"A heightened degree of messiness": "J R", "Nashville", "The Dead Father", and the refusal of narrative
Levine, Michael Louis
Doody, Terrence A.
Doctor of Philosophy
If the late 1960s and early 1970s in America could be characterized as a period which disrupted the narratives that structured both public and private life, then William Gaddis's J R, Robert Altman's Nashville, and Donald Barthelme's The Dead Father, all of which appeared in 1975, are emblematic of this period, products of both the aesthetic principles of these three artists and the social milieu in which they created their most exemplary works. All three works subvert or abandon narrative conventions in three general ways. First, they render time as a continuous present, endless and without gaps, as opposed to a narrativized kind of time which suggests a recovery of the past, and which starts and stops with the beginning and end of each event included in the narrative. Second, these works contain no internal organizing center which could stabilize the relationships between their characters. Third, all three works eschew a narrating consciousness, offering no indication of the significance of anything in their fictional worlds. In their non-narrative aspects, the forms of each of these works show the influence of other media; Gaddis's novel possesses cinematic qualities, while Altman's film and Barthelme's novel invite comparisons to painting. By looking to other media, Gaddis, Altman, and Barthelme extend the representational capacities of their own. The result of this refusal of narrative is not the creation of a space within the work, left by elements said to be missing from it, that is filled by the reader or spectator, who then becomes to some degree the "subject" of the work, and is therefore capable of articulating its meaning. On the contrary, by refusing narrative, these works undermine the illusion, perpetuated by narrative, that the world speaks to us in intelligible terms, as well as the illusion of a shared reality made possible by acts of identification between one consciousness and another. J R, Nashville, and The Dead Father attest to the constructed nature of shared reality and illuminate both the limits of individual subjectivity and the irreducible difference between art and its audience.
American literature; Cinema