Over the last 2 1/2 decades, Guy Davenport and Gilbert Sorrentino have come to be recognized as two of the leading postmodern fiction writers, that is as fiction writers working against the normative patterns of psychological realism established by authors of the 1940s and 1950s such as Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and John Cheever. Of course, fiction--even 20th-Century fiction--has always included far more than the psychological novel allowed, as Davenport and Sorrentino are well aware. In this sense, perhaps, it is a disservice to confuse these writers with something standing entirely apart from the modern tradition. For Davenport's interconnected stories, "The Jules Verne Steam Balloon" owes more to the high modernist collage-fictions of Max Ernst and to the pre-modern philosophical treatise-fictions of Soren Kierkegaard than to the self-referential modes of much of contemporary writing. And Sorrentino's "Rose Theatre" is, as is all of his fiction, deeply steeped in the modernist novels of Flann O'Brien and James Joyce.
Indeed, Davenport's story-series might be best illuminated in the context of a modern masterwork of interrelated tales such as Eudora Welty's "The Golden Apples." True, where Welty and writers like her use myth and history as symbols to reveal the psychological complexities of the lives of ordinary characters, Davenport employs outlandish figures who inhabit a world in which myth and history are demeaned, forgotten, or downright dangerous. In "Pyrrhon of Elis" the Skeptic philosopher Pyrrhon levels all meaning--in an ironic reversal of Descartes--by doubting the existence of everything around him, including himself: "I may not be, I think." In "We Often Think of Lenin in the Clothespin Factory," the characters speak nostalgically of art and artists from Pushkin, Canaletto, Rilke, and Robert Walser to the Aleksandr Deineka, "Workers' Summer Vacation Pool" and "Lenin Taking a Walk in His Car" as if all were equal. And in "Bronze Leaves and Red," Davenport approaches the unforgivable in writing a tale in which our century's monster, Adolf Hitler, is represented as living in an idyllic world of social calls to Wagner's widow, chess games, music, macaroons and metaphysical discussions. These stories present, in short, exactly that world which Welty and so many other great modern writers feared for us.