As much a metafictional thought experiment as a novel, British author John Fowles’s Mantissa
(1982) places Miles Green, a novelist in dialogue—and more—with his Muse, Erato (the Ancient Greek goddess of love poetry). The ensuing dialogue might be a struggle between a beleaguered novelist and the feminine principle which inspires him, a dramatization of Fowles’s own love affair with writing, or simply Green’s near-pornographic ravings in a hospital bed. The novel devotes much of its time to then-current literary theoretical trends, including postmodernism and feminist criticism, as well as diagnosing the state of the contemporary novel, and chewing over the criticisms most often leveled at Fowles himself, in particular, his misogynistic handling of female characters. Mantissa
received mixed reviews, with even positive reviews concluding that it is, in some respects, a failed experiment. Kirkus Reviews
summarized it as “an overextended intellectual vaudeville-sketch—alternately fascinating and tedious, with distinctly special, limited appeal.” The title means ''an addition of comparatively small importance, particularly to a literary effort or discourse.''
The novel begins as Miles Green wakes up in a hospital room. He appears to be suffering from amnesia, remembering nothing of his identity, and unable to recognize his wife. When his wife departs, a beautiful physician, Dr. Delfie, matter-of-factly begins to handle Green’s genitals, enlisting a curvy West Indian nurse to help stimulate the patient. In the face of Green’s protests that this amounts to rape, Dr. Delfie explains that “this procedure bears some resemblance to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” and is intended to cure his amnesia. Green continues to protest, so Delfie explains further: “All Nurse and I wish to do is enlist the aid of the third component in your psyche, the id. Your id is that flaccid member pressed against my posterior. It is potentially your best friend. And mine as your doctor.”
Protesting at this “infamous abuse of personal privacy,” Green struggles against the comely medical professionals, but he is unable to prevail. When he gives in, the spasms of his arousal are transfigured into the pangs of birth: “One last push. One more. One more. One last one.” Green is delivered of a manuscript, which upon inspection transpires to be the manuscript of the very novel we are reading.
The argument—and diagnosis and protest—between physician and patient continue, now transfigured into literary terms. Delfie reveals herself as Erato, the sexually voracious muse of amorous poetry, embodying one-by-one the feminine archetypes of Western (male) literature: mother, goddess, virgin, whore. Meanwhile, Green takes upon himself the mantle of spokesperson for “serious modern authors.” At the center of the novel is Green’s satiric credo: "Serious modern fiction has only one subject: the difficulty of writing serious modern fiction. First, it has fully accepted that it is only fiction, can only be fiction, will never be anything but fiction, and therefore has no business at all tampering with real life or reality….The natural consequence of this is that writing about
fiction has become a far more important manner than writing fiction itself. It's one of the best ways you can tell the true novelist nowadays. He's not going to waste his time over the messy garage-mechanic drudge of assembling stories and characters on paper.”
Green is fluent in the language of postmodern literary theory, denying the relation between a text and its author, while simultaneously celebrating himself as the author of texts which satisfy the requirements of university literature departments: “If you want story, character, suspense, description, all that antiquated nonsense from premodernist times, then go to the cinema. Or read comics. You do not come to a serious modern writer. Like me.”
Erato rejects Green’s position outright, arguing sulkily for the continuing validity of realism
and the observational novel. Erato also takes on the role of the feminist literary critic: “And I’ll tell you what a modern satyr is. He’s someone who invents a woman on paper so that he can force her to say and do things no real woman in her right mind ever would.” Her feminism also generates a line of attack against Green’s postmodern self-absorption: “All I ask is some minimal recognition of my metaphysical status vis-à -vis yours.”
As the dialogue unfolds, Erato reveals a little more of her Muse-nature, comparing Parnassus to “being in the Rolling Stones,” admitting that she wrote the Odyssey
and suggesting career moves to Green.
The argument also runs the gamut of the battle of the sexes, turning from teasing to marital rows to sadomasochistic foreplay. Occasionally their contest breaks into physical combat; more often it collapses into sexual shenanigans. Erato has the last word. She transforms herself into a submissive Japanese geisha—Green’s ultimate erotic fantasy—before transforming him into a goat-legged satyr. As he attempts to punish her for this trick, she disappears. His body is once again human as Dr. Delfie re-enters the room.