Dr. Adam R. Beach Recommends “Finn: A Novel” by Jon Clinch

In the latest installment of our “Recommended Reads” series, Dr. Adam Beach, assistant chairperson to the Department of English, recommends Finn: A Novel by Jon Clinch.

Some of my favorite books are those modern or contemporary novels, sometimes called metafiction, that rewrite a classic piece of fiction from a different point of view.  For example, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which is perhaps my favorite such book, rewrites Jane Eyre (1847) by focusing on the life of Bertha, the madwoman in Rochester’s attic, and her life in the Caribbean as well as her marriage to Rochester, events that are only dimly referenced in Charlotte Brontё’s novel.  Another of my favorites in this line, J.M. Coetzee’s Foe (1986), takes a postmodern approach to Robinson Crusoe (1719) by giving us the doomed figure of Susan, a woman who was shipwrecked on Crusoe and Friday’s island.  Susan paints a rather dim picture of Crusoe, his domination over Friday, and the island itself—the first part of the book represents Susan’s narrative account of the island, which she subsequently gives to the author “Foe” upon her return to England in hopes of getting it published.  This Daniel Foe adds a fake “de” to his name, and in Coetzee’s book, becomes both an appropriator of Susan’s work and its enemy, for he takes her story, writes her out of it, and creates one of the most enduring British—and highly masculine—imperial fantasies.

Generally, then, the best metafiction rewrites the original stories by giving voice to those that have been silenced or repressed within them.  As the two examples above attest, these voices are usually those of the oppressed and the marginalized who did not necessarily have access to the cultural networks that would allow them to create enduring representations of their lives.  The recent novel Finn (2007) by John Clinch takes quite a different approach to the genre of metafiction than these two examples in that it tells the story of Huckleberry Finn’s father from Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).  While a marginal character in Twain’s book, Finn certainly is not an oppressed one, even if he suggests otherwise in his drunken diatribes against the government and black people.  While Finn is awful enough in Twain’s book, he comes to life as a malevolent, tormented, evil force in Finn, an even more violent, racist, and misogynist figure than he is in the original.  In this way, Clinch works to bring to the fore some of the more disturbing and grotesquely violent aspects of nineteenth-century American life by amplifying them through the figure of Finn in ways that Twain only gestures at in his ostensible book of boy’s adventure fiction.

Clinch starts his book with Twain’s description of the strange room where Huck and Jim find Pap Finn dead—as you might recall, the room is in a house that is floating down the Mississippi River and is filled with all kinds of strange clothes, objects, and writing on its walls.  Clinch writes his novel in an extremely clever way so that his readers eventually come to realize the importance of all the items in that room.  We follow the story of Finn as he wends his way towards his inevitable violent end in the unmoored house that so surreally floats down the river.

Along the way, Clinch creates a kind of parallel world to that of the Adventures, a much darker and bizarre geography full of brutality and degradation.  Clinch’s own narrative starts with a flayed body floating down the Mississippi river, which is described in graphic and clear-eyed prose.  This sets the pattern for Clinch’s novel, which narrates horrible atrocities with frightening regularity in a way that is meant to trouble Twain’s more subdued narration.  Early on, a blind bootlegger unknowingly eats strips of human flesh that Finn presents to him as a gift; Twain’s “king” morphs into a pedophilic, raping, and murdering preacher with whom Finn becomes briefly and violently entangled; and Finn engages in ceaseless brutality towards Mary, a slave woman he owns, hates, and desires and who, the novel eventually reveals, is Huck’s mother.  A biracial Huck is certainly one of the most provocative and interesting parts of Clinch’s parallel world, and he writes an alternative history of one of American fiction’s greatest characters—in the process, he adds yet another wrinkle to the many debates about race that have animated our study of Twain’s classic.

In the end, I feel that Clinch’s novel is not as powerful as Wide Sargasso Sea and Foe because we are meant to be so appalled by its main character.  However, I still highly recommend the book as another excellent example of metafiction, one that certainly challenges and expands the novel that it rewrites in a highly productive manner.  In Clinch’s novel, Finn constantly turns to short, assertive sentences to express himself, and his most common refrain is, “I know it.” Rather than ratify Finn’s simple epistemological confidence, however, Clinch asks us to question and to probe and to wonder what we can ever know for sure about classic literary texts and all of the stories that they leave untold and buried in the dark recesses of history.

Clinch, Jon. Finn: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2007.

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