Rameau’s Niece is a good-natured parody of the contemporary intellectual elite and of the empiricist tradition against which they have reacted. Deconstructionists, feminists, and Marxists reveal themselves at their most absurd in Schine’s novel. Dinner-party conversation reflects on the liberation of the signifier. A French student of American popular culture pontificates that literature is merely the acquisition and distribution of cultural capitalism. An art critic, Lily, explains that restaurant menus are a sign of male domination and that the Gulf War was a patriarchal invasion into the vaginal gulf. These highly educated, middle-aged people are still comparing their SAT scores and have nothing more to say to one another than ‘What is your field?’ and ‘What are you working on?’
In its swipe at academicians, Rameau’s Niece takes its place alongside David Lodge’s Small World and A. S. Byatt’s Possession. In addition to parodying those who purport to possess truth in contemporary culture, however, Rameau’s Niece also questions, in good postmodernist fashion, whether truth is attainable at all. Margaret Nathan, the novel’s protagonist, discovers an eighteenth century pornographic parody of Enlightenment philosophy entitled Rameau’s Niece, which she determines to have been based on Denis Diderot’s dialogue Rameau’s Nephew. When Margaret’s analysis of Rameau’s Niece is finally published, critics point out that the parody actually predates the publication of Rameau’s Nephew and therefore could not be based on it. After several weeks of mortification over her error, Margaret comes to the conclusion that it may be her job only to seek the truth, not to find it.
Even when the novel does suggest that truth is...
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