in Finnegans Wake and the opening of Gulliver’s Travels, are expressions of a creative exuberance of which the most typical and obvious sign is the verbal tempest, the tremendous outpouring of words in catalogues, abusive epithets and erudite technicalities which since the third chapter of Isaiah (a satire on female ornament) has been a feature, and almost a monopoly, of third-phase satire [that would be Menippean satire or the anatomy].

Basically: one way to condemn a fragmented, ruined world is to mirror this kind of world in fragmented, ruined form (hence, the propensity for so much Menippean satire to appear—or feign to appear—unfinished and rough). Pynchon, DFW, Gaddis, DeLillo, etc., are unsurprisingly interested in one way or another with the sort of information overload that gives rise to exactly this sort of fragmentation and hence Menippean form.  I’m thinking here of DFW on TV, Gaddis on the jargoned language of finance and law, DeLillo on consumer culture, Pynchon on basically everything.

I also think Frye’s category does a nice job of differentiating some kinds of big, ambitious novels from others.  The 19C three-decker (someone mentioned Trollope upthread) is big and ambitious in a different way than, say, Rabelais or Gaddis.  The former still works according to epic and realist conventions, while the latter seems more interested in (to borrow Frye’s language) torrents and abuse. 

(Bleak House, by the way, is sort of a limit case, since it does the complicated realist narrative thing while parroting the legal language of the courts in a very Menippean way).

By on 08/08/09 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Regarding “encyclopedic narrative,” I think Northrop Frye on Menippean satire and the philosophical anatomy is worth a mention, too.  I can’t really work the dates, but I suspect that Frye (along with the lesser known, but still important, Alvin Kernan) is responsible for really fleshing out the primary academic classification of big, ambitious novels.  Certainly, Sterne signposts his reliance on Swift, Cervantes, Rabelais, Burton, and Montaigne, but Frye was the first to take those lineages and make evident their otherwise implicit themes and content.

Here’s what he has to say about Menippean satire.  Excuse the long quotation—it’s worth it, though:

The first phase of satire is dominated by the figure of the giant-killer, but in this rending of the stable universe a giant power rears up in satire itself.  When the Philistine giant comes out to battle with the children of light, he naturally expects to find someone his own size ready to meet him, someone who is head and shoulders over every man in Israel.  Such a Titan would have to bear down his opponent by sheer weight of words, and hence be a master of that technique of torrential abuse which we call invective.  The gigantic figures in Rabelais, the awakened forms of the bound or sleeping giants that meet us in Finnegans Wake and the opening of Gulliver’s Travels, are expressions of a creative exuberance of which the most typical and obvious sign is the verbal tempest, the tremendous outpouring of words in catalogues, abusive epithets and erudite technicalities which since the third chapter of Isaiah (a satire on female ornament) has been a feature, and almost a monopoly, of third-phase satire [that would be Menippean satire or the anatomy].

Basically: one way to condemn a fragmented, ruined world is to mirror this kind of world in fragmented, ruined form (hence, the propensity for so much Menippean satire to appear—or feign to appear—unfinished and rough). Pynchon, DFW, Gaddis, DeLillo, etc., are unsurprisingly interested in one way or another with the sort of information overload that gives rise to exactly this sort of fragmentation and hence Menippean form.  I’m thinking here of DFW on TV, Gaddis on the jargoned language of finance and law, DeLillo on consumer culture, Pynchon on basically everything.

I also think Frye’s category does a nice job of differentiating some kinds of big, ambitious novels from others.  The 19C three-decker (someone mentioned Trollope upthread) is big and ambitious in a different way than, say, Rabelais or Gaddis.  The former still works according to epic and realist conventions, while the latter seems more interested in (to borrow Frye’s language) torrents and abuse.

(Bleak House, by the way, is sort of a limit case, since it does the complicated realist narrative thing while parroting the legal language of the courts in a very Menippean way).

By on 08/08/09 at 09:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Gah!  Sorry about the double post—a bit overambitious.

By on 08/09/09 at 03:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:

Name:
Email:
Location:
URL:

 

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: