David Minter
Faulkner's Questioning Narratives:
Fiction of His Major Phase, 1929-42

Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2001. xiv+166pp


     David Minter, known as the author of William Faulkner: His Life and Work, has recently published his second book on Faulkner, Faulkner's Questioning Narratives: Fiction of His Major Phase, 1929-42. Consisting of eleven chapters, this is a collection of short essays written over the last three decades. Viewed in this light, it is probably natural that this is the kind of book that does not satisfy the reader who decides to read it because of its attractive title/subtitle.
     For instance, the oldest essay, "Faulkner, Childhood, and the Making of The Sound and the Fury: Love, Death, and the Novel" (Chap. 3), employs a biographical method (which will greatly help undergraduate students), and the newest one, "The Strange Double-Edged Gift of Faulkner's Fiction" (Chap. 9), reads Absalom, Absalom! and Sanctuary as metafictional novels that involve the reader. Although I admit that each argument has its merit, I wonder why these two essays are collected in one book, especially because both of them are easily available to Faulknerians--especially to scholars in the United States. These essays have almost nothing common, and the chapters between them do not bridge their gap. Likewise, Minter's references to many theorists such as Arendt, White, Barthes, Bakhtin, Derrida, Lukacs, and Robbe-Grillet seem not so much various as ad hoc when scattered throughout the book (the only writer who Minter consistently quotes is Wallace Stevens).
     The first chapter suggests that Minter's current standpoint as a critic is, quite naturally, the closest to the stance he takes in the ninth chapter. Minter presupposes that Faulkner's novels are at once aesthetically and socially/politically/morally important, and proposes as a way to deal with the two aspects simultaneously that we should think of Faulkner's narratives as giving us not answers but questions. Some readers might find this critical stance too commonsensical; others too reactionary. I, however, find it reasonable and even right that a scholar with a broad and deep knowledge of the works of Faulkner's contemporaries tries to approach Faulkner in a manner that includes ideological criticism and historicism without obscuring his ground as a literary critic.
     Unfortunately, however, each essay is rather too short to fully develop the project the author proposes in the introductory chapter, which makes me feel that he advertises wine and sells vinegar. For example, the second chapter, which deals with "Carcassonne" and "Wash," argues that "literature fulfills itself in dialogue, not assertion" and that "Faulkner's fiction not only exemplifies but dramatizes this" and creates a community, but there is not enough space to testify to this "assertion." Therefore, this chapter satisfies neither the reader who accepts Minter's view of literature because of the paucity of its textual analysis, nor the reader who objects to this view because of the fragility of its theoretical backbone.
     A similar problem exists in the fourth chapter on Faulkner's creativity and in the fifth on issues of family, religion, and myth. Employing such terms as "variety," "fluidity," "uncertainty," "tentative," and "provisional," Minter points out that Faulkner is among the "Few writers [who] have shared so fully their tasks and even their prerogatives, as writers, either with their characters or with their readers." This simple observation that the author is on the same level as his characters and readers, however, would hardly satisfy today's reader who is used to more radically political readings of Faulkner's texts. Moreover, Minter, who frequently uses the expression "by extension" throughout the book, seems rather naive when he casually compares the relationship between narrator and listener in the novel to the one between writer and reader. Perhaps reflecting the period in which Minter wrote them, these essays give the impression that he just applies the rudimentary view of "postmodern fiction" to Faulkner as a "modernist" writer.
     This impression is especially regrettable in the tenth chapter on "The Old People." Minter carefully reads the journal version and the chapter of Go Down, Moses, and demonstrates how Faulkner changed the characters (especially Sam Fathers) through his revision. Minter's analysis of the two versions is intriguing and convincing because of the ample examples from the texts. I would even claim that this chapter is a "must" for scholars who are going to deal with this story. When Minter places his argument in the abovementioned "postmodern" context, however, I cannot but feel that the possibilities of his fruitful analysis are repressed.
     This book's great potential resides in the eighth chapter on Sanctuary (though this chapter's argument overlaps with the ninth chapter's). Pointing out that the mob imagines the rape of Temple Drake when they lynch Lee Goodwin and say, "Only we never used a cob. We made him wish we had used a cob," Minter argues that Sanctuary is shocking because Faulkner forces us, who are "as socialized creatures . . . always already prepared to provide missing details even of truly horrific acts," to take the mob's position. This argument is radically different from the naive application of the "postmodern" frame in that it problematizes--or could problematize--the politics of modernist understatement. Minter, however, might presuppose that he will not pursue this issue, given that in the last chapter he sentimentally praises Stevens, who sings, "The imperfect is our paradise."
     My high expectations for this book likely made this review a little harsh. Minter is an excellent scholar who co-edited the Columbia Literary History of the United States in the eighties and demonstrated his astonishingly wide knowledge in A Cultural History of the American Novel: Henry James to William Faulkner in the nineties. I am looking forward to his next book, in which hopefully he, as a scholar, will show himself at his best.

Copyright (c)2003 SUWABE Koichi