Suleri and the Reader: Postmodern or Anti-Postmodern?

Rachel Solotaroff '92 (English 137 1990)

Suleri's admission of her inability to provide definitions is the earliest signal of how she has positioned herself as an author, and what reciprocal role she would like her reader to assume. All the techniques that the postmodern author uses reflect not only the multiplicity of his or her own worlds, but also imply that the reader deals in similarly disjointed terms. In other words, if the author makes ad hoc associations, defying any conventional scripts, the implicit tone is hostile, and to survive the reader is expected to be similarly adept and even aggressive. This approach presupposes a separation between author and reader, for the writer declares his authority in mapping a complex ontological landscape, and assigns the the reader the responsibility to navigate that terrain. Bruce Chatwin adopts this strategy in In Patagonia, as he weaves his way through a variety of cryptic narratives much in the same way that he whacks his way through the jungle, across rivers, and along endless arid roads. He sets himself as the rugged traveller of this country designs a similarly rough narrative landscape, and expects his reader to be just as resourceful and hearty as he has been.

In contrast, Suleri, who obviously uses postmodern technique, blurs the distinction between her role and the reader's. We gradually realize that her inability to provide definitions and her other postmodernisms are intended, not to alienate us, but to draw us into the process of creating and negotiating this ontological landscape. Recognizing the limitations, and infinite possibilities, of her discourse, nationality, gender, religion, and so forth, and yet still wanting to write, she invokes the collaboration of the reader. At the close of the first chapter, she displays her precarious position with absolute candor, as she nearly breaks down all pretenses of authorial control and engages in direct dialogue with the reader. She plays out the scene in the classroom, on the topic of the third world, but the extensions are clear:

When I teach topics in third world literature, much time is lost in trying to explain that the third world is locatable only as a discourse of convenience. Trying to find it is like pretending that history or home is real and not located precisely where you're sitting, I hear my voice idiotically say. And then it happens. A face, puzzled and attentive and belonging to my gender, raises its intelligence to question why, since I am teaching third world writing, I haven't given equal space to women writers on my syllabus. I look up, the horse's mouth, a foolish thing to be... Against all my own odds I know what I must say. Because, I'll answer slowly, there are no women in the third world. (19-20).

Throughout this passase, Suleri parodies her own authority, referring to her words as "foolish" and "idiotic," her assessments coming "slowly," as she hesitates, acting against her better judgement. The ontologies she has set up, namely of the third world and of women, are not indelibly etched. The reader is not expected to navigate this map, but rather to question the contours of the landscape itself. Suleri readily admits the difficulties involved in divining meaning from one's own life, let alone putting such significance into words.
In her final chapter, after 170 pages of searching for meaning within names, stories, places, she finally tips her hand altogether: "I have always liked to see a vacant space intact--a room disinterested in seeming furnished" (173-4). Even if she were allowed to furnish her rooms, to fill her chapters, with the most ruptured, convoluted narratives imaginable, she would not necessarily choose that option. Her project is one of "combing through a day for some injunction of what is possible, impossible, to write." (174) Her honest intention is to find some shards of meaning, and the techniques of postmodernism best suit that purpose. But if meaning is not to be found, she would just as soon leave the chapter empty. The reader is encouraged to comb through Suleri's findings with her, and, for however vast and complex they may seem, they reflect not the difficulty and hostility of the author, but the infinitude of her task.

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Last modified 18 May 2001