Publication details [#10381]

Waltonen, Timothy F. 2005. Towards a prosaics of contemporary American short fiction: Metonymies of "city life" in Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley, and John Edgar Wideman. Washington, D.C.. 263 pp.


This project puts urban stories into dialogue with an array of literary theories and cultural studies, as a move toward a dialogic "prosaics." This approach seeks to "re-predicate" an urban imaginary with regard for the fullness of the social condition - compound urban histories and spatial dynamics, invigorating voices in charged cultural contexts - inscribed in a growing body of urban short fiction. This fiction constitutes a rich counter-narrative, resisting "discourse of decline" which construes the city primarily in terms of "crisis" and "lack." The awkward textual experiments of Barthelme's fictions articulate an uneasy postmodern urban condition. While refusing to bemoan the perplexities of "city life," his works display an ongoing fascination with the "Babel" of various cultural discourses and situations and delight in constructing genre-bending language games, material metonymies of America's urban landscape. Paleys's creations, the conversation-driven stories of her company of city women, suggest a kind of urban American version of midrash, the rabbinic art of collective reading and commentary. Her stories reenact this process, reconfiguring the urban imaginary with women's sensibilities, agency, and complex everyday lives in the social space of the city. All the while, this multi-voiced, anecdotal fiction re-accents the scale and scope of American urban fiction with a geography of commitments personal, social, and civic. Wideman's texts haunt and correct American urban history and the historical sensibilities of American short fiction. His awareness of the "projective past" creates a "Great Time" symbolic that informs his sense of city life and texts as sites of "long memory." These rubrics intensify the heterogeneous social imaginary in his urban meditations like "Fever," which mediates the intricacies of public time, intertextuality, ensemble consciousness, and the "unfinalizability" of city storytelling. He finds the short story an apt performance piece for solo passages, fluid time signatures, and improvisational fusions of theme and style. Such prosaics thus provide some new, non-totalizing markings for several strands of recent American short fiction as they operate in multiple planes of narrative possibility. (Timothy Waltonen)