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Readers, teachers, and specialists will welcome Patrick O'Donnell's new book as an engaging introduction to a broad range of intersecting aesthetic and political developments in American fiction over the past three decades. Penned by a leading authority in the field, The American Novel Now is intended, in its author's words, "for readers interested in gaining both an expansive perspective about what has happened in the world of contemporary American writing, and insight about an array of particular novels that . . . urge one to read more" (x). Throughout, O'Donnell's concern for his reader is manifested in the careful balance he strikes between comprehensive overview and close analysis of individual texts; the result is an eminently teachable book that sheds new light on established authors and encourages discussion of many others less widely studied. [End Page 773]
The American Novel Now is divided into five parts, not including a brief preface and epilogue. Part 1, "Before 1980," addresses numerous stylistic and thematic features of American fiction between 1945 and 1980, presenting these as harbingers of greater diversity to come. Here O'Donnell introduces, through comparative analysis of Saul Bellow's Herzog, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, his "symptomatic" method of reading contemporary fiction, which presents groupings of novels "not as merely representative of some tendency or significant development in recent fiction, but as indicative of the 'condition' of contemporary writing, manifesting its most deeply felt quandaries" (25). Each of the four remaining parts of the book makes good on this promise of a symptomatic reading by presenting, at the outset, a broad problem or condition to which post-1980 American fiction is seen as responding to in various ways. The motivating condition in Part 2, "From New Realisms to Postmodernism," is that famously described by Philip Roth in 1960 as the near impossibility of the novelist to "make credible" much of contemporary American reality (34). O'Donnell then explores individual symptoms of this condition under subheadings such as "Dirty Realisms" and "Only Wor(l)ds," which he uses to group, respectively, the often violent realism of Chuck Palahniuk, Dorothy Allison, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Richard Price, and the linguistic experimentalism of Donald Antrim, Fanny Howe, Rikki Ducorcet, David Markson, and Ben Marcus. Part 3, "Becoming Identities," presents the "explosion of theory" and the simultaneous "explosion of the canon" (82) in the 1960s and 1970s as the underlying impetus for a number of novelistic symptoms ranging from the redefinition of character as voice in Joanna Scott's The Manikin to the interrogation of racial passing in Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist. Part 4, "What Happened to History," addresses novels "that take history (or its disappearance) as their subject" (125); here a subsection entitled "Narrating Vietnam" presents Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, Tim O'Brien's Things They Carried, Susan Fromberg Shaeffer's Buffalo Afternoon, Stewart O'Nan's The Names of the Dead, and Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country as evidence that "imaginatively, Vietnam continues to be the symptomatic historical black hole of the contemporary era" (151). Finally, Part 5, "Relations Stopping Nowhere," examines how, in an era of globalization and increasing xenophobia, notions of family and community are interrogated in novels by (among others) Marilynne Robinson, Gloria Naylor, Chang-Rae Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Jamaica Kincaid.
By my count, O'Donnell's symptomatic reading extends to seventy-six novels in total, providing a panoramic account of post-1980 American fiction that captures the remarkable heterogeneity of the [End Page 774] period while emphasizing its continuity with what came before. The American Novel Now makes no case for a sea-change in American fiction after 1980; rather, its great usefulness derives from the way it identifies paradigmatic aspects of contemporary writing so as to stimulate comparative readings of both long-established and lesser-known authors. As O'Donnell writes in the preface, "one of the goals of this book is to invite the kinds of intertextual connections that only readers—close readers—can...