Directions of the Contemporary Novel: A Review of Two Works by John Barth and John Hawkes
This essay is a response to part of the current reality enveloping the art of fiction. Initially conceived out of a desire to contemporize my literary sensibilities, the commitment to a critical analysis of experimental fiction should be qualified by claiming new or contemporary fiction for its topic. Experimental fiction of course, indicates a departure from convention and to better understand this departure it became necessary that I devote myself to some introductory comments about these conventions. This I do in the first section of the essay with some general observations about the relationship of literature to the world. There is substantial reference to Roland Barthes in this section which is a deliberately narrow sketch of the history of the novel. Barthes' capacity to remain cogent while general allows me to incorporate the linguistic foundation of experimental fiction without succumbing to the invitation to digress. The introductory portion of the essay is intended simply to give a brief rehearsal of the traditional relationships of the novel to the world which allow me to discuss the fundamental tenets of the first writer examined in the essay, John Barth. In part, this essay was stimulated out of the hope that the new fiction would not yet be the grist of the professional critical mill. I wanted to free myself from the anxiety that accompanies the desire to say the 'right thing.' Ironically, I found this desire to lay behind the aesthetic assumptions that motivate this fiction. The belief that language is incapable of relating precisely what we see, what is out 'there' in the world is one widely held among contemporary writers and readily admitted both in their comments about their work and the works themselves. To pursue a relationship between meaning and order in the novels and the world of experience then would be a gross imposition. It is the suspicion of meaning and order held by the new novelist that make him experimental. Critical analysis then, must turn to an investigation of how this suspicion is conveyed.