Mytho-historical mode: metafictional parody and postmodern high irony in the works of Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, and Ishmael Reed
Heitkemper-Yates, Michael David
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Beginning with an analysis of Northrop Frye’s concept of modal progression (i.e., the cycle from myth to irony—and back again) and an application of modal theory to an analysis of postmodern narrative forms, the need to revise Frye’s concept of modal progression becomes apparent. Rather than following the cyclical pattern Frye proposes, the course of modal progression appears to be fixed to an axis of experience: a certain normative threshold which describes the narrator’s and/or the narrative protagonist’s power of action relative to an assumed neutral audience. How the narrative depiction of the narrator and/or the fictional protagonist relates to this threshold determines the characteristics of the literary mode. As argued in this dissertation, the increase in the hero’s power of action (typical of late modern and postmodern literature) does not necessarily indicate an abrupt return to the mythic mode (as predicted by Frye). Instead, what is seen to emerge is a decidedly advanced species of narrative irony, or, “high irony” that, while maintaining its distinctly ironic qualities, displays a remarkable tendency to disassemble/reassemble precedent narrative forms (e.g., myth, nonfiction, realistic fiction) into a self-reflexive, highly metafictional form of parody. As the absurd, parodic chaos of the high ironic mode shares several significant traits with both myth and nonfiction, these overlapping, parodic relationships are of great literary importance and theoretical interest. These modal connections and disconnections are what this dissertation attempts to explore and clarify. To that end, this dissertation charts the various ways that myth and nonfictional forms have been put to parodic use in the high ironic metafictions of Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover and Ishmael Reed, three writers whose seminal mid-20th century works did much to shape and direct the course of contemporary American literature. Of special emphasis in this study is the American postmodern preoccupation with revision and the politics of literary subversion that attends this revisionary impulse. The final hypothesis reached by this dissertation is that the literary repercussions of these mid-20th century excursions into ironic, metafictional abstraction have not led to a return to myth, but rather to a discernable tendency among 21st century American writers to return to previously eschewed forms of nonironic narrative. This trajectory thus marks a movement away from forms of narrative irony (as well as away from the mode of myth) and an emerging tendency towards more referential, less fantastic forms of narrative fiction.