The fluidity of femininity. The circularity of Woman's thinking. Crossing of the demarcations with heavy, low-heeled, leather-clad shoes into the postmodern world of language. The creation of feminist postmodern fiction secures a locality for not only the expression of the Female in the written word, but also provides for the mating ground for feminist and postmodern thinking. The formation of this new strand of postmodern literature promotes replenishment as well as the prospect for unity from the center to the outer edge. It is in Carole Maso's Ava that the conception of a feminist postmodern novel comes to fruition. Ava disrupts the boundaries between feminist and postmodern writing, allowing critic Patricia Waugh's conception of feminine fiction to not only be created, but also mated with the once masculine-dominated domain of postmodern literature.
Patricia Waugh's Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern is a cry to both female and male writers/critics/individuals to allow for the feminine claim to the right of a subject, a language and a literature heretofore denied them. Waugh asserts that for the first time in history women must fight for the construction of an identity and initiate the expedition to discover a unified selfhood, not only in the female gender, but throughout the human community. Women writers are primary at the front of this search for the female as an individual, a subject in a human circle. Through their words, feminist writers can deconstruct the woman as Other, as object, freeing "Her" as an autonomous continuing identity to speak for herself, about herself, exposing her position within and without masculine discourse. It can no longer be a question of "What represents who I am?" for the feminine writer, but rather the demand of "Who am I?" The transformation of women writers as echoes into feminist writers as "echo makers" (Vizenor 5) will insure survival and success.
Waugh describes a path that feminine fiction may take in order to explore and intone this search for a feminine subject where there once was none. Firstly, there must exist a "commitment to a feminist concern to deconstruct the gender distinctions which bind women's psychology to charm and dependency to men's fact and objectivity, and her search for a formal aesthetic mode which could express an alternative, relational view of human subjectivity" (Waugh 91). Once historical stereotypes and gender biases have been overturned, or at least disproved, a fresh identity must be molded from the ashes of the phallic phoenix. This identity can neither be formed through the egocentric fallacy of complete independence, nor by being "totally dependent on others" (Waugh 115). Rather, the feminine identity must be created through connectedness, through the viewing of life as the experience of living, "revealing the communal and relational basis of feminine identity as a source of great potential" (Waugh 161). "Freedom, harmony, human, dignity, and love lie not in the realization of any 'essence' of the human individual, but in the relationships with others which construct our social identity" (209). It is the act of connecting not the act of binding which will speak the true subject of the female gender, the openness to the external world and others, building a strong autonomous self.
Postmodernism has not been a hospitable movement for this connected female subject in Waugh's view. She asserts that although "postmodernism may be considered an art of the marginal and oppositional and as such would seem at last to offer women the possibility of identity and inclusion," (Waugh 3) the relationship between postmodern and feminist fictions is lacking, even problematic. Waugh lists pararallels, such as: the rejection of elitist and purely formalist celebration of modernism; the celebration of liminality; the undermining of the authorial security of the 'egotistical sublime'; the concern about the extension of relationships of alienation in a consumer society; (Waugh 6) but Waugh's primary explanation why postmodernism has shunned feminist ideas in fiction is because of the above-explicated reason. While the postmoderns are deconstructing and fragmenting and erasing the subject, women have yet to taste the label of subject. Women writers are building the "I," the individual, while postmodern writers retain a nostalgia for, but a disbelief in, the concept of the human subject as one who can effectively intervene as an agent in history and the furthering of language. Identity is attainable for feminist writers through connectedness; identity for postmodern writers is manipulation through a language game.
Between 1989 when Patricia Waugh's Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern was published and now is a seemingly short span in which language and the manipulation of words have undergone a hysteric metamorphosis. It is my belief that male-dominated postmodern literature can and has accommodated (of its own good will?) feminine fiction, and in doing so, feminine fiction has matured as well as progressed postmodern literature. Carole Maso's Ava, published in 1993, is perhaps the masterful example of femmepomo fiction (my term), the introduction of Patricia Waugh's ideal feminine fiction into the postmodern world. Ava exemplifies the autonomous female subject in connection with the human community through its narrative as a whole, illustrating this separate identity in relationship with others through a "nontraditional" form used on the blank page. Ava is the story of Ava Klein, a story told by Ava Klein to Ava Klein from the reserve of her own memory. It is a story about a comparative literature professor who has tasted the experience of life with tongue perched under Life's very sap. Unfortunately, however, Ava Klein is also a woman who is dying of a rare blood disease. The length of the novel spans what the reader presumes to be the last day of Ava's life, separated into three segments, "Morning," "Afternoon," and "Night." Each labeled fraction of the day bleeds into the next, slowly draining the sensuality of images as the darkness fades in. And in each segment, the storyline has fragmented and inverted itself from the "classical" narrative plotline. Each thought, seemingly unrelated to its precursors and its "assumed progeny" of the storyline, is an individual memory, sensation, distortion of an Ava Klein life fact. But as one reads on, the story creates itself out of the circular whole. The lines/sections/segments of Ava spiral, exasperating that the nostalgia for life, not mere existence, for the woman who connected beyond any boundaries set. Images, lines, memories, as well as present thoughts and situations are repeated and recreated, circling backward into the past, forward into the futureless future, from morning, night, afternoon. The novel becomes a multiplicity of sensual and textual palinodes which coalesce to create a palindrome expressing the efficacy of femmepomo. It is among these three segments as a unit as well as in the interior of each respective segment that the reader witnesses the translation of Patricia Waugh's demand of feminine fiction into a typewritten illustration. It is the visualization of counterbalance rather than domination. The individual (Ava, a segment of the novel, a line/section of a segment) stands distinct, yet resides in communion with and is affected by those which surround her (people/places/ideas, the remaining sections, other lines and/or sections). The individual line may read, "We were working on an erotic song cycle" (Maso 32), but through the relationship with the story which succeeds its first inking, it matures into a deeper statement relating the continuous cycle of experience: "We were working on an erotic song cycle. It was called Toward a Female Subject" (Maso 52). "The repeated sentence. . . circles back to the discussion of the first scene. . .and suggests the permanence, recurrence and eternality of the human situation" (Waugh 97).
But it is not only in subtle repetitions or recantations that the autonomous female is illustration in connectedness with both human and natural subjects, nor is it merely in the form of these statements; it is in the written words of Maso-as-Ava. "The ideal, or the dream, would be to arrive at a language that heals as much as it separates. Could one imagine a language sufficiently transparent, sufficiently supple, intense, faithful so that there would be reparation and not only separation?" (Maso 163). "Hovering and beautiful alphabet --/ As we struggle to make meaning,/ where maybe there is none" (Maso 229). "Words are less integers than points on a continuum. Indeed one might well describe the structure of the lyric as the expression of the interval" (Maso 40).
Feminine can be read as the living, as something that continues to escape all boundaries, that cannot be pinned down, controlled or even conceptualized.Maso's authorial intrusion speaks through writers, critics, and other intellectuals as well as through the character/narrator of Ava Klein. The intertextuality of this expands the connection of speaker to the human community on a broader scale, benefitting from the words of others in the experience of living. The "feminine subject disintegrates into multiple voices and dispersed positions which. . .resist coercion into a unified whole which would conform to liberal definitions of the self" (Waugh 209). Maso/Ava states, "Language for women is closely linked with sexuality for Cixous. She believes that because women are endowed with a more passive and consequently more receptive sexuality, not centered on the penis, they are more open than men to create liberated forms of discourse" (Maso 51). However, the words or images of these individuals are not restricted to the female world (perhaps a very anti-Waugh move), for in order for the true connectedness of female with the human present, the male contributors must not be ignored. "Wittig's message here is that of action -- the act of writing, of creating new language -- is the overflow not only of words, but of the reality and the traditions these words have fashioned and perpetuated" (Maso 29).
Cannot be arrested, and which remains --
Elusive (Maso 160).
INTERVIEWER: What have you found most satisfying about your achievements?Maso exhibits her "Menard tendencies" to allow Ava to speak in unison with the past, to breathe as others have breathed. Ava is a subject in the conversation across linear time, in a space which is pastless and futureless, which is presence in unison. The space which is. It is in this space, this seemingly boundary or margin which breathes for Maso as well as the "hovering and beautiful alphabet" (229). Both the text and the silence which is contained in the space surrounding become equally necessary components of the novel. As the text symbolizes the explaining, the rational and provable, the white space is the unspoken, the non-rational, anti-intellectual, the violent and romantic breath, body language, the thoughts of the womb. "We forget that history is not built simply out of the 'admirable fabric of the masculine intelligence,' a sort of iron girder, but also through the areas between, the links and affiliative ties left to women to maintain" (Waugh 93). It is not emptiness. It is not stating, "There is nothing left to say," but rather, "There is everything left not to say." It is the proof that feminist writers are "ready for broader vowels and less mincing sounds" (Byatt 105). A montage of lines from Ava is perhaps the purest way of saying this:
FRISCH: Not only the so-called success, but that this success created a partnership, a communication with a lot of people whom I don't know personally, people of different generations and nationalities -- that's a great satisfaction. I'm astonished about it and very grateful (Maso 17).
We like to imagine that maybe there was music in the background. . . (Maso 209).
A brooding and crisp structure.
A classical formality.
So we might be spared. . . (Maso 199).
The imperceptibility of the text, the unconscious dimension that escapes the writer, the reader. . .(Maso 161).
Do not worry so much about our silences when they come. I hear you even then (Maso 248).
Maso tries to liberate herself as writer, and Ava as narrator, from the classical narrative form which suffocates and cramps. She uses the secretive space to include the sensuality of life, denying the kleptomania of words. "Only the secret is seductive: the secret which circulates as the rule of the game, as. . .(a) form, as a symbolic pact, which no code can resolve, no clue interpret" (Vizenor 102). There is a music in the spacious form, a quiet understanding that coagulates as one reads from line to line, a last dance of memory which is shared with the dying Ava. "Behemoth is danced in silence, and while it is a silence full of rhythms, the rhythms break off abruptly or disappear in long pauses" (Maso 78). The shifting among fragments of voices and breaking from subject to subject calls for the meditative field of white space which allows the reader to collect rational and non-rational in a circular exchange with the individual of Ava, with the feminist writer of Maso. Form and content produce meaning. The form of Ava does not betray the content of Ava. As seemingly random as each phrase appears, there is a purpose for its moment. As unnoticeable as the borders, the edge, the box which surrounds the text seems, allows for space to "touch then this moment. Caress it with your mind" (Maso 84) without limitations. "Neruda believed poetic form to be as dynamic as the processes of transformation and discovery. Form and content constantly shape each other like the elements of the ecosystem and this allows truth, infinite possibilities for expression" (Maso 190). Maso's form of Ava is the possibility of quintessential freedom. It is the representation of self in unlimited relationship with the mysteries surrounding this self. "The necessity for both separateness and relatedness, the connection of the symbolic to the realm of human emotion and the foundation of both upon loss and acceptance of its pain" (Waugh 15) is the elucidation of both the form and the content of Ava, creating a palingenesis of feminine fiction in the arena of masculine postmodern literature.
As a novice in the consistent inconsistencies of postmodern literature, I can only dare declare Carole Maso's Ava a masterful example of femmepomo fiction (emphasis obviously on postmodern) by means of comparison with postmodern works with which I am familiar. Patricia Waugh has admitted that many threads of feminist fiction embrace concerns shared by postmodern fiction (Waugh 6). It is my belief that Maso's Ava mirrors postmodern literature as much as postmodern literature mirrors itself. Ava does not merely dabble in postmodern writing techniques; it is a postmodern novel. There are parallels which have already been discussed: the preoccupation with liminality; lines/sections recreated as palinodes; authorial intrusion; intertextuality; the recognition and employment of the background, the white space. These are just some of the common techniques which are Ava-esque as well as being earmarks of postmodern fiction. Still other mutual fibers welcome this feminist novel into postmodernism: the blurring of genres/ "traditional" narratives; the question of the "truthfulness" of memory; sensuality/sexuality; all of which support and simultaneously recant Waugh's idea of a feminine fiction for the present postmodern age.
We postmodern readers find ourselves in a logomachy. Ava is subtitled "a novel." Similarly, the postmodern national bestseller Possession, by A.S. Byatt, is subtitled "a romance." Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried has been labeled "a novel," "an autobiography, " "a series of glimpses," "memory as prophecy," "a blend of poet realism and comic fantasy" (O'Brien, 'Acclaim' introduction). What is this classic need to categorize and label? I suppose it is necessary to know so one can find them in the segregated sections of a bookstore, but beyond that petty reason, it is as if by declaring a work as an example of a certain genre, the reader will be able to understand and approach the book on comfortable ground. I do not believe it is the case with any of the aforementioned postmodern works. Ava carries in its interwoven lines and segments a narrative, as fragmented and illusory as it is, but I am not sure that this alone makes Maso's work strictly a novel. The form of the work is placed on the page as a horizontal read, not a vertically-read page-turner the classical narrative is. The words are images and explanations set upon a background which allows the reader to instinctively remark for him/herself. The demarcated lines between the genres are diffused in form and content of Ava. The emotion of poetic language/non-language is pinned to a narrative character with a fictional life. Is Ava a poem? a story? an interior monologue?
Byatt's Possession could be found as a feast of genres and subgenres as well, not merely contained in the narrow category of "romance". Fiction, prose, poetry, letters (love and other than), journals, articles, are some of the categories selected by the "Great Ventriloquist" herself. To narrow, I feel, is to reduce its experimentation and masterful conglomeration of wit and logo-passion to a "tender love story."
The dedication of The Things They Carried reads: "This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa," all of whom are "characters" in the stories. Is this collection, then, autobiographical because of the (once) breathing men and the (supposedly) real situations in which they found themselves? But how can The Things They Carried be autobiographical when O'Brien writes such disclaimers as:
In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. . . The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed (O'Brien 78).
The collection is laced with palinodes, recanting everything written before. "The memory-traffic feeds into a rotary up in your head, where it goes in circles for a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in. . ." (O'Brien 38). "I'm forty-three years old, true, and I'm a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier . . . Almost everything else is invented" (O'Brien 203). It is almost impossible to decide which label to imprint the cover of the work of fiction. O'Brien tells us that these people/places/situations occurred. Although they happened, the stories between the covers of The Things They Carried do not portray the correct sequence of events, perhaps due to the imagination tainting the memory or by O'Brien's own hand. But does this mean that this is only a novel, devoid of autobiographical intention? It is obvious that these nor the previous questions can be answered in this paper, nor was it my intention to try to find and answer. The purpose of the inquisition is to accentuate postmodern fiction writers' (whether male or female) desire to erase the liminality of genres, to include and not exclude. The blurring and introducing of an abundance of ways to write is a puissant postmodern trait, expressing the need for the multiplicity of voices to speak. The labels don't "seem to matter. . .only that she thought something existed....It's the language that matters" (Byatt 62).
Because of the importance of memory in the formation and continuance of identity, the memory and its questionable realism and truthfulness is an obvious concern for postmodern writers. The calumniation of the "Truth" or the "Past" by a cataracted memory has already been touched upon in terms of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. He is not, however, the only postmodern fascinated by this pollution. Maso, in Ava, concerns herself as well with the glorification of a personal past. It is memory which collects the past into the decorative box of the present. It is the memory which commingles with imagination creating the landscape in which one resides. "What the story was -- and if not the real story -- well then, what the story was for me" (Maso 125). Ava is the memory which allows the suffering of the present to be enveloped in the sensuousness of the experiences of the past; a surviving of the present through the past. The stories keep Ava company and keep her alive. It is ". . .so powerful (a) yearning to memorialize what we've lived, inhabited, been hurt by and loved" (Maso, 176). Perhaps by reliving these fragmented splices of life, she is able to carry on in the present which looms as the gateway to her futureless future. Perhaps these companion memories are filtered through the imagination, but it is the only reality of which Ava is aware.
And what is company? What have we not done for its sake? For everything human we have made up, beginning with our names. Our laws, our quaint systems of kinship, our cities, our technology, a Victorian clergyman's carefully researched study of the Sumerian cosmology -- fiction all. We've made it all up. . .(Maso 130).
We've invented it all.
An omelette for the first course.
Father in a funny hat. He always tried to make us laugh.
The first chestnuts in their green burrs. Half open. Three mahogany fruit (Maso 134).
Memories blend. Memories fail in the end (Maso 144).
The circularity of Ava's past bombards her; this is all that remains in the end, the "autobiographical myths and metaphors of the imagination" (Vizenor 3). "Stories are a better past," (Vizenor 60) a better present.
Milan Kundera, as well, dissects the memory as opposed to the "True Past" in his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. On the first page, Kundera asserts that "the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting" (Kundera 3). Power of identity is retained in memory. Whether that be an identity of exhaustion or replenishment depends upon the memory. The memory, or the stories the imagination tells us of the past, creates an autonomous self beyond physical existence. To forget is to kill everything that resides in the white space of our minds. To forget is to undo. "The young man looks into her eyes and listens to what she has to say and then tells her that what she calls remembering is in fact something different, that in fact she is under a spell and watching herself forget" (Kundera 163). Survival is in the remembered memory, the past of the present identity.
"When we settle into the theatre of autobiography," wrote Paul John Eakin in Fictions in Autobiography, "what we are ready to believe. . .is that the play we witness is a historical one, a largely faithful and unmediated reconstruction of events that took place long ago, whereas in reality the play is that of the autobiographical act itself, in which the materials of the past are shaped by memory and imagination to serve the needs of present consciousness."
Survival is imagination, a verbal noun, a wild transitive word. . .the measured lines in our time, and place, are never the same in personal memories (Vizenor 263).
The remembered memory is oxygen for one's identity, as I believe Kundera and Maso/Ava both recognize. Perhaps memory cannot be trusted to give us a "True" picture of the events or thoughts as they "really" happened, but I am not sure anything can. In the postulation of O'Brien, "the truths are contradictory" (O'Brien 87).
Memory happens because of stored sensual experience. Whether it be the pain of a broken bone, the smell of half-eaten crabapples at Grandmother's house, or the tune of a Sinatra song, all memory is sparked and retained because of the initiation of a sense. Therefore, sensuality, or lack thereof, is an additional component in the formation of identity in a postmodern world as well. Sensuality is not synonymous with human sexuality. Sensuality is the cognizance and hoarding of the pleasurable aspects of life. "Living is happiness. Seeing, hearing, toughing, drinking, eating, urinating, defecating, diving into water and watching the sky, laughing and crying" (Kundera 57) One's sensual experiences are personal, chemically and involuntarily sparked, a segment of one's spatial past scorched by bacchanalian satisfaction. Ava is no stranger. The "salamander contentment" (Maso 118). of the images perhaps does not equal the hormonal tumultuousness of Kundera's ménage à trois, but the sensualization of the language and memories allows Ava to be just as erotic. "Tequila under a pomegranate tree" (Maso 30). "The smell of rosemary carried in on the fur of Salome" (Maso 22). "Black birds across a watery sky, drowning" (Maso 152). "The child eats an orange. The roosters crow. And everywhere, gladiolas" (Maso 82). "She puts her lips on the cup. He puts his lips on the cup. She bites the ripe and delicious fruit. He puts his mouth to the same place and sucks the juice. 'Wer ist dies Weib, das mich ansieht?'" (Maso 36). Every sense is exploded on the page, coloring the past of Ava and fleshing her life into 3-D images. She is the child with the orange. She bites the delicious fruit. She feels the hands of lovers around her waist with each sip of tequila. Sensuality is the fantasy of the already-lived and the yet-to-be-lived, "asserting a necessity and inevitability of fantasy in our lives, not as regressive or escapist, but as part of a drive for relationship as connection to others." (Waugh 168). Through the eroticism of the senses, the beauty of and the pleasure in connectedness to other individuals and objects can alter identity and change behavior toward language. It is existence through five lenses. It is five lenses speaking in one language of text and breaths, forming an autonomous entity.
Perhaps Carole Maso's Ava is not the first published piece of feminine fiction that can retain the title of femmepomo, but it is in my opinion the most illustrative. The feminization of language, the model of autonomous individuals residing in the circularity of connectedness, the merging of foreground (text) and background (white space) to compliment the full potential of human experience, seems more Waughian than even Waugh would believe. Ava is an impressionistic logography of feminine voices. It is feminine fiction. But it does not end there, for Maso bests Waugh in this literary event. While completely adhering to the demands of feminine fiction, Ava has proven that postmodern fiction cannot be the realm of the female writer. If anything, postmodern fiction has broken out a window to expand for the arrival of Ava, metamorphosizing once again to allow for a multiplicity of voices and experiments, regardless of gender. "To form these words" (Maso 90) as Ava states, is to feminize the ideas of postmodern fiction.
Byatt, A.S. Possession. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. New York:
Maso, Carole. Ava. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1993.
O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin, 1990.
Vizenor, Gerald. Interior Landscapes. Minneapolis: U of MN P, 1990.
Waugh, Patricia. Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern. New York:
©Copyright Julie Becker
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Byatt, A.S. Possession. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. New York: HarperPerennial, 1978.
Maso, Carole. Ava. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1993.
O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin, 1990.
Vizenor, Gerald. Interior Landscapes. Minneapolis: U of MN P, 1990.
Waugh, Patricia. Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern. New York: Routledge, 1989.
©Copyright Julie Becker