Exceptional scale: metafiction and the maximalist tradition in contemporary American literary history

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Daniel Warren Burns (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site: http://library.uncg.edu/
Christian Moraru

Abstract: This dissertation reexamines the narrative practice of self-reflexivity through the lens of aesthetic size to advance a new approach to reading long-form novels of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Whereas previous scholarship on the maximalist tradition relies on the totalizing rhetorics of endlessness, exhaustion, encyclopedism, and excess, I interpret the form’s reflexive awareness of its own enlarged scale as a uniquely narrative “knowledge work” that mediates the reader’s experience of information-rich texts. Thus, my narrative and network theory-informed approach effectively challenges the analytical modes of prominent genre theories such as the Mega-Novel, encyclopedic narrative, the systems novel, and modern epic to propose a critical reading method that recovers the extra-literary discourses through which scalarity is framed. Following this logic, each chapter historicizes prior theories of literary scale in postwar U.S. fiction toward redefining cross-national differences that vary across the boundaries of class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality. Chapter two addresses the scholarly discourse of encyclopedism surrounding the Mega-Novels of Thomas Pynchon and Joseph McElroy. Posing an ethical challenge to popular critiques of metafictional aesthetics, both authors, I argue, contest one of the critical orthodoxies of realist form—the “exceptionality thesis”—which rests on an assumed separation between an audience’s experience of fictional minds in a literary work and its understanding of actual minds in everyday life. In constructing a suitably massive networked platform on which to stage identity as a pluralistic work-in-progress, Gravity’s Rainbow and Women and Men, I contend, narrativize those operations of mind typically occluded from narrative discourse, and so make literal their authors’ meta-ethical visions of a “multiplying real” as much a part of our world as the novel’s own. Chapter three focuses on the mise en abyme as a discursive practice in the labyrinthine narratives of Samuel R. Delany and Mark Z. Danielewski. My analysis posits The Mad Man and House of Leaves as immersive case studies on the academic reading experience by interrogating the satirical strategy of “mock scholarship,” in which a textual object at plot’s center is gradually displaced by the intra-textual reception history that surrounds it. Subtly complicating an increasingly imperceptible line between fact and its fictional counterpart, Delany and Danielewski, I assert, propose new forms of knowledge production through a multiplicity of potential “research spaces” that micromanage the interpretive process while exceeding the structural contours that frame it. Chapter four considers the problem of literary canon formation in the polemical epics of Gayl Jones and Joshua Cohen. Across vast surveys of the stereotypes that mark their marginalization, Jones and Cohen transgress the metaphorical borders constructed between individual voice, collective identity, and the literary institutions that reify “ethnoracial diversity” as a belated form of cultural capital. Explicitly foregrounding the ideological gaps, errors, and omissions against which canonical classification is typically defined, Mosquito and Witz, I suggest, promote not so much a representative widening of the canon’s historically restrictive archive as a complete dissolution of the exclusionary practices it honors and preserves.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2015
American literary history, Literary theory and criticism, Metafiction, Narrative, Network theory, Scale
American fiction $y 20th century $x History and criticism
American fiction $y 21st century $x History and criticism
Epic literature, American $x History and criticism
Fiction $x Technique
Self in literature

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