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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., once said something to the effect that one of the reasons that there are so many murders in America is that so many novels end that way. In other words, violence demonstrates both the focus and the failure of the American imagination. In The Spaces of Violence, James R. Giles investigates how the contemporary American novel sustains as it anatomizes the "mediated distance" between violence and its readers (xiv), discussing how ten exemplary fictions recapitulate the ritualistic structures of violence only to discover the distortion or disqualification of its traditional compensations. The sheer diversity of Giles's selections, featuring texts by Sherman Alexie, Dorothy Allison, Russell Banks, Don DeLillo, Bret Easton Ellis, Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy, Lewis Nordan, and Robert Stone, and including summary judgments of works by Edwidge Danticat, Toni Morrison, Chuck Palahniuk, and Jane Smiley, suggests the range and sheer pervasiveness of the theme. The space of violence extends from rural to urban environments, from backwaters to bedrooms to battlefields to boardrooms, and from naturalistic to surrealistic depictions. That so many environments host or determine violent behavior simultaneously invokes the nature versus nurture debate and renders it moot. To be sure, the consistent evidence in these novels is that violence—obsessive, excessive, inexorable—is the sociological and psychic norm, while peace seems positively anomalous. Every venue contains fissile material, and the possibility of corruption is as much a part of us as our flesh. The human lot is that most people suffer, many cruelly and insurmountably so, and some rather spectacularly. And it would be poor consolation to those who feel marginalized by the violence they face to learn just how crowded the margins actually are.
Giles adduces such luminaries as Bataille, Girard, Foucault, and Nietzsche in the service of his examination, but its dominant method [End Page 895] and chief value is its close, articulate readings of its evidentiary texts. Approaching them from the direction of "violence studies" (5), Giles makes the case for novels like Alexie's Indian Killer, Johnson's Angels, and Nordan's Wolf Whistle as meriting further critical attention and inclusion in college curricula, even as he reminds us why consistently regarded novels like DeLillo's End Zone, Ellis's American Psycho, and Stone's Dog Soldiers have proved enduringly provocative and rewarding to critics of contemporary fiction. But as one wades through the gruesome, even voluptuous delineations and painstaking diagnoses of gore, he comes to wonder whether these novels ameliorate or cater to violence, further perpetrating (in a particularly intimate fashion) the atrocities they chronicle. There is something pornographic, after all, about becoming enraptured by the sexual terrorism inflicted on Allison's Bone or by the vivid eviscerations of Ellis's Bateman. The virtuoso style with which, say, Russell Banks describes Wade Whitehouse's immolation of his father's body may very well represent for some readers a kind of blasphemy in the sense that its parallels to religious ritual might ascribe to it a dignity or justifiability when it is really just naked brutality on display. Concluding his discussion of American Psycho, Giles states, "The reader, through submersion in Ellis's tunnel of raw space, is left wondering and unnerved; the novel is fiction at its most assaultive" (174). It is not mere philistinism that may lead that reader to ask: How and when does recapitulation translate into renewal? How is violence committed within fiction to be distinguished from violence committed within society or against the reader? In what sense does craft seem callous and does lyricism count as an additional indecency, a verbal equivalent of Nero's fiddling?
In discussing Nordan, Giles notes that his being a white author writing about the 1955 Emmett Till lynching in Mississippi places him in a tenuous situation in that he "must be constantly alert to the trap of unintentionally validating such brutal repression by the mere act of writing about it" (61). In fact, the caution applies to all writers who risk such ventures. Confrontation with violence in the regulated space of the page could lead to a...