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Brian McHale-Postmodernist fiction

Brian McHale-Postmodernist fiction

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Published by: Child Of Sunsine on Oct 22, 2012
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06/26/2013

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POSTMODERNISTFICTION
Brian McHale
London and New York
 
8: CHINESE-BOX WORLDS
 Achilles
:That’s quite a bit to swallow. I never imagined there could bea world above mine before—and now you’re hinting thatthere could even be one above that. It’s like walking up afamiliar staircase, and just keeping on going further up afteryou’ve reached the top—or what you’d always taken to be onthe top!
Crab
:Or waking up from what you took to be real life, and findingout it too was just a dream. That could happen over and overagain, no telling when it would stop.(Douglas R.Hofstadter,
Gödel, Escher, Bach,
1979)Suppose it were decided to film a novel of forking paths—John Fowles’s
The French Lieutenant’s Woman
(1964), let’s say. How would one go about it?One might choose to preserve the self-contradictory structure of the original,with its violation of the law of the excluded middle, producing somethinglike Resnais’s and Robbe-Grillet’s
L’Année dernière à Marienbad
(1961)—amovie of forking paths. Or one might choose to do what Harold Pinter andKarel Reisz actually did when they made their film of 
The French Lieutenant’sWoman,
and transform one type of ontological structure into a different butrelated type with greater chance of being grasped by the average film-goer.Pinter and Reisz recast the double ending of Fowles’s novel as a film-within-the-film, locating the unhappy ending (the hero loses the heroine for good)at the level of the film’s “real world,” the happy ending (hero and heroinereconciled) at the level of the film-within-the-film. This ingenioustransformation suggests something like a functional equivalence betweenstrategies of self-erasure or self-contradiction and strategies involvingrecursive structures—nesting or embedding, as in a set of Chinese boxes orRussian
babushka
dolls. Both types of strategy have the effect of interruptingand complicating the ontological “horizon” of the fiction, multiplying itsworlds, and laying bare the process of world-construction.A recursive structure results when you perform the same operation over
 
CHINESE-BOX WORLDS 113
and over again, each time operating on the product of the previous operation.For example, take a film, which projects a fictional world; within that world,place actors and a film crew, who make a film which in turn projects its
own
fictional world; then within
that
world place another film crew, who makeanother film, and so on. This, as Douglas Hofstadter has demonstrated, is a basic structure of thought, occurring in mathematics, computer softwareand, of course, natural language. In Hofstadter’s exemplary recursivedialogue, “Little Harmonic Labyrinth” (from
Gödel, Escher, Bach
), Achillesand the Tortoise distract themselves from a tense predicament by reading astory in which two characters called Achilles and the Tortoise enter an Escherprint, in which they read a story in which two characters called Achilles andthe Tortoise are lost in a labyrinth.
1
We can describe this recursive structuremost easily in terms of the metalanguage of narrative levels which GérardGenette has taught us to use.
2
Hofstadter’s dialogue projects a primary world,or
diegesis,
to which Achilles and the Tortoise belong. Within that world theyread a story which projects a
hypo
diegetic world, one level “down” fromtheir own. The characters of 
that
world, in turn, enter the hypo-hypodiegeticworld of the Escher print; and so on, an additional “hypo” being prefixedfor each level as we descend “deeper” into what Hofstadter calls the “stack”of narrative levels.Each change of narrative level in a recursive structure also involves achange of ontological level, a change of world. These embedded or nestedworlds may be more or less continuous with the world of the primary diegesis,as in such Chinese-box novels as
Wuthering Heights, Lord Jim,
or
 Absalom
,
 Absalom
!; or they may be subtly different, as in the play-within-the-play of 
 Hamlet,
or even radically different, as in Hofstadter’s dialogue. In other words,although there is always an ontological discontinuity between the primarydiegesis and hypodiegetic worlds, this discontinuity need not always beforegrounded. Indeed, in many realist and modernist novels, such as
Wuthering Heights
or
Lord Jim
or
 Absalom, Absalom
!, it is rather theepistemological dimension of this structure which is foregrounded, eachnarrative level functioning as a link in a chain of narrative transmission.Here recursive structure serves as a tool for exploring issues of narrativeauthority, reliability and unreliability, the circulation of knowledge, and soforth.So if recursive structure is to function in a postmodernist poetics of ontology,strategies obviously must be brought to bear on it which foreground itsontological dimension. One such strategy, the simplest of all, involves
 frequency
: interrupting the primary diegesis not once or twice but
often
withsecondary, hypodiegetic worlds, representations within the representation.
 Hamlet,
with its single interruption by the play-within-the-play, isunproblematic in its ontological structure; the relatively frequent interruptionsof the primary diegesis by the film-within-the-film in
The French Lieutenant’sWoman
make it somewhat more problematic; while still more problematicare such postmodernist novels as Claude Simon’s
Tryptique
(1973), GilbertSorrentino’s
 Mulligan Stew
(1979), or Italo Calvino’s
If on a winter’s night atraveller
(1979), where the primary diegesis is interrupted so often, by nestedrepresentations in such diverse media (novels-within-the-novel, films-within-

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