- Major Themes in the Contemporary American Novel
It has been a critical consensus that American fiction after World War Two does not allow general assessments in a sweeping way. Against this critical backdrop, however, Korean scholar Ji-Moon Koh seeks to embrace in his perspective the major concern of the contemporary American novel. Koh attempts to point out a consensus of opinion as to the direction of social changes by showing how the postwar American novelists focus their vision on the most critical issues of the individual and society in an era of vast technological change and social turmoil. Consequently, he seeks to define the major concern of these writers as a moral claim on our imagination.
Koh confines his study to major themes of nine signal novelists: Joseph Heller's "Struggle with Dehumanization," J. D. Salinger's "Problem of Being," Ralph Ellison's "Search for a True Self," Carson McCullers' "Ethics of Love," Reynolds Price's "Appraisal of Love," Saul Bellow's "Conception of Freedom," John Gardner's "New Definition of Morality," E. L. Doctorow's "Idea of Justice," and Bernard Malamud's "Renewal of the Human Spirit." Koh's penetrating explications of selected novels and short stories of these writers focus on absurd protagonists who undergo a change from alienation to affirmation, in most cases by making an effort to transcend their suffocating conditions and to create at last a new life through the power of imagination. The unswerving moral concern evident as Koh pursues this process of change in the protagonist is made explicit when he writes, "art teaches us the value of life, of living, and of other human beings." If his remark sounds familiar, it should, for the themes he explores are familiar themes of human possibility, themes thriving in our embrace of human values such as love, freedom, morality, and justice; and all [End Page 433] of these values constitute "the goal of human existence which moves toward making no distinction between subject and object." The basis of Koh's sympathetic approach is the notion of art as affirmation that art can change our society by improving our conceptions of reality.
The personal sympathy that accompanies Koh's literary analysis has its costs. He is so preoccupied with revealing the process of transformation from alienation to affirmation in almost every protagonist that he sounds reductive as when he sums up: "Heller's conclusion is that man can prevail with effort and direction." Further, this book would have enhanced its excellence as a selection of the leading views on the direction of social changes rapidly taking place around us if it had included Thomas Pynchon and John Updike to represent the variety and scope of contemporary American fiction.
Granted his literary analysis sometimes does little more than reiterate established American scholarship of the past few decades, Koh's study does offer fresh insight for an understanding of the contemporary American novel: contending that the notion of merging subject and object is essential to postwar fiction, Koh identifies that notion as the essence of Oriental philosophy. Whether he is fully convincing, his study deserves pur attention and encouragement for celebrating fiction as a real force for "making the world human without mistaking it for something other than it is."