With its experimental structure; eclectic intertextual incorporation of other media; and predominance of popular forms over aspects of higher culture, Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman certainly lends itself to a postmodernist interpretation.
Kiss of the Spider Woman is Puig’s fourth novel, published in 1976, a time when postmodernist theories were first being promulgated. The ideas of the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin were also being translated into English around this time. Bakhtin conceived of the term ‘dialogism’, the notion that most literary texts were comprised of a hierarchy of disparate voices, and that these voices were in turn influenced by other preceding texts. He believed this concept to be of particular relevance to the novel as a genre.
Puig’s novel is a melange of disparate voices: a patchwork of diverse discourses drawn from films, popular song, drama, scholarly works and dreams. Puig’s use of footnotes outside his narrative text is also a significant voice in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Most of the footnotes are theories concerned with the development of homosexuality, they are erudite in tone, and bear an obvious relation to the character of Molina; as Valentin discloses to his cellmate “I know very little about people with your type of inclination” (p.59).
One striking characteristic that heavily influences Kiss of the Spider Woman’s postmodernist character however, as well as pertaining to Bakhtin’s theories, is the complete absence of a single authoritative narrative voice – even novels that may be considered dialogic still feature some sort of narrator. This structural decision reflects Puig’s own attitudes to class in his reluctance to be placed in a position of authority (or ‘author-ity’), to become a member of an elite. In Kiss of the Spider Woman, no particular voice is allowed to override another, not even the footnotes, or so it might seem, as it is important to acknowledge that Puig’s arrangement of his text, the juxtaposition of certain voices on the page, still exercises a small influence over which voice the reader might subscribe to.
Representation is inevitably associated with the narrative devices and stylistic techniques a writer may adopt to portray a certain subject. In Kiss of the Spider Woman, femininity is portrayed in a variety of features but most notably in the character of Molina. The films which Molina relates to Valentin comprise a significant portion of Puig’s narrative. Even the title of the book, which is reminiscent of a Hollywood B movie, refers in part to Molina, who, through the use of imagery and metaphor, is almost like a spider in the way that he appears to weave tales. Molina states that he cannot regard himself as other than a woman, and he always identifies with the heroines of his films. In Cat People, the first film Molina relates, the heroine Irena is glamorous, isolated, and harbours a sexual secret, both her and Molina being characters that are outside the rules and regulations of a patriarchal society that enforces strict codes of sexual behaviour.
At the beginning of the narrative, the character of Valentin appears to be representing certain notions of masculinity, expressed through his devotion to political causes and his initial disdain for Molina’s love of popular culture. Valentin is shown to be studying although the reader learns little of the books he is actually reading, in contrast to Molina’s detailed accounts of his favourite films. A consideration of genre provides some insight into the nature of masculinity in the novel, as Kiss of the Spider Woman features two ill-matched male characters, similar to numerous US films such as The Odd Couple, and in literature there are several precursors, such as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza or Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The figure of Scheherezade from the Thousand and One Nights is also significant to an appreciation of Molina, in the way that Valentin’s cellmate appears to be relating tales as a means of postponing his imagined execution. However, it is the figures of Arachne and Ariadne which are perhaps most pertinent to an understanding of Molina’s central role in the book, in that Valentin’s cellmate could either betray or assist him.
To use a Bakhtinian term, Kiss of the Spider Woman is certainly not ‘monologic’. Through the ‘bricolage’ of disparate elements, and absence of an authoritative narrator, the reader must be extremely wary of extrapolating any sort of opinion from Puig’s novel. In evaluating the representations of masculinity and femininity in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Puig focuses far more on the womanish Molina and his supposedly feminine concerns. In his opposition to the dictates of a patriarchal society, Valentin appears to be asserting that gender is an ideology constructed category. However the polyphonic nature of Puig’s text ultimately means that no particular assertion prevails.