Flat Narratology: Surface, Depth, and Speculation in Contemporary Metafiction

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This dissertation argues that contemporary metafictions such as Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (1988), Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days (2001), and Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist (2001) make elements of their narrative discourse (the language in which they are told) into important elements of their stories (the events about which they tell). Metafictions – fictions that formally or explicitly comment on the manner of their own telling – have almost always been read for the philosophical content of their self-reflexivity, some undermining readers’ epistemological certainty, others challenging readers’ assumptions about their own and the fictions’ ontological status. I argue, however that these contemporary novels use their self-commentary to underscore the materiality and agency of language in storytelling, in experiences of loss, and in quests for personal agency in a world where discourse often floats free of attribution. In emphasizing the agency of discourse, my readings of Cat’s Eye, John Henry Days, and The Body Artist also contribute to contemporary debates about literary-critical methodology. Each reading investigates the labor of producing and trying to sustain the critical distinctions between description and interpretation, and between story and discourse, in the face of textual objects’ manifestly hybrid natures. I develop a “flat narratology,” itself a hybrid descriptive-interpretive critical practice, which draws on the methods of narrative poetics and works to reconcile them with insights from science studies about the production of critical and empirical knowledge. My method shares attention among small units of discourse like sentences and phrases; complex, composite objects like the “existents” of a story-world (characters, settings, events); and also, equally, among objects like Cat’s Eye’s frameworks for viewing that are not given by the conventional vocabulary of narrative poetics. I argue that narratives are neither only the utterances of their authors (real or implied) nor only arrays of words to which the reader or critic brings all the narrative and signifying force. They are, rather, a set of unusual real-world objects that, without being alive, nonetheless speak about themselves.
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methodology; Atwood; DeLillo; Narrative Theory; Whitehead; American literature
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Anker, Elizabeth Susan
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McEnaney, Tom
Bogel, Fredric Victor
Culler, Jonathan Dwight
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English Language and Literature
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Ph. D., English Language and Literature
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Government Document
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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International
dissertation or thesis
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