Fish hooks and desert places: Space and the reader in the fiction of John Hawkes


The novels of contemporary American fiction writer John Hawkes are commonly labeled experimental, postmodern, surrealistic. While they share characteristics with each of these loosely defined categories, what really distinguishes Hawkes's fictions is their radical humanism. Hawkes's fictions seek to be experienced by the reader and in so doing expose and expand who we are. In these concerns Hawkes is more easily associated with such writers as Flannery O'Connor, Nathaneal West and William Faulkner. While each of Hawkes's novels is significantly different, all actively encourage the reader into the text--without the benefit of a magnetic plot or characters with whom it is easy to identify. Hawkes uses empty space--areas of "not knowing"--much as Faulkner uses character and O'Connor plot to draw the reader into his fictions where the violence and beauty of the images and prose assail, exhaust and affirm the reader. Four types of empty space are examined: textual gaps and blanks, landscapes of desolation, silence, and sexual and ethical assault. While these ideas are discussed with reference to all of Hawkes's fiction and to other contemporary novels as well, extended discussion is given only to four of Hawkes's novels: Death, Sleep & the Traveler, Whistlejacket, Travesty, and Virginie: her two lives. Reader-response and psychoanalytic criticism, and several philosophical approaches to space are explored in the process of delineating those ideas which link physical, philosophical and ethical "holes" in Hawkes's texts to provocation, response, and vulnerability. Ultimately the center of the argument rests on vulnerability--how Hawkes's fictions render us unusually vulnerable, and how such vulnerability is vital to the intensity and satisfaction of the reading experience

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