restricted access On Endings: American Postmodern Fiction and the Cold War (review)
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Reviewed by
Daniel Grausam. On Endings: American Postmodern Fiction and the Cold War. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2011. vii + 196 pp.

Over the past five years, a number of monographs have been published on the subject of nuclear representations in literature. From Daniel Cordle's States of Suspense (2008) to Paul Williams's Race, Ethnicity and Nuclear War (2011), the end of the twentieth century has done nothing to reduce the proliferation of the atomic referent as a lens through which scholars approach the contemporary period. If the 1984 special issue of diacritics on "Nuclear Criticism" failed to institute a cohesive field of study surrounding the atomic bomb, the [End Page 164] recent interest in nuclear issues suggests it may be time to revisit this possibility.

Grausam situates his book as part of the critical movement seeking to undermine the postmodernist claim to ahistoricity. Siding with Linda Hutcheon in the well-trodden debate with Fredric Jameson over postmodern fiction's "historical depthlessness" versus its "historiographic metafictionality," Grausam affirms the latter and argues for a reading of postmodern literature as shaped by the apocalyptic sensibility of the atomic bomb. The notion that the world could end instantaneously in a nuclear holocaust poses "representational challenges" (16) to our understanding of temporality: there may actually be no future. For Grausam, these challenges manifest in the form of the postmodern movement, which he regards as a mass representational strategy for addressing this new world order. "Postmodernist fiction is," Grausam tells us, "the literary symptom of new understandings of space and time produced by the nuclear age with which it coincided" (4).

Readers might assume from the subject matter that Grausam would tackle the high church of the postmodern canon, and they would be correct in guessing so with chapters on John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, and Richard Powers. Yet On Endings takes a productive turn by eschewing canonical novels in favor of lesser-known texts. Rather than address Barth's Cold War allegory in Giles, Goat Boy, Grausam revisits The Floating Opera and The End of the Road with a nuclear lens; instead of Gravity's Rainbow, he analyzes the lack of resolution in The Crying of Lot 49; and game theory in End Zone over nuclear waste management in Underworld. At the same time, he breathes new life into forgotten texts like The Public Burning (often replaced with E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel on syllabi) and does search-and-rescue work on less-respected novels like Tim O'Brien's The Nuclear Age. Convincing and insightful, Grausam's readings are paired with useful historical connections that set the horizon of expectations in each chapter; clear goals are established through accessible prose, a skill often neglected in studies that foreground issues of temporality and postmodernism.

Perhaps as a result of Grausam's interest in literature's historiographic impulse—and its origins in Hutcheon's "historiographic metafiction"—On Endings ends up being largely a book about metafiction. Authors, in Grausam's equation, are aware of the bomb and intentionally play under its weighty shadow. Pynchon, for instance, describes the inability to represent finality in his refusal to offer closure at the end of The Crying of Lot 49, because as Derrida suggests, the nuclear holocaust is a textual threat in that its realization could never be recorded—we would all be dead. Similarly, Coover's The [End Page 165] Public Burning is read as an intentional assault on American identity and our conception of historical time. And Grausam's discussions of more contemporary writers like David Foster Wallace and Powers describes them as conscious inheritors of this cultural tradition. As such, writers come across more as prophets of apocalyptic doom than as symptoms of a cultural condition. Grausam is self-conscious of this, and does not go so far as to praise postmodern writers as "rare and prescient thinkers of the unthinkable" (152). Grausam's argument is less an overreach than a cogent demonstration of the nuclear influence on a particular group of postmodern writers who recognize how the nuclear threat has influenced their writing.

This does not deny the possibility that the bomb might also...