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Cambridge University Press 2002

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Selection, too, is construction

To New York Times readers, the journalist's narrative probably has the greater texture of reality. And it may, in fact, be more accurate. But it is important to bear in mind that, as narrative, it is as constructed as the narrative "Khadafy" tells. The details we get, if not invented, are nonetheless chosen from a great number that were left out. They are privileged details that strongly color how we see the central figure in the journalist's story.

What this brief analysis shows is how multiple parts of a narrative con­tribute to its rhetorical effect. If you are not persuaded that in narrative every single thing signifies (as Barthes contends), you can still see from this analysis how minor details, parts that are quite unnecessary to the story — like supplementary events and the setting — can exert considerable rhetorical leverage on the way we read. It also shows how masterplots and types that an author shares with his or her audience are drawn on to establish the frame­work within which the narrative can be seen as credible. "Khadafy" selects a masterplot that plays to the powerful third-world desire that weakness on the global stage can prevail against the hegemonic strength of dominating nations. The journalist draws on a perhaps equally powerful desire among the Times readership to see the frightening figure of Khadafy as a clownish tyrant, ignored even in his own land.


Selected secondary sources

Wayne Booth's landmark 1961 study, The Rhetoric of Fiction, is almost equally a study of the rhetoric of narrative as it is found in novels. For an in-depth study of causality in narrative, see Brian Richardson's Unlikely Stories: Causality and the Nature of Modern Narrative. Jonathan Culler develops the concept of "naturalization" in Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature, Ithaca Cornell University Press, 1975, pp. 134-60. Hayden White's books are an extended study of the ways in which historians have drawn upon narrative coherence and other devices of narrativity to convey the sense of historical plausibility. A good sampler of his work on the importance of narrative form in the representation of history, and the one of his many books I would recommend reading first, is The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. You might want to put beside White's work the psychologist Jerome Bruner's "The Narrative Construction of 'Reality'." A searching analysis of a masterplot (and implicit endorsement of my use of the term in this chapter) can be found in Peter Brooks's chapter, "Freud's masterplot: a model for narrative" in his Reading for the Plot. But masterplots frequently undergird literary, historical, and cultural studies. Variations on the Horatio Alger masterplot, for example, form the analytical spine of works like William A. Fahey's F. Scott Fitzgerald and the American Dream (New York: Crowell, 1973), Elizabeth Long's The American Dream and the Popular Novel (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), Doris Kearns Goodwin's Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), and Jane Flax's recent study of the Clarence Thomas hearings, The American Dream in Black and White (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).


Additional primary texts

Examples of narrative's power to account for things through its normalizing function are legion. It is, in fact, hard to think of narratives before this postmodern age that do not give a sense of causation. As I mentioned above, a common element in the narrativity of narrative is the sense of coherence, and particularly coherence that derives from a linear structure of cause and effect. One genre in which the normalizing function of narrative, including its structure of cause and effect, becomes especially intriguing is autobiography. Not infrequently an autobiography is a defense of an autobiographer who has made some controversial life choice. When John Henry Newman left the Church of England and converted to Catholicism, he was accused of bad faith and hypocrisy. His defense of his action was an autobiography titled Apologia pro Vita sua (1864), the title of which means roughly, "a defense of his life." Exactly one hundred years later, Malcolm X did much the same thing when he found himself in a similar situation after leaving the Nation of Islam. Defending himself meant laying out the stages of his life in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964) to show how they followed each other in an understandable causal sequence. A wonderfully comic fictional treatment of narrative's rhetoric of normalizing and explaining can be found in Eudora Welty's short story "Why I live at the P. 0." (1939). Finally, much absurdist fiction draws on reader expectations of the normalizing function to do just the reverse. In its first sentence, Franz Kafka's famous tale "The Metamorphosis" (1915) hits the reader with a puzzle that is never explained: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."9 Samuel Beckett's Molloy (1951) renders profoundly mysterious the whole question of cause - why we do what we do, including writing about why we do what we do - in back to back fictional autobiographies.

Just as most narratives of any length work with our expectations of causal order, so too do they work either with or against masterplots. Children's literature is crowded with variations on the story that success crowns hard work, beginning with "The Little Engine that Could" and "Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel." The more specific version of this, the Horatio Alger story, not only has its numerous variants in American popular literature, but also stinging critiques that take the story and drive it to a tragic or farcical end. F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), is a devastating expose of the masterplot's mythic status in American culture, as are two landmark novels by African-American authors: Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). As always, it is worth keeping in mind that any work that goes beyond stereotype is going to impress its individual differences on the masterplots it recreates in its narrative discourse.

Chapter 5
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