Natural History

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Maureen Howard’s sixth novel both tells the story of a brother and sister, James and Catherine Bray, of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and does not tell it. On one level, it outlines the careers and inner lives of these two interlinked yet quite different characters. On another level, however, it implicates their histories with other, less personal ones, so that Catherine and James become interwoven in a fabric larger than themselves. Revealingly, Catherine becomes a weaver, and James’s career as a movie actor has something of the same work in it. He is a screen actor.

The larger histories which the careers of the two Brays embody are themselves both interrelated and distinct. They consist of the history of their native city, with particular emphasis on its most historically famous citizen, P.T. Barnum, as well as the history of American culture conceived as display, spectacle and performance. These histories in turn give rise to a structure based on different and conflicting perspectives, as well as to a conceptual scheme which brings into play various aspects of seeing and the types of believing which they generate.

The cultural and intellectual range and texture of NATURAL HISTORY is matched by its artistic originality. Formally and stylistically adventurous throughout, the novel most clearly accepts its own novelty as an artifact in a section called “Double Entry,” where, mimicking one of accountancy’s standard practices, or narratives, the author attempts to balance one page of text against a facing page of relevant annotations, illustrations, digressions, and commentary. By these and other, less spectacular but inventive formal devices, NATURAL HISTORY makes of its title a discreet pun, stimulating the reader to reflect upon all the bittersweet fun of our contemporary Vanity Fair.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. October 25, 1992, XIV, p. 1.

The Christian Science Monitor. December 14, 1992, p. 12.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, September 1, 1992, p. 1079.

Library Journal. CXVII, November 1, 1992, p. 117.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 25, 1992, p. 3.

The New Republic. CCVII, November 9, 1992, p. 46.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, December 3, 1992, p. 30.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, October 18, 1992, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, August 24, 1992, p. 58.

The Wall Street Journal. November 23, 1992, p. A12.