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The Global Remaking of the American Political Novel

From: Contemporary Literature
Volume 55, Number 2, Summer 2014
pp. 430-437 | 10.1353/cli.2014.0016

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In a 1980 essay titled “The American Political Novel,” Robert Alter bemoaned the state of a form that, in his mind, had “reached a stage of nervously accelerated production and woefully diminishing returns.” Contemporary political novelists were, for Alter, either too conventional (Allen Drury) or too adversarial (Robert Coover, E. L. Doctorow, Thomas Pynchon). While the former offered a hackneyed and overly rosy image of Washington, D.C., the latter—the real focus of Alter’s criticism—reduced everything to an angry farce. Discussing Coover’s The Public Burning (1977) and Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971), Alter asked why these “gifted and serious novelists” had chosen to write “adolescent outbursts” that tended toward “facile and fantastic generalization” and baldly conveyed the authors’ own political attitudes. Instead, Alter argued, the political novel should depict “concretely and subtly what politics does to character, what character makes of politics” (27), revealing the political as personally and privately felt. Alter’s essay anticipates the late-twentieth-century decline of the political novel in the United States. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, literary fiction would increasingly turn toward the politics of the everyday and to personal reckonings with trauma. In the new millennium, however, as Caren Irr argues in Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century, political fiction is being remade with an eye to the world beyond Washington.

Irr’s study contributes to a growing body of work aiming to more fully globalize the “transnational turn” in American studies, analyzing culture in relation to global systems of commerce, communication, and governance. For literary scholars, this has often meant asking whether and to what extent American literature is able to conceive of and contend with the world. Bruce Robbins has made the much-cited claim that the American novel has become not more worldly in the twenty-first century but only more disoriented and domesticated, while offering “mercifully short visits” to an outer world always marked by atrocity. Irr counters Robbins, but she differentiates her account of global American fiction from his by theorizing what she calls the “geopolitical novel”—an emerging genre that recycles and reorganizes the formal elements of earlier political fiction in order to negotiate the world’s fast-changing political environment. While all literature is arguably unconsciously political, Irr focuses her study on explicitly political literary works that address a range of issues, including neoliberalism, international aid agencies, social revolutionary movements, and international migrant labor. Over the course of the book’s five chapters, she considers more than 125 novels, most written after the turn of the century. Unlike Robbins’s more anecdotal evidence––tracing a self-congratulatory worldliness that nevertheless withdraws from global complexity in the fiction of Don DeLillo, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jonathan Franzen––Irr conducts an occasionally unwieldy but compelling review of American fiction’s engagement with world systems since 2000. Combining theory, socio-institutional analysis, and the sheer magnitude of a survey, she makes a convincing case that U.S. fiction is in fact becoming more worldly in the twenty-first century, and more political as well.

Irr is clearly aware of the baggage involved in discussing political fiction. Alter’s annoyance with what he calls the “adversary political novel” (3) may be rare today, but similar attacks are regularly aimed at critics who are perceived to carry out “symptomatic readings” in which, à la Fredric Jameson, they “construe [elements present in the text] as symbolic of something latent or concealed,” as Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus have put it. While Irr’s method is avowedly built on ideological criticism in the tradition of Jameson, she is careful to head off the hostility reserved for this variety of work by neoformalists. She emphasizes that ideological criticism is not about valuing literature that conforms to the critic’s own views, nor about construing a work to reflect one’s politics or to serve as a static enemy. Rather, Irr considers what contemporary novels might tell us about ideologies that are only beginning to emerge: “My understanding of ideology critique . . . is premised on attention to the formation of ideologies in the present rather than their imagined effects in the future” (15). Her book...


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