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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 392-394
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Margaret Scanlan. Plotting Terror: Novelists and Terrorists in Contemporary Fiction. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2001. xi + 199 pp.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the popular novelist Tom Clancy, known for his doom-laden airport entertainments, suddenly appeared to be both prophet and clear-sighted observer of an appalling new reality. Clancy's lurid scenarios of stray nukes and demonic terrorists now read as inspirational texts for government policy. For writers of a more literary cast, terrorism has also proved an alluring subject, but here the comforting moralities of the blockbuster give way to troubling questions and unsettling ambiguities. Yet the novelist's dubiety can serve as an important corrective to the current climate of patriotism and paranoia. For this reason, the appearance of Plotting Terror, Margaret Scanlan's probing study of contemporary fiction and terrorism, is particularly welcome. Although completed prior to the events of September 11, Scanlan's book, which focuses primarily on novels published between 1979 and 1998, sheds light on issues of cultural engagement, violence, politics, and the mass media that are now more pertinent than ever.
Plotting Terror traces the earliest encounters between novelists and terrorists to works by Dostoevsky, James, and Conrad, wherein the writer and the revolutionary emerge as secret sharers, doubles, and antagonized pairs. Such curious propinquity persists in the wide range of contemporary fiction that Scanlan examines. Plotting Terror has extended readings of works by several major Anglophone writers (Rushdie, DeLillo, Lessing, Stone, Roth, and Coetzee), as well as fiction by less celebrated novelists such as Eoin McNamee and Antoine [End Page 392] Volodine. Scanlan convincingly argues that contemporary writers have inherited the romantic idea that the individual, whether revolutionary or writer, can alter the course of history. But under the terms of this inheritance, the question of agency manifests itself as a zero-sum game. Change, in other words, can be achieved by an individual prepared to act, with figurative or literal violence, outside the structures of civil society. Alternatively, the efforts of the writer or revolutionary are futile, and reflection is prey to despairing visions of the system's relentless capacity to neutralize or absorb all opposition. To this analysis one might object that Scanlan omits a rather different lineage for the politically aware writer, that of the public intellectual who, from Zola to Sartre, Berger, Said, and Chomsky, speaks and writes against authority. Among Scanlan's chosen writers, Mary McCarthy comes closest to this tradition, but in her novel Cannibals and Missionaries, discussed at length in Plotting Terror, she despairs of the intellectual's capacity to understand, let alone ameliorate, the political ills of the modern world. Several of the novelists Scanlan addresses compound this embittered sense of inutility with an anxiety about the complicity of representation and terror.
For the most pessimistic of Scanlan's novelists, the writer faces an unavailing struggle to control the means of representation; television shapes reality in a way the terrorist can exploit, timing atrocities for maximum exposure or disseminating the image of a hostage. Out of such unpromising circumstances emerge temptations that the novelist resists with difficulty. There is, as Scanlan demonstrates, a tendency to sacrifice social and historical detail for expressive power (DeLillo's Mao II is at fault here), or to seek reductive psychological explanations for terrorist acts (Doris Lessing's Good Terrorist faces this charge). But even where the writer is credited with greater power, as Scanlan shows in her analysis of Coetzee's Master of Petersburg, writing itself takes on an uncanny resemblance to an act of violence.
Plotting Terror impresses in several ways. Its striking range of reference—the novels examined come from a variety of national traditions (the US, Britain, France, Switzerland, and South Africa)—is grounded in thorough historical research and serves as a reminder that terrorism is now part of the global imaginary of contemporary politics. The threat comes from the other side of the world, but also from within our national borders, as Scanlan notes in an epilogue which looks at...