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On Endings

American Postmodern Fiction and the Cold War

Daniel Grausam

Publication Year: 2011

What does narrative look like when the possibility of an expansive future has been called into question? This query is the driving force behind Daniel Grausam’s On Endings, which seeks to show how the core texts of American postmodernism are a response to the geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War and especially to the new potential for total nuclear conflict. Postwar American fiction needs to be rethought, he argues, by highlighting postmodern experimentation as a mode of profound historical consciousness.

In Grausam’s view, previous studies of fiction mimetically concerned with nuclear conflict neither engage the problems that total war might pose to narration nor take seriously the paradox of a war that narrative can never actually describe. Those few critical works that do take seriously such problems do not offer a broad account of American postmodernism. And recent work on postmodernism has offered no comprehensive historical account of the part played by nuclear weapons in the emergence of new forms of temporal and historical experience. On Endings significantly extends the project of historicizing postmodernism while returning the nuclear to a central place in the study of the Cold War.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

An earlier version of chapter 2 appeared in Clio: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History (2008), and a shorter version of chapter 4 (Copyright © 2011 The Johns Hopkins University Press) appeared in ELH 78, no. 3 (Fall 2011). I’m grateful...

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Introduction: On Endings

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pp. 1-22

No one encountering a book review that castigates an author as the “worst writer of his generation” would be surprised to find further incendiary claims, but Dale Peck’s poisonous 2002 review of Rick Moody’s...

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1 /Institutionalizing Postmodernism: John Barthand Modern War

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pp. 23-41

Holding distinctly antagonistic visions of the nature of fiction during the different phases of his career, John Barth exemplifies the metafictional turn in American writing during the 1960s, and provides a perfect case study for understanding some of the social and political pressures that contributed to the...

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2 /The Crying of Lot 49, circa 1642; or, Pynchon, Periodicity, and Total War

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pp. 42-58

A third of the way through Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), the mystery deepens. Oedipa Maas’s quest to untangle the confusion surrounding a dead lover’s estate has sent her to see The Courier’s Tragedy, a barely known (and in reality nonexistent) Jacobean...

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3 /The Time of the Nation, the Time of the State

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pp. 59-75

Early in Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977) the reader gets another shock. We’ve already had to process that Richard Nixon narrates much of the novel, that the Rosenbergs are going to be executed in Times Square during a giant public party, and...

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4 /Unthinking the Thinkability of the Unthinkable

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pp. 76-103

In Tim O’Brien’s 1985 novel The Nuclear Age, the increasingly hysterical protagonist has only one “practical” response to his fear of imminent thermonuclear war: he digs a big hole in his backyard in the hope of completing a fallout shelter for himself, his...

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5 /Trying to Understand End Zone

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pp. 104-123

“I became fascinated by words and phrases like thermal hurricane, overkill, circular error probability, post-attack environment, stark deterrence, dose-rate contours, kill-ratio, spasm war. Pleasure in these words. They were extremely effective, I thought, whispering...

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6 /The Dominant Tense: Richard Powers andLate Postmodernism

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pp. 124-148

Born in 1957, Richard Powers is the most publicly visible heir to the tradition of postmodern self-reflexivity outlined in the preceding five chapters, and his stature as one of the most important writers of his generation now seems assured: his honors include a MacArthur “genius” grant...

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Afterword: Critical Conventions / Postmodern Canons

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pp. 149-162

In the third chapter of Democracy (1984), Joan Didion tells us that the novel she is “no longer writing” was to have been “a study in provincial manners, in the acute tyrannies of class and privilege by which people assert themselves against the tropics,” focusing...


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pp. 163-178


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pp. 179-190


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pp. 191-196

E-ISBN-13: 9780813931661
E-ISBN-10: 0813931665
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813931616
Print-ISBN-10: 0813931614

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 785928180
MUSE Marc Record: Download for On Endings

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Pynchon, Thomas -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Barth, John, -- 1930- -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Cold War in literature.
  • Cold War -- Influence.
  • Postmodernism (Literature) -- United States.
  • American fiction -- History and criticism -- Theory, etc.
  • Powers, Richard, 1957- -- Criticism and interpretation.
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