Missing Story: contingency and narrative in modern fiction and film
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The first study to examine the status of plot in the modernist novel and the integral role that commercial narrative film played in shaping it, Missing Story reads the modernist novel in conjunction with the evolution of cinematic narrative. It argues that an exemplary subset of modern novelists detected in narrative cinema of the early twentieth century an attempt to co-opt realist storytelling, and to ignore the social, political, economic, and philosophical reasons why modernist authors sought to displace realism. Plot has been considered anathema to a modernist narrative difficulty meant to challenge the ideology of Enlightenment progress and bourgeois values for which realist plot was assumed an aesthetic proxy. Missing Story, however, reveals that far from expunging realist plot, the modernist novel attempted to recuperate it in complex ways, and that cinema’s increased reliance on realist storytelling played a hitherto un-recognized role in this aesthetic crisis. Narrative film forced modern novelists to acknowledge the affordances of realist plot—its ability, in the nineteenth-century realist tradition, to generate coherent selfhood over time, to lend narrative shape to the changing tides of history, and to secure social belonging. My project shows how the novel’s relinquishment of realist plot thus generated a surge of contradictory textual dynamics and affective intensities in modernist narrative form and its characters. Demonstrating that modernist novelists were drawn to film’s powers of storytelling rather than abstraction, my project also revises recent scholarship on modernism and the new media. Even though media histories of modernism have broadened their purview to include a diversity of mass cultural—rather than solely avant-garde—texts, they still tend to focus on the breakdown of form and the ways that modernist literature sees itself in popular culture’s fissures and lapses. Through readings of works by Nella Larsen, William Faulkner, Djuna Barnes, Tod Browning, and Max Ophuls, I argue that it was commercial film’s ability to suture stories together—not to break them apart— that generated a formal and ideological crisis in the modern novel. That crisis, I contend, resulted from an intense ambivalence toward plot, ambivalence fueled by critique and colored by longing.