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Marni Gauthier opens Amnesia and Redress in Contemporary American Fiction with a riveting portrait of conferences, criminal tribunals, and commissions that were convened in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s whose purpose was to reexamine historical acts of violence in order to “establish a public record of truth” (4). These [End Page 880] events, Gauthier argues, exemplify the political climate of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—a climate in which the tension between “a particularly American forgetting” and a widespread concern for “truth-telling” and official apology play out with marked consequences for American fiction (3). Gauthier considers these consequences across a set of contemporary novels, demonstrating the ways that they treat “subjugated histories” amidst and against this backdrop of historical violence and more recent truth-telling. The result of Gauthier’s research is a compelling argument for “a new literary movement” beyond postmodernism—a genre of contemporary historical fiction that draws upon documentary material to work against amnesia and transform painful histories “into a memory experienced and possessed” (22–23).
Gauthier tracks the ways that this transformation occurs in a range of novels—from canonical postmodern works by Don DeLillo and Toni Morrison to lesser-known texts by Michelle Cliff, Bharati Mukherjee, and Julie Ostuka. While she situates her project in relation to the critical movement seeking to challenge the postmodernist claim to ahistoricity, Gauthier is more concerned with the “distinctive truth claims of the historical referents” on which these postmodern narratives draw (19). Attentive and insightful, Gauthier’s analyses of these texts proceed by way of historical excavation. She uncovers the significant research informing novels such as DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) and Cliff’s Free Enterprise (1993) and closely attends to the scenes in which this research is resurrected, repositioned, and revised. These readings support her claim that it is precisely the interplay between history and narrative that allows writers to relay an “antinationalist” experience of the past that is truthful and at the same time imaginative (24). Although readers may occasionally wish for a more robust interrogation of “truth,” not only in its relation to fact and to history but also as an affective category that structures fiction, Gauthier’s readings cogently demonstrate that truth remains an important matter for the authors in her study.
In her introduction, Gauthier outlines the key terms of her book—truth, history, narrative, and nation—leading the reader through the well-trodden debate between Fredric Jameson and Linda Hutcheon as well as through Homi Bhabha’s theory of the modern nation and Foucault’s concept of “countermemory.” Foucault’s concept is especially central here, and Gauthier uses the term to designate the “resistant strains” of memory depicted in contemporary novels that “withstand the dominant versions of historical continuity” (28). Gauthier maintains that the novels she studies create such “resistant strains” by other means than the usual postmodern forms. To make this point, she concludes her introduction with a well-informed discussion of the [End Page 881] relationship between literary form and historical discourse, one that guides her readings of novels that disrupt conventional chronologies and hierarchies without always turning to “techniques that call attention to narrative construction” (39).
In the chapter following the introduction, Gauthier offers a fresh perspective on three Cold War-era novels by Don DeLillo: Americana (1971), Libra (1988), and Underworld. Scholars like Peter Boxall and Mark Osteen have done much to unpack DeLillo’s treatment of nationalist mythmaking in the image-saturated era of late capitalism. Gauthier picks up this thread but shows that these myths are indicted and repurposed in DeLillo’s novels through a surprisingly “rich engagement with empirical history” (49). In her reading of Underworld, for instance, Gauthier suggests that DeLillo’s accounts of American atomic testing and its human and ecological consequences are based on the oral histories collected by photojournalist Carole Gallagher in her 1993 book, American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War. The similarities and resonances between the archival material and Underworld support Gauthier’s claim that DeLillo’s fiction stages its...