Labatt, Blair. Faulkner the Storyteller.
The appearance of Blair Labatt's Faulkner the Storyteller marks an unusual object on the radar of Faulkner criticism. It is probably one of the few books to be published this year in which such words as "extradiegetical" and "narratology" show up on a regular basis. Primarily useful as a neo-formalist treatment of the Snopes novels, this volume plunges into the machinery of Faulkner's storytelling, describing the scaffolding of his fiction and examining the persona who constructs it.
Labatt seeks to find out "how plot structures contribute to create the implied teller of the text" (ix). According to Labatt's argument, a unique personality can be identified as the implied teller in a given author's works through a detailed analysis of that personality's typical strategies of plot construction. Building on Wayne Booth's concept of the "implied author," Labatt would designate a discursively-constituted entity named Faulkner--"Faulkner," the implied author--whom Labatt sees as ultimately a teller of stories: "Faulkner the storyteller" thus serves as an appellation that "serviceably yokes [Labatt's] two concerns: the story and the implied teller" (ix). Although Labatt "does not make use of biographism, the use of biography to illuminate texts," this volume not only is "decidedly a book about Faulkner," but it also tries to discover who Faulkner the teller of stories is (xiii).
Attempting to move beyond treatment of narrative as simply plot summary, Labatt designates and defines the terms he will use and employs them in examinations of two more or less parallel sets of three short and three long texts. "Plot" differs from "story" by exploring causality of events, Labatt explains as he designates a series of distinctions that follow in suit--plot and story, plot and non-plot, events and contemplation, serious and sentimental plots--each of which exposes "the transitions and joints in the structure of the novels, the changes in relations within the community of the novel" (5). In other words, the machinations of plot interact with the machinations of what is not plot to render a work of fiction. This interaction occurs in "moves" of "agents," and borrowing from game theory, Labatt shows how a teller as an agent through and in accord with other agents contributes to a plot's transition in a series of moves from one form of "equilibrium" to another (6-12). Faulkner's plots, Labatt argues, are not contrived by the teller so much as generated by the individual wills of various agents, including presumably both characters and the teller. These plottings show great variety, and this variety serves both to "define 'Faulkner'" at the same time that "an implied 'Faulkner' reciprocally affects the plots he tells" (37).
The greatest portion of the book describes Faulkner's plotting strategies. Labatt first identifies plotting styles in Faulkner's short stories, devoting most space to examinations of "That Will Be Fine," "My Grandmother Millard and General Bedford Forrest and The Battle of Harrykin Creek," and "Mountain Victory." The plotting styles Labatt identifies in these stories provide the foundation for and transfer to his discussion of the Snopes trilogy--The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion--in which he identifies three major plotting styles: "a simple collision and recoil, a long and complicated series of strategies, and an anecdote-like reliance on a surprise ending," respectively (63). In his discussion of each novel, Labatt separates his treatment of plot and non-plot. In The Hamlet, the plot that drives the novel forward consists of the series of encounters between V. K. Ratliff and Flem Snopes, while various non-plot material (subplots and peripheral anecdotes) provides the context and meaning of the plot. The Town, on the other hand, proceeds through a number of successive moves, which include Gavin Stevens's efforts to "save" Eula and Linda Snopes as well as Hem's tactics in gaining respectability and eliminating rivals. The non-plot material includes the rehashing of material from The Hamlet in its series of monologues, the language of which accomplishes a hybridity in which the characters' "natural" speech patterns mix with Faulkner-the-teller's famous style. The Mansion spends most of its time delaying and obfuscating plot--which Labatt identifies as Mink Snopes's release from Parchman, quest to Jefferson, and murder of Flem--with such non-plot matter as the events that lead up to Linda's complicity in her father's murder, a "move" set up by Hem's final "move" in The Town.
The book concludes with a chapter that describes "Faulkner the teller." Summing up the Faulknerian plot as one in which "actions and inactions are assertive and are distributed among several agents making their own moves" (213), Labatt focuses on Faulkner's "mannerist" control, his "potency" as a maker of plots. According to Labatt, "Faulkner's mannerism takes the form of a combination of poise and virtuosity, of [what Ian Watt calls] humor and what Claude-Edmonde Magny calls 'magic'" (191). The terms humor and magic together describe Faulkner's potent control of his fictional world by highlighting the balance of his stance toward characters and his use of words to accomplish "things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme" (209), respectively. Ultimately, just as Homer can be known only through the texts assigned to that persona, Faulkner-as-revealed-through-his-texts may be understood as a humorist and magician in control of his fictional cosmos and able to render its happenings with extensive variety of plot.
As one of the comparatively few volumes that takes on the Snopes novels and one that elucidates the unique characteristics of Faulkner's voice and style, Faulkner the Storyteller certainly contributes to Faulkner scholarship. Its larger value is more difficult to ascertain, however, as it is something of a renegade text, with its formalist methodological approach that Labatt rarely interrupts to discuss what cultural, political, economic, or social implications may exist in the Faulknerian plotting styles he recognizes. Although the introduction claims that the study will not undertake mere plot summary, readers will probably think otherwise as they encounter page after page of recounting events and moves with little comment on what these elements do to render different visions of Faulkner's texts or the world. Even the conclusions that Labatt does draw prove unsatisfactory: pointing out that Faulkner uses a variety of plotting styles that are generated by his characters seems too general a project, proving perhaps that Faulkner is a "great" writer (a notion that Labatt hopes to resuscitate) but little else; an extensive comparison of Faulkner's plotting style with those of one or two other writers would have been helpful whereas Labatt's brief mention of other authors does not successfully manifest Faulkner's uniqueness.
This book will probably attain varied success according to readership. Faulkner scholars will find in it a new reading of Faulkner's texts with a number of fresh insights, although their initial intrigue with Labatt's neo-formalist work will likely give way to disappointment when they realize that he fails to debug formalism of its political blind spots; for example, these readers will probably be annoyed by his almost exclusive and largely unapologetic focus on white male perspective and canonicity. On the other hand, scholars writing about plot might find this volume a helpful reference but will want to range beyond its conclusions. The readers who could give this volume its warmest reception might be those studying and practicing the craft of fiction; fiction writers and writer-scholars may find Labatt's writerly approach to such an influential writer's techniques useful in developing their own styles. Focusing on Faulkner's plots is important, and Labatt's detailed work serves as a reminder of the need to examine these elements in intelligent ways. Inasmuch as reexamining the implications of plot construction is a needed activity in scholarship, scholars seeking to explore them in the future might find Faulkner the Storyteller a touchstone.
TAYLOR HAGOOD, Florida Atlantic University
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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