Postmodern fiction in America often extends the novel beyond its conventional generic boundaries. Such writing, David Harvey explains, is "necessarily fragmented, a 'palimpsest' of past forms super-imposed upon each other, and a 'collage' of current uses, many of which may be ephemeral" (66). American postmodern writers, according to Nicholas Zurbrugg, create a literary montage that "interweaves and accepts the copresence of differing discourses and conflicting categories" (56). Horst Ruthrof describes this strategy as a "schema of 'openness,'" in which "meaning is...something on the move, a dynamic which at times is deceptively slow but never comes to rest in social discourse" (30, 32). These writers often set their formal textual innovations in the context of parody, satire, and irony, developing a form that features a carnivalesque delight in irreverence. Few authors exemplify this type of writing better than Donald Barthelme. Considered by many to be the pioneer of American postmodernism, Barthelme probably is the writer mainly responsible for bringing this free-spirited and highly self-conscious strain of writing to the forefront of American literature.
As a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, Barthelme has a well-established reputation as a writer of quixotic short stories and caricatural sketches. In addition, he has published a number of "novels," of which his first, Snow White, is a playful mid-1960s counter-cultural, incongruous reconstruction of the popularized Disney version of the traditional fairy-tale. Set in the modern-day world, Barthelme presents Snow White not as a virginal maiden, but as a tall seductive woman who habitually makes love in the shower with her attendant dwarfs. Very different from their fairy-tale prototypes, these dwarfs occupy themselves by washing buildings and by "tending the vats" (18) in which they prepare their father's recipes of Chinese baby food. Snow White self-consciously waits for her prince figure - named Paul - who is busy trying to come to terms with his destined role, his heroic form. After a series of humorous, self-conscious meditations, he enters a monastery, then quits, journeys around the world, and finally returns to New York. There, he sets up a complex underground surveillance system, complete with trained dogs, to watch over Snow White, who in turn is being conspired against by the villainous Jane, "the wicked stepmother figure" (82). True to form, the vindictive antagonist attempts to poison Snow White, but Paul intercepts the drink, consumes it himself, and dies. Barthelme's version of the tale ends with the dwarfs departing, but not before hanging one of their own clan, having found him to be guilty of "vatricide and failure" (180).
As much as Barthelme thus exhibits what Mikhail Bakhtin would describe as a Rabelaisian subversiveness, however, it is another aspect of Bakhtin's theorizing that I propose to enlist in this essay. Specifically, I intend to show how the interweaving of various discourses - which I would now emphasize also characterizes Snow White - constitutes an example of what Bakhtin has called "heteroglossia" and "dialogism." Similarly, I want to draw attention to the manner in which the mosaic or collage aspect which characterizes Barthelme's novel extends beyond mere verbal pastiche and includes the graphic in the fashion which W. J. T. Mitchell has associated with the politics of iconology. By approaching Snow White from these theoretical perspectives, I hope to demonstrate that Barthelme engages in more than superficial deconstructionist expressions of reflexivity and in more than indeterminate textual play merely for the sake of play; rather, I wish to argue, Barthelme's strategies take the form of a poetics at once his and postmodern, through which he engages in a playful retelling of a fairy tale and, at the same time, pokes fun at contemporary society by challenging conventional hierarchies of meaning, philosophic systems of thought, and psychoanalytic notions of subjectivity.
In an attempt to draw attention to the value of polyphony in both a social and artistic context, Bakhtin championed the novel (over older epic forms of writing), with its presentation of language as an open system of signification, as a genre capable of challenging monophonic voices. In Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Bakhtin objects to the tendency to see language as merely a "system of mathematical signs" (2).(1) He argues that the "whole utterance is, after all, defined by its boundaries, and these boundaries run along the line of contact between a given utterance and the extraverbal and verbal (i.e., made up of other utterances) milieu" (96). These "lines of contact" lead to a view of language as "a generative process implemented in the social-verbal interaction of speakers" (2). Reading words and narratives as being in a "dialogue" with their surrounding historical-cultural space means in turn that language, the novel, and the world itself are all open to change and different perspectives. In "Discourse in the Novel," Bakhtin focuses on how the "intentional diversity of speech" within a novel transforms itself "into diversity of language," leading to "not a single language but a dialogue of languages" (294). The novel expresses such a dialogue through its inclusion of diverse linguistic styles, social dialects, and "dialogical angles" that overlap and play-off one another. Bakhtin explains that forces of diversification and "stratification" (289) in language and society lead to a dialogic interaction between words and meanings, with each having the ability to influence the other. Accordingly, through his various discussions on the nature of literary polyphony, he argues that a primary strength of the novel lies in the way that it addresses "the problem of artistically representing language, the problem of representing the image of a language" (336).
By neither using words in a strictly vehicular manner nor containing their expression within predetermined codes of meaning, Barthelme dramatizes Bakhtin's call to represent language artistically. Reading Snow White from this perspective enables us to see that his innovative textuality is not confined to what Stanley Trachtenberg calls "convoluted wordplay and seemingly taxidermic distancing" (15) and that it also results in a style that goes beyond what Alan Thiher calls "a mad recording machine for the voices of hysteria, repeating themselves in such a way that language loses all reference except to denote its dysfunctional nature" (149). For Barthelme, these are means, not ends, in his battle against stale language; his rejection of conventionality is in the interests of offsetting what he calls the "blanketing effect of ordinary language" (96). Referential language that is already stale becomes, for him, "a model of the trash phenomenon" (97-98). Snow White's disquietude about words themselves, for example, reveals a frustration precisely at enclosure within worn-out vocabulary and, hence, systematized thought: "OH, I wish there were some words in the world that were not the words I always hear!" (6). As if granting her wish, Barthelme has her declare, "I am tired of being just a horsewife!" (43). These statements reflect Snow White's struggle against a world oversaturated with teleological discourses, language which also consigns her to impersonality and passivity.
To prevent predictability of language and, coextensively, blind consent to their implied meanings (and ideologies), Barthelme constructs his narratives almost entirely out of word-play and language games. For example, in an attempt to appease Snow White's desire to hear new words, the dwarfs try to create new expressions and distinct images. While rejecting the possibility of "fish slime," mentioned by one of their visitors, the dwarfs are able to suggest only what they admit to as another "weak" suggestion: "Murder and create!" (6) - nonetheless, an expression that enables Barthelme to invoke and debunk T. S. Eliot's "Prufrock." Foiled, the dwarfs conclude that they "have been left sucking the mop again," but their actual success can be seen in the manner in which Snow White later repeats this expression when she discovers that Hogo de Bergerac no longer holds her in the "highest esteem": she feels that she has "been left...sucking the mop in a big way" (158). Through such phrases, Barthelme attempts to build dialogues out of what he presents as ubiquitous verbal garbage. Another strategy involves extending words beyond their already determined meaning and denotations by combining the literal with the figurative. Thus, after declaring that "THERE is a river of girls and women in our streets," the dwarfs observe that the neighboring town also has "a girl-river there they don't use much" (15). The word "river" overshadows "girl," which it is meant to modify. Such scenes, in which the characters simultaneously unify and dislocate meaning, show that a text can contain a spectrum of (at times contradictory) meanings, reasoning, and implications. By including these playful moments in Snow White, Barthelme exposes the subversive power within linguistic and imagistic domains and, in fact, within the individual and social subject itself.
Barthelme's consistent destabilization of conventional language coincides with his creation of disjunctive and indeterminate narratives. For example, while describing their daily activities, the dwarfs often combine unrelated, at times contradictory, ideas without any apparent logical links: "THEN I took off my shirt and called Paul because we were planning to break into his apartment" (13). Paul himself also occasionally juxtaposes random thoughts and fragments of different ideals, such as when he is commenting on his own state: "When I am 'down' I am able to pump myself up again by thinking about my blood. It is blue, the bluest this fading world has known probably...but on the other hand, this duck-with-blue-cheese sandwich that I am eating is mighty attractive and absorbing, too. He was peculiar, my father" (27-28). Within these fast-paced narratives, Barthelme further introduces a range of other narrative fragments into the story-line, such as Hogo's offer to the IRS to inform on the dwarfs, Snow White's listing and detailed cleaning of her household items (38), Bill's worrying about being followed by a nun in a black station wagon (71), or the dwarfs' dream that they burned or, rather, "cooked Snow White over the big fire" (109). By continuing to de-limit language and introducing a range of other (often unrelated) narrative and discursive fragments, Barthelme engages in an ongoing exploration of the properties, relations, and structures of both actual and fictional worlds, thus extending his text beyond the parameters of the expected and the realistic. This narrative design, in turn, allows him to suspend the characters' own notions of certainty and progression in themselves; instead, it promotes alternative interpretations, perceptions, and conceptions of knowledge and different aspects of being-in-the-world.
In "Not Knowing," a commentary on style in contemporary writing, Barthelme explains that when set within an interdiscursive context, words "are not inert, rather they're furiously busy....have halos, patinas, overhangs, echoes" (47). He adds that by bringing the "combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning" to the forefront, the writer can expose "how much Being we haven't yet encountered." By moving away from tight and closed semantic frameworks, Barthelme configures a new ontological status for his text and "makes art possible" (48). In particular, he develops a heteroglossia that allows him to explore the intricacies of his characters' minds and, at the same time, to enter into diverse discursive worlds.
Barthelme's strategy of making words "busy" in his fiction coincides with Bakhtin's recognition of the novel's "plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses" (Problems 6). In the novel, Bakhtin explains, individual and social voices interact with a wide range of social, historical, and physiological contexts. While pointing to this type of interaction as a central aspect of the dialogic process, however, Bakhtin is careful to reject "relativism and dogmatism" which, he explains, "equally exclude all argumentation, all authentic dialogue" (Problems 69). From his perspective, genuine polyphony requires a responsible or answerable dialogue; it requires a resurrection of "the word that really means and takes responsibility for what it says" (Marxism 159). Yet far from demanding a close bond between the word and its already predetermined meanings, what such "responsibilities" entail is an open and transformative signifying process.
Applying his theories of dialogism and polyphony to differentiate between notions of wholeness and continuation in the individual subject, Bakhtin is critical of the epic hero whom he regards as finished, complete, and "hopelessly ready-made." Such a character, he contends, remains tied to a "monochronic and valorized" past that is characterized by a fixity, remoteness, invariability and uniformity ("Epic" 34, 15). Within fiction that reflects this vision of a closed and completed past, Bakhtin detects a lack of "testing the hero...testing his discourse" ("Discourse" 388). By contrast, he finds that in the novel voices are "not self enclosed or deaf to one another. They hear each other constantly, call back and forth to each other, and are reflected in one another" (Problems 75).
Barthelme also rejects "self enclosed," epic-styles of fiction. Through his reflexive narratives, he enacts Bakhtin's call to test heroes and their discourses or, on a theoretical level, he engages in what Bakhtin describes as "aesthetic contemplation" which involves seeing "an individual object...from inside in its own essence" (Philosophy 14). For example, while acting like the main character from the fairy-tale Rapunzel, Snow White also perceives the literary and cultural significance of her act: "This motif, the long hair streaming from the high window, is a very ancient one I believe, found in many cultures, in various forms. Now I recapitulate it, for the astonishment of the vulgar and the refreshment of my venereal life" (80). She again deviates from the pursuit of her prince when she expresses frustration at a lack of fulfillment in her life by criticizing the crowd below her window for just "standing there, gaping and gawking," instead of helping "to supply the correct ending to the story" (132). Through such scenes in which Snow White contemplates the significance of her own inter-textual and literary image, Barthelme delays and modifies the traditional plot and, at the same time, draws attention to the (un)making of the story itself.
By neither reiterating finalized visions of the past nor restricting himself to a simply conceived contemporary world, Barthelme opens his version of Snow White to diverse ideologies and, accordingly, a "dissident" perspective - a term used by Paul Maltby to describe how Barthelme strives to "illuminate the social context in which the problem of meaning arises" (45). Similarly drawing attention to the problematic interrelationship that Barthelme establishes between his characters and traditionally perceived verities, Larry McCaffery observes: "Barthelme's characters find themselves constantly confronting worn-out systems which fail to operate successfully....Psychiatry, existentialism, literary criticism, and Freudian psychology are among...[his] favorite targets" (104). Barthelme, however, does not satirize and critique these various systems of thought from any fixed position, just as his method does not involve associating them with particular characters. Rather, as Peter Berek explains, Barthelme "creates brilliant emblems of intellectual quandaries without resolving those quandaries in action" (38). He thus develops a textual space in his narratives for the active emergence (instead of merely passive inclusion) of a variety of other discourses.
One such discourse that Barthelme parodies throughout the novel involves psychoanalysis. Specifically, he toys with the idea of "reading things into things" (107) and of giving everything an origin in mental states such as suppression, depression, and oppression. The dwarfs, for example, use textbook terminology in their attempt to diagnose Bill: "Withdrawal is one of the four modes of dealing with anxiety. We speculate that his reluctance to be touched springs from that. Dan, another dwarf, does not go along with the anxiety theory....Dan speculates that Bill's reluctance to be touched is a physical manifestation of a metaphysical condition that is not anxiety" (4).
Along these lines, the "hero" Paul also analyzes himself and recognizes that he prefers inaction, and that far from being happy in the traditional role of fairy-tale prince, he desires to be discovered as a new television star (78). Snow White also uses a psychoanalytic vocabulary while trying to understand both her own self and her desire for Paul: "Is there a Paul, or have I only projected him in the shape of my longing, boredom, ennui and pain?" (102). The dwarfs, as well, engage in stereotypical psychoanalytic behavior, as when Henry confronts his sense of psychic isolation by "noting his weakness on a pad." When Dan arrives, and Henry asks "What is an interrupted screw?" Dan ignores the obvious sexual overtones and provides a technical explanation: "An interrupted screw...is a screw with a discontinuous helix, as in a cannonbreech, formed by cutting away part or parts of the thread, and sometimes part of the shaft" (29). During this exchange, language reflects back on itself and seems deliberately (and humorously) to obfuscate clear communication.
A related discourse that Barthelme alludes to and parodies is philosophic writing. Heidegger, for example, is comically invoked when the narrator examines Snow White's notion of being: "She lives her own being as 'not-with'....But the 'not-with' is experienced as stronger, more real, at this particular instant in time, than the 'being-with.' The incompleteness is an ache capable of subduing all other data presented by consciousness" (70). By intertwining such extra-textual discourses within his retelling of the traditional tale, Barthelme establishes a multi-leveled text: on the level of the story, he playfully highlights his characters' sense of despair and isolation; beyond the story, he parodies literary applications of psychoanalytic and philosophic discourses.
In addition, Barthelme opens his narrative to expository or theoretical discourses. Brian McHale describes the type of postmodern fiction that upsets conventional boundaries between fiction and non-fiction as "stories about theory" (545). One such "story" that Barthelme incorporates is the letter that Jane writes to Mr. Quistgaard, a person she chooses at random from the telephone book. She begins her letter by explaining the reason behind her decision to write to him: "I have seized your name...in an attempt to enmesh you in my concerns." She then engages in a series of abstract observations about meaning in their lives:
You and I, Mr. Quistgaard, are not in the same universe of discourse....We exist in different universes of discourse. Now it may have appeared to you, prior to your receipt of this letter, that the universe of discourse in which you have existed, and puttered about, was in all ways adequate and satisfactory. It may never have crossed your mind to think that other universes of discourse distinct from your own existed, with people in them discoursing. You may have, in a commonsense way, regarded your own u. of d. as a plenum, filled to the brim with discourse. You may have felt that what already existed was a sufficiency. People like you often do. That is certainly one way of regarding it, if fat self-satisfied complacency is your aim. (44-45, emphases mine)
Within this humorous passage, Barthelme draws attention to Jane's often serious observations, while at the same time mocking the often repeated use of the celebrated structuralist expression "universe of discourse" in critical writings. In general, such passages contribute to his ongoing parody of the nouveau roman style of reflexive narratives, suggesting that, for Barthelme, analytic literary vocabulary itself can become as stale as any other language.
In the process of intertwining voices and discourses in a manner which Bakhtin would designate as heteroglossic, Barthelme also extends the already active relationship among words, people, texts, and ideologies, to include the corporeal. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin explains that "the intersection of many languages" occurs not in abstraction but at points of "intense interorientation" or close connection to the physical world (471). In this context, language, speech, and dialogue take on "special forms...permitting no distance between those who came into contact with each other and liberating the norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other times" (11). He, accordingly, praises Rabelais for writing fiction "that would make possible and would justify the most extreme freedom and frankness of thought and speech" (271). This type of expression, Bakhtin concludes, can become subversive, as people feel free to rebel against authority, mock higher social classes, and celebrate the physical body in an open and frank manner.
Dramatizing Bakhtin's promotion of the corporeal as part of a literary expression of interorientation, Barthelme links his characters' linguistic free-play with a bodily promiscuity. For example, he presents a scene in which the dwarfs openly steal Paul's Olivetti 22 typewriter:
It was a fine Olivetti 22, that typewriter, and the typewriter girls put it under their skirts. Then George wanted to write something on it while it was under their skirts. I think he just wanted to get under there, because he likes Amelia's legs. He is always looking at them and patting them and thrusting his hand between them. (50)
Here, the dwarfs establish a literal connection between the writing process and sensual or even sexual expression. They also reveal their almost constant interest in sexual matters. By developing a bond between text and bodily imagery throughout the novel, Barthelme thus exposes another level of inter-play between Snow White and the dwarfs.
In addition to intertextual references, Barthelme further develops his textual openness by adapting the principle of mosaic or collage from the visual arts. Specifically, he juxtaposes fragments of discourses, imagery, and narratives without, however, coordinating these "pieces" in an overall unity or predetermined design (other than an approximate resemblance to the fairy-tale). Commenting on his esthetic strategy in general, Barthelme has described his "structural concept" (a term he borrows from the visual arts) as an interplay between mediums: "What I tried to do...was make music out of noise." He then details his idea of noise: "It has nothing to do with sensory assault; it has to do with bombardment." For Barthelme, "noise" includes story fragments, reflections or commentaries of the characters, discourses from popular culture, and graphic images. To arrange his texts "in a mosaic fashion," he juxtaposes "one little piece of noise to another little piece of noise." Accordingly, he describes his mosaics or textual collages as "all this noise pulled together and then turned up very high - increase the volume" ("Interview" 43-44). It is important to note, however, that Barthelme rejects mere random compilations or what critics of postmodernism like Terry Eagleton dismiss as its "depthless, styleless, [and] dehistoricized" form (61). Instead, Barthelme compares his strategy to the artistic "collage...the aesthetic idea being...[to] put together land]...build up...interesting bits."
Through this type of hybrid artistry, Barthelme establishes what Mitchell, in his reading of word and image conjunctions, calls an "unstable dialectic that constantly shifts its location in representational practices"; for Mitchell, text and image interact in a dynamic manner, "breaking both pictorial and discursive frames and undermining the assumptions that underwrite the separation of the verbal and visual disciplines" (Picture 83). He develops this perspective in his critical reconsideration of Joseph Frank's frequently cited theorizing of "spatial form" in modernist literature (in which the written text is linked to temporality in its articulation of sounds in time, while visual art is interpreted in terms of spatiality in its depiction of forms and colors in space). Mitchell argues for the need to extend beyond reading fiction in terms of temporality and to recognize that spatiality "seems to pervade the experience and analysis of literature at the level of the material text, in the world described or projected by the text, in the formal order which controls the sequence of elements, and in the semantic orders which emerge in acts of interpretation" ("Introduction" 7). "Literary spatiality," he explains, includes "notions of formal, architectonic design, [and] images and symbols which provide semantic or structural totalizations" (Iconology 100). Attention to literature's spatial form thus helps to generate multiple focal points that, in turn, reveal the dynamic relation between word, image, text (written and graphic), and subjectivity.
Barthelme's inclusion, in many of his works, of both actual pictures and textual graphics (visualized letters and words) literally extends his narratives beyond their traditionally perceived temporal framework. In doing so his practice accords with Mitchell's contention that "traditionally 'deviant' or 'experimental' phenomena such as emblems, hieroglyphics, pictograms, and concrete poetry may well appear as the anomalies which suggest and require new paradigms for understanding verbal space in general," whereby reading emerges as a "visionary (not merely visual) experience" ("Spatial Form" 296, 297). Within his re-writing of Snow White, Barthelme prompts such "visionary" readings, shifting from traditional notions of temporality and spatiality as independent to considering them as interdependent (but not necessarily complementary). His introduction of graphic designs juxtaposed with the written text is in keeping with Mitchell's contention that both "the language of images" and pictorial representations themselves are not the "object of a...temporalizing interpretation but [are]...the interpretative framework which spatializes the temporal arts of...music and literature" ("Introduction" 7).
In addition to using graphics to challenge what Mitchell regards as the presupposed hegemony of the textual form, Barthelme also uses these graphics to illustrate what Bakhtin calls expressions of "extreme freedom and frankness" (Rabelais 271). At the outset of Snow White, for example, he describes her as a "dark beauty" and then goes on to spoof conventional expectations by focusing specifically on her multiple beauty spots. After listing their locations on her body, he describes a pattern: "All of these are on the left side, more or less in a row, as you go up and down" (3). He then provides an abstract depiction of their position on Snow White's body:
By featuring graphic art at the opening of the novel, Barthelme thus immediately extends his text beyond the written word and points to spatiality itself as a significant dimension of the (de)signifying process.
In Snow White, Barthelme also includes various kinds of documents and draws attention to their format. One of these is a survey that ranges from questions about the story to the reading process itself, as the following excerpts suggest:
2. Does Snow White resemble the Snow White you remember? Yes () No ()
5. In the further development of the story, would you like more emotion () or less emotion? ()
7. Do you feel that the creation of new modes of hysteria is a viable undertaking for the artist of today? Yes () No ()
8. Would you like a war? Yes () No ()
9. Has the work, for you, a metaphysical dimension? Yes () No ()
10. What is it? (twenty-five words or less)
14. Do you stand up when you read? (Lie down? () Sit? ()
15. In your opinion, should human beings have more shoulders? () Two sets of shoulders? () Three? () (82-83)
By including this questionnaire, Barthelme not only addresses America's fascination or even obsession with surveys and statistics, but also engages in literary self-consciousness. Defining this general strategy of Barthelme's as "self-reflective," Maltby argues that his fiction "examines and exposes the process of its own composition, thereby revealing its meaning as the construct of so many (literary) codes and conventions" (42). By developing such reflexive moments throughout Snow White, Barthelme is able to comment directly on his presentation of the story and, in the process, he playfully subverts meaning and systemic discourse.
Through his textual graphics, Barthelme also ironically highlights his own ideology, as when he devotes an entire page to one sentence in bold print and capitalized typeset:
ANATHEMATIZATION OF THE WORLD IS NOT AN ADEQUATE RESPONSE TO THE WORLD.(178)
While thus parodying "bold" slogans, he also uses the technology to call for (perhaps ironically) an active involvement with the world and an engaged stance in life. In much the same spirit, he deviates from standard typesetting and lineation in depicting popular aspects of psychoanalysis:
WHAT SNOW WHITE REMEMBERS: THE HUNTSMAN THE FOREST THE STEAMING KNIFE(39)
By emphasizing these phrases, Barthelme satirizes Freud's notion of free-association at the same time that he invokes the method to expose the reductive nature of the presumed link between words and what they mean to an individual.
Barthelme, however, is also aware of the danger of words losing their meaning altogether, and to illustrate this danger he occasionally includes instances of textual free-play that are suggestive of Foucault's destructive type of "heterotopia," a "disorder" that contains "fragments of a large number of possible orders [which] glitter separately in the dimension, without law or geometry" (xviii). The impact of such reified language is similar to what happens, according to Bakhtin, when "discourse is torn from reality": when "words grow sickly, lose semantic depth and flexibility, the capacity to expand and renew their meaning in new living contexts - they essentially die as discourse" ("Discourse" 353-54). Barthelme skillfully dramatizes both Foucault's chaos and Bakhtin's notion of dead language in the context of Snow White's recollection of events, inserting extra "gaps" to highlight her frazzled attention to abstract concepts and concrete images, and her diverse trains of thought:
Seven is too moves too much and is absent partly different levels of emotional release calculated paroxysms scug dissolve thinking parts of faces lower area of Clem from the noses's bottom to the line, an inch from the chin cliff. (31)
While contemplating her situation, she continues to experience seemingly random thoughts:
Informal statements the difficulties of ownership and customs surprises you by being Love exchanges paint it understanding brown boys without a penny I was bandit headgear And the question of yesterday waiting members clinging clear milk of wanting fever hidden melted constabulary extra innings of danger hides under the leg resume. (103)
By distorting normal spacing between words, Barthelme highlights the removal of discourse from reality and the loss of meaning and referentiality. A number of these disjunctive semiotic networks appear in close succession toward the end of the novel, graphically distinguished from the rest of the conventionally printed text through the use of bold capitalization, ellipses, and unusual lineation:
SNOW WHITE THINKS: WHY AM I...GLASS...HUNCHED AGAINST THE WALL...INTELLIGENCE...TO RETURN...A WALL...INTELLIGENCE...ON THE...TO RETURN...HE'S COLD...MIRROR...(166)
Faced with a barrage of fragments from a variety of discursive worlds, Snow White is forced to engage in a reevaluation of her sense of self well beyond her role in the traditional tale.
Bartheleme's fiction, therefore, provides a provocative working example of how Mitchell's theorizing about text/image relations can be conjoined with Bakhtin's notion of heteroglossia in which ideas can be presented, affirmed, and challenged. The result is a mosaic or textual collage which has affinities with postmodernist destablization but which carefully avoids textual reification; what anchors Barthelme's allusive texts in Snow White is the protagonist's specific quest for a prince and her general search for meaning in her life. Maintaining the playful tone he had established at the novel's outset, Barthelme signals the end of his parodic reconstruction of the fairytale with a bold-printed eschatological headline: "THE FAILURE OF SNOW WHITE'S ARSE" (181). Nonetheless, he subtly resists both closure and pessimism by revealing that the dwarfs, possibly having acquired some insight, continue their at once actual and conceptual quest:
THE HEROES DEPART IN SEARCH OF A NEW PRINCIPLE HEIGH-HO(181)
An interdisciplinary reading of Snow White provides an appropriate framework to examine how Barthelme develops a simultaneously stylistically creative and playfully subversive narrative that focuses less on the actual and more on the imaginary. Within his profoundly self-conscious narrative, he consistently sets a broad range of textual and visual references that allude to a variety of social discourses and esthetic forms in a narrative space that continuously oscillates between the literal and figurative. Through his promotion of this type of free-flowing inter-referentiality, he strives less to complete and more to disassemble the contemporary individual and social subject without, however, simply erasing central voices (what can be termed as the "death of the author" syndrome in literary deconstruction). By establishing an open-ended text that rejects synthesis - textual or ideological - Barthelme devises a "mirror" that reflects his at once distinctly playful and postmodern view of the subject, the word, and world as interrelated and constantly transforming phenomena.
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<<Source: Mosaic (Winnipeg), Dec 1997 v30 n4 p109(15).>>
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