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Novels From Reagan's America: A New Realism
Joseph Dewey. Novels From Reagan's America: A New Realism. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1999. ix + 288 pp.
Challenging the "critical commonplace that the flowering of realism in the 1980s was a corollary of Reagan's conservative nostalgia, an embarrassing throwback to a mossy literary artifact," Joseph Dewey argues that the realistic texts of the period should instead be valued for their "honest engagement against influences [. . .] understood to be fraudulent." Foremost among these fraudulent influences are "the verbal density and self-validating play of the postmodern avant-garde," precisely those texts most celebrated in recent criticism. Building on the familiar idea that "the audacious excess of the lexical play zone of the typical postmodern text shares much with the vocabulary that defines the vast sophisticated play zone of the contemporary theme park," Dewey extends the analogy to include a third term: Reagan's America, that "magic kingdom" where virtuous good guys triumphed over an "Evil Empire" and where "we could make all the bad drugs go away by just saying no." Positioned against not only the deliberate rejection of the immediate, [End Page 501] material world encoded within both Reagan's rhetoric and postmodern fiction, but also the characteristic pattern of oppressive decline in "traditional realism," the "new realism" of Dewey's subtitle insists upon the affirmative possibilities of direct engagement and complex experience. Its primary goal is "to remind us that the immediate, so long dismissed as shabby and disappointing, dazzles and amazes, devastates and elevates, challenges and confounds"; Dewey thus labels it "spectacle realism."
The bulk of Dewey's discussion of the specific form of spectacle realism occupies eight chapters, each addressing a single novel published between 1986 and 1991: Joyce Carol Oates' You Must Remember This, John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, Reynolds Price's Kate Vaiden, William Kennedy's Quinn's Book, Robert Ferro's Second Son, Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons, T. Coraghessan Boyle's World's End, and Richard Powers's The Gold Bug Variations. This nonchronolgical ordering of the books is significant, for Dewey's readings of these texts are "shaped into a thematic narrative that follows a movement outward, from withdrawal to engagement." Thus, the first few texts are figured as cautionary tales about the dangers of isolation and illusion, while the later narratives present central characters becoming more and more capable of "heroic gestures of painful engagement" through which they learn to accept "the radical benediction of the immediate." While this structure unifies Dewey's argument, it also becomes unwieldy and unnecessarily monolithic as the book progresses. By the late chapters, the cumbersome lists of similar and contrasting characters, symbols, and events from his earlier readings threaten to drown out his direct encounter with the particular text at hand.
More seriously, Dewey's insistence upon the unbroken continuity of his project places undue strain upon each facet of it; the relatively delicate sense of affirmation that marks the end of Breathing Lessons, for example, is made not only to bear the weight of Tyler's narrative but also to serve as "the pivotal argument of spectacle realism." If this move proves unconvincing to Dewey's reader, the entire chain of his argument can too easily be broken. Indeed, it is in the subsequent chapters, dealing with Boyle and Powers, that the project becomes increasingly difficult to sustain. This is due not only to the hyperextension of Dewey's determining design, but also to the very forms of the novels he chooses to culminate it; both World's End and Gold Bug are sprawling, multileveled texts [End Page 502] that might easily be read as contributing to "the massive achievement of the postmodern novel," the very form Dewey wishes to suppress. Particularly in the Boyle chapter, Dewey is unable to convincingly argue in the face of such scale for the special significance of the particular moments and characters he identifies as crucial to his argument.
If the excessively rigid form...