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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 995-1003

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The Perils of Disembodied Readership

Tim Engles

Kathryn Hume. American Dream, American Nightmare: Fiction Since 1960. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2000. ix + 359 pp.

James R. Giles. Violence in the Contemporary American Novel: An End to Innocence. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2000. xiii + 161 pp.

In these two studies, Kathryn Hume and James R. Giles explicate wide swaths of late-twentieth-century United States' literature, seeking its insights on, respectively, the ever-declining faith in "the American Dream" and supposedly escalating "urban violence." Hume offers a comprehensive overview of much recent American fiction that nicely introduces such works, while Giles focuses more closely on eight novels. While these studies make extensive forays into nontraditional literary fields, both of their approaches are grounded by mainstream American values, presumptions, and mores, and each finds much in recent American fiction that will dismay and even shock white middle-class readers. Hume and Giles do at times register an overt awareness of the normative presumptions harbored by themselves and by their presumed readers, but they persistently revert to a pose of supposed objectivity. Considered together, these two studies raise the question of just how self-conscious [End Page 995] the critic who is not writing from any discernibly marked social position might try to be; such a self-consciousness might help to avoid certain pitfalls brought about by trying to write objectively.

In her study of recent fiction that "expresses bitter disillusionment with America and the American Dream" (1), Hume summarizes and explicates roughly one hundred novels. She lays claim in her introductory chapter to an expansive receptivity, having selected works by disparate and "seemingly unconnected writers," with choices ranging from such regular standbys as Saul Bellow, John Updike, E. L. Doctorow, and Walker Percy, to such relatively new attention-getters as Leslie Marmon Silko, Kathy Acker, Ishmael Reed, and Carolyn Chute. Hume also tries to avoid preference in terms of ideology and genre, giving space to the paranoid fantasies of Andrew Macdonald's The Turner Diaries and the sci-fi speculations of Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, and Samuel Delany. She also notes briefly: "When my analysis builds on middle-class or white assumptions, I try to label them as such and offer alternative views" (8). Largely eschewing any particularly recognizable theoretical perspective, Hume reads in search of "important common ground" among these writers, who for her constitute not a Lost Generation, but a "Generation of the Lost Dream" (8). She groups her chosen novels into eight thematic chapters, beginning in "The Shocks of Transplantation" with depictions of the contrasts between immigrants' dreams and harsh realities. Little that is particularly surprising comes to light, and Hume moves on to survey various dissatisfied depictions of lost, "Mythical Innocence" and those "Seeking Spiritual Reality," on through "Demonic Visions" of hellish American and otherworldly contexts, disappointed descriptions of "The Fragility of Democracy," and much more.

At some points, Hume convincingly imagines the different readings that different readers are likely to produce. Especially laudable is her occasional acknowledgement of the significance of race- and class-based memberships for both minority and majority characters. For instance, she accurately labels Ray Bradbury's nostalgic paean in Dandelion Wine a particularly "white vision of innocence" (46), and she writes of John Updike's Harry Angstrom, "Rabbit at Rest develops further [an] image of Rabbit as America-or at least as the white America of his generation [. . .]" (120). Nevertheless, the implicit middle-class whiteness of her own perspective, and of her critical posture, rarely elicits much of Hume's attention; [End Page 996] this negligence problematizes her efforts toward theoretical neutrality.

Hume writes at the outset that she doesn't want to reproduce the readings variously striped theorists would produce, and that she is "trying to look at implicit value systems rather than imposing critical frameworks from without. Insofar as possible, [she] want[s] the books themselves to articulate their values" (8). Hume's introductory explanation of her project is quite brief, largely because she doesn't have an ostensibly complicated perspective to spell...


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