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Saving History.

Some concept of history has been important to all definitions of the postmodern. Howe's work fits many of these schemes, but none of them seems to be large enough to encompass completely her project. For example, in The Deep North (Sun & Moon, 1988) the main character, Gemma, suffers from a Baudrillardian fluidity of selves, yet it is through a Hutcheonian examination of the significance of a particular past that Gemma begins to center herself. This is not to say that Howe ultimately refuses to forsake the premodern notion of the individual so that a vestige of Renaissance humanism can remain. Fanny Howe offers the impossible, something that seems a contradiction in terms: a spiritually transcendental postmodernism.

Howe's narratives have been, like the early Christian Perpetua's, testimonies of suffering. The "saving" of Saving History means redemption: who shall be saved and how shall they be redeemed? Can Felicity Dumas, the protagonist, a homeless woman who becomes involved with a man who smuggles human organs across the Mexican-United States border? Can Tom, a lawyer who befriends Felicity? Can Temple, the smuggler, be welcomed into the eternal temple? One reads Howe and has the sense that the poorest are the best and the wealthiest are the worst. ("It is easier for a camel to . . .")

However, Howe is neither a preacher nor a moralist for a material age. There's more to this work than simply that. Saving History offers the presentation of a problem, not its dogmatic solution. Howe uses many different techniques to make this presentation of suffering and possible salvation, of religion and politics in postmodern America. For example, she sets realist writing in an unusual context to elicit a unique response from the reader. She places at intervals long passages of poetic or prayerlike meditation. She uses multiple, shifting points of view. Also, the typography and layout of the novel are both various and rigorous. Howe often uses nonindented paragraphs that become blocklike in their solidity to build the narrative by wellpaced accretion of event and detail. Indeed, she accentuates this visual technique in The Deep North so much that each page has the appearance of a tablet. Saving History uses this typographical form as well as others, such as italicized "prayer" passages and uniquely set-off dialogue.

Howe meets most people's expectations and assumptions about a novel, but also challenges and enlarges those beliefs. For instance, Howe writes compelling stories. What could be more suspenseful than a mother's attempt to find an organ donor for her dying daughter, a search that leads the mother across borders and into an underground organization of body-parts pirates? Howe also addresses contemporary issues of race, class, and gender in her writing. So, for these reasons the novel should appeal to many readers. To read this very special and unusual book of Fanny Howe's wherein characters face humiliation, annihilation, justification, and perhaps even sanctification and regeneration (Howe is too faithful not to doubt) is to question the technologically supreme, but ethically corrupt present. Such questioning may be too perilous for many of us, enmeshed as we are in the immediate moment and ever certain that history cannot save us. Embrace the perils of Howe's prose; reap its rewards.
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Author:Barone, Dennis
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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