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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 372-374
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Elizabeth Wheeler. Uncontained: Urban Fiction in Postwar America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2001. x + 301 pp.
Evoking the context of the Cold War policy of "containing" Communism, Elizabeth Wheeler contends that between "WWII and the mid-sixties, imagery of containment dominated urban American fiction" (1). Without explaining exactly what comprises "imagery of containment," what constitutes the canon of "urban American fiction," or what form this domination took, Wheeler argues that, in fact, the domination was illusory, that numerous works of urban fiction redefine our notion of "containment."
To develop this discussion, Uncontained deals almost exclusively with counterexamples. Wheeler claims, for instance, that "a pervasive containment story [links] the postwar city to the lone, alienated, often violent man" (1), supporting this claim primarily with discussions of two works not written in the postwar period: the film Double Indemnity (1944) and Chester Himes's If He Hollars Let Him Go (1945). In the process, Wheeler acknowledges that those works neither represent post-WWII fiction nor exemplify "containment" fiction. Uncontained deals with the full spectrum of 1950s short fiction similarly by employing a rubric delimited solely by two counterexamples. Fifties short stories, Wheeler tells us, "have a smooth and polished surface belying their stressful underpinnings" (48), and the two stories supporting this assertion—one by John Cheever and one by Hisaye Yamamoto—use "emotional containment to express uncontrollable emotions" (49). Comparing the stories, moreover, "refutes [sic] the huge gender gap in fifties culture" (49).
Since, as Wheeler points out, segregation is a form of containment, she groups novels by Gwendolyn Brooks, John Okada, and [End Page 372] Walker Percy in yet another category because these books were written, as the chapter title explains, "before and after" the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision and because the "novels turn inward, just as segregation does" (98) (even though Percy's novel, Wheeler admits—to her surprise—avoids the issue of race). These three novels "display an abstract sense of place that is local in the prewar sense" (101), although, Wheeler subsequently states, "Okada and Percy explore the abstract sense of place while Brooks defies such abstraction" (101).
The third section of Uncontained describes "postwar fiction's movements beyond containment culture" (163), books about hibernation, camp novels, and cult novels. Early in the section, Wheeler quotes a paragraph from the Battle Royal chapter of Invisible Man because it serves for her as a "microcosm of postwar containment culture" (170). This emphasis is puzzling since Ellison's Battle Royal takes place in a small southern town, while Wheeler's book focuses on urban settings. In somewhat arbitrary combinations, this section of Uncontained discusses works by Truman Capote, Paule Marshall, Charles Wright, Philip Roth, Ann Bannon, Jack Kerouac, Hugh Selby, and J. D. Salinger, among others.
Wheeler names this third section "Open City" although in the standard postwar context that provides the ostensive framework for Uncontained the term "open city" refers to a place caught in the lawless void between occupying armies (as in the title of Rossellini's masterpiece of Italian neorealism). For Wheeler, however,
Open City is the precursor to the best culture features of today's American cities: creative freedom, racial diversity, and multiple, proliferating subcultures. The literary Open City of the twentieth century descends from Walt Whitman's literary Open City of the nineteenth. Even in an era when many people feared new influxes of population, the cult novel celebrates New York's diverse crowds—just as Whitman's Leaves of Grass celebrated them in a similarly fearful era. (193-94)
Perhaps this short excerpt suggests how Wheeler's good intentions are mired in ill-defined terms, unsupported generalizations, and random associations. The book's prolifically used phrase, "containment logic," is never defined, and the term "containment" appears with such frequency and inconsistency as to make significant assertions virtually unintelligible. What does Wheeler mean, for example, when she says that her book "challenges the containment of racial difference and sexuality as well as gender" (3)? Like so many of the book's statements, floating free of...