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Fiction and Finales
On Endings: American Postmodern Fiction and the Cold War. Daniel Grausam. University of Virginia Press. 208 pages; cloth, $49.50, paper, $22.50.

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To begin my own review at the end, Daniel Grausam’s book On Endings reminds us that “high postmodernism was shaped by a new relation to historical time conditioned by the nuclear age and that the techniques we traditionally associate with it—its substitution of ontological questions for epistemological ones, its relentless metafictionality, its problems with closure—reflect the potential futurelessness produced by those weapons.” The total nuclear war “requires innovative aesthetic strategies if you seek to engage or critique its possibility,” but it also preempts them by rendering them problematic in face of ontological and textual erasure.

As a response to the Cold War and the threat of The Bomb, the fiction of the late 1950s to the 1980s, which is the main focus of Grausam’s analysis, pursued divided paths (mimetic vs. experimental), with almost no transitions between them. Depending on “the critic’s commitments,” postmodern fiction appeared “either powerfully world-making and ontologically rich or hopelessly narcissistic and autotelic.” Grausam recapitulates some of the critical debates concerning the sociocultural value of postmodernism (e.g., Linda Hutcheon’s emphasis on the complexity of postmodern historiographic metafiction as against Fredric Jameson’s account of its “historical depthlessness”), but he is looking for the deeper story “waiting to be told about the historical pressures that led to this complicated relationship to history in the first place.”

The deeper story, hinted at in the title of Grausam’s book, is that “[p]ostmodernist fiction is … the literary symptom of new understandings of space and time produced by the nuclear age with which it coincided.” Grausam is interested in the effects this has had not only on the novel but also on narrative theory, as both have responded to the “Cold War’s changed understanding of historical time.” His approach revalorizes the politically committed work of Kathy Acker, Toni Morrison, and Ishmael Reed, among others, but also the work of John Barth, Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, or Don DeLillo, which, in his view, is no less engaged through its approach that intertwines “the history of narrative experimentation…with the history of the nuclear age.”

Grausam’s “Introduction: On Endings” illustrates this paradoxical interplay with J.G. Ballard’s story “The Secret History of World War 3” (1988), where the cataclysmic war goes unnoticed because it is “an instantaneous and total moment of destruction that leaves no witnesses and no record.” The war is “secret” precisely because the historical agents meant to “witness, remember, and write that history—have already been annihilated by the ‘event’ they would name.” The narratives on the threat of nuclear war (J.G. Ballard, John Hersey) suggest to Grausam that “any fiction that tries to think seriously about the possibility of narrative in the thermonuclear age must be a form of metanarrative that reflects on the very possibility of narrating an event that would have no narrator.” Other works relate the threat of nuclear conflagration directly to the Cold War, as in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Coover’s The Public Burning (1977), but the metanarrative focus remains important. The self-questioning metanarrative focus is central also to the fiction of Barthelme, Coover, DeLillo or David Foster Wallace, which focus on war and narrative games, the interplay of politics and fiction, or the overlaps between sport and nuclear war.

Grausam rereads these and other works through a broad interpretive perspective that foregrounds the “ethical, political, and aesthetic problems raised by the nuclear age.” Chapter 1 on “Institutionalizing Postmodernism: John Barth and Modern War” starts from the premise that “we should understand Barth’s career, and the larger question of the emergence of metafiction, in the light of the Cold War.” Grausam questions the critical tendency to read Barth’s early novels as “disentangled from their social and historical moment” and proposes to discuss their metafictional aspects in ways that anchors them in stronger political and cultural plots. He thus foregrounds the allegorical portrayal of the Cold War...