Plots and plotters : narrative, desire, and ideology in contemporary American historiographic metafiction

Thomas, Glen Joseph. (2002). Plots and plotters : narrative, desire, and ideology in contemporary American historiographic metafiction PhD Thesis, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, The University of Queensland.

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Author Thomas, Glen Joseph.
Thesis Title Plots and plotters : narrative, desire, and ideology in contemporary American historiographic metafiction
School, Centre or Institute School of English, Media Studies and Art History
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2002
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Dr Tony Thwaites
Dr Lloyd Davis
Total pages 270
Collection year 2002
Language eng
Subjects L
751001 Languages and literature
420203 North American
Formatted abstract
This thesis analyses four contemporary American works of historiographic metafiction for different forms of desire: narrative desire, characteriological desire, and critical desire. The thesis argues that each of these four works is motivated by a particular figuration of desire which is bound within the central characters' attempts to create a plot.

Chapter One outlines the theoretical basis of the thesis. Initially, I categorise the works considered in terms of Linda Hutcheon's definition of historiographic metafiction, as texts that problematise the nature of historical knowledge. Hutcheon asserts that historiographic metafictional works are characterised by a sense of skepticism toward the authoritative renderings of the past found in those historical forms Hutcheon identifies as exhibiting a totalising impulse (Politics 62-63). The analysis of the workings of desire is derived from the work of Peter Brooks, who argues in Reading for the Plot that all texts are motivated and informed by the workings of desire. Brooks's model of desire is derived from Freud, in the latter's formulation of desire as Eros, both a sexualised desire and one that Brooks describes as a plastic and totalising force. I develop this notion of desire through the work of Slavoj Zizek. "Zizek argues that desire is inherently Unked with the ideological fantasy that structures the subject's relation to the Symbolic order. Zizek's work demonstrates that it is not possible to see desire as the totalising force Brooks represents it to be in nineteenth century novels. Each chapter also considers the critical reception of these texts, to examine the desires that readers have brought to the texts and the narratives that criticism has constructed from such desires.

Chapter Two analyses Robert Coover's The Public Burning. This chapter argues that the narrative in this text is, in Zizek's terms, hysterical, in the way in which Vice-President Nixon is obsessed with his family narrative and his relationship with the Other. The novel presents the events leading up to the execution of the Rosenbergs as carnivalesque, which is echoed in the descriptions of Nixon's Rabelaisian body. Nixon's body becomes a site of unconscious resistance, as he repeatedly transgresses the Law he seeks to please. These transgressions culminate in his appearance at the public burning of the Rosenbergs. The Public Burning has generated some critical debate, in that critics have chastised the novel for its excess, tedium, and in one case, tastelessness. The chapter maintains that the sexual encounter between Nixon and Ethel Rosenberg prior to her execution presents a source of anxiety (if not trauma) for criticism. This chapter contends that criticism responds to this hysterical narrative with an hysterical demand to disavow the depiction of the mother's desire. The body of the "Jew" in the novel functions as a symptom, a figure of excess within the social order. In this sense, the excess that critics locate within the text suggests that text itself functions as a symptom whose message critical desire seeks to repress.

In Chapter Three the thesis analyses Don DeLillo's Libra for two main forms of desire for plot. The first of these is Lee Oswald's desire to attain a sense of unity of self. Oswald is frustrated in this desire by the workings of language. The text demonstrates that the subject is structured in and through language, in the way in which Oswald functions as a sign. The second form of desire for plot is Nicholas Branch's narrative desire to write the definitive history of the Kennedy assassination. Like Oswald's, Branch's desire is frustrated. He is unable to write this account because he cannot create a narrative from the information about the assassination.

Chapter Four analyses John Updike's Memories of the Ford Administration. Here, desire is plotted as nostalgic, for a mythic American past which the narrator, Alfred Clayton, locates in the carefree promiscuity of the Ford years (in his own life) and the supposed certainties of ante-bellum America (in the Ufe of the subject of his never-completed biography, President James Buchanan). Clayton's nostalgic desire is also ideological in that it assigns responsibility for contemporary ills (as Clayton perceives them) to the generation of university lecturers and students who, according to the novel, promoted left-wing causes, the plight of minorities, and the foreign influence of "deconstruction" all of which led to "poHtical correctness". Against this, Clayton professes his optimism in the future of the United States, a conservative reaction that is informed by the rhetoric of debates over education and the Hterary canon in the early 1990s.

Chapter Five analyses Updike's Toward The End Of Time, a text at the Umits of historiographic metafiction, for a narrative desire that is perverse in Zizek's terms. This novel purports to be the journal of a retired stock broker, Ben TurnbuU. Turnbull's journal, however, branches into other narratives that are incompatible with the narrative of a single subject. This chapter argues that this text represents a situation where Barthes's hermeneutic code, the code of textual enigmas, has been overcoded by the proairetic, the code of actions. This creates a plot where there is more and more action within the narrative, but these actions are not resolved through the hermeneutic code. The chapter argues that this situation occurs because the narrator and the narrative are attempting to hold at bay the end of time (death), which creates what Zizek refers to as a perverse narrative structure, one that is unable to progress properly, but instead V remains "stuck in the same place" (Zizek, Plague 40). Analysis of the text reveals that the logic of historiographic metafiction is that of cause-and-effect, rather than the logic of textuality.

Keyword Historical fiction, American -- History and criticism
United States -- History -- Fiction
Historiography -- United States

Document type: Thesis
Collection: UQ Theses (RHD) - UQ staff and students only
Citation counts: Google Scholar Search Google Scholar
Created: Fri, 24 Aug 2007, 18:04:17 EST