- Middlebrow Aesthetics and the Therapeutic:The Politics of Interiority in Anita Shreve's The Pilot's Wife
Although occasionally called upon to perform certain emeritus functions, the omniscient narrator has retired decisively from the scene of contemporary United States fiction. In the place of this appealingly wise but problematic figure emerges an array of speakers no less ignorant, prejudiced, and confused than the reader. First-person narrators, of course, have a long history of unreliability, but now even most third-person narrators, at least within American mainstream literary fiction, report the action of the novel almost entirely from the standpoint of the character or characters through free indirect discourse. Amodernist innovation originally, the refusal of omniscience has become a fixed principle, especially within what is frequently referred to as middlebrow fiction. In works of this genre, the subjective perspective of particular characters assumes paramount importance, and individual psychology represents the object of interest, the site of complexity and depth, the ontological center of the fictional world.
Scholars have treated the emergence of a postwar therapeutic paradigm in the United States as responsible for this literary development.1 [End Page 85] Typically viewed as a product of free-market capitalism, the therapeutic world-view espouses a particular brand of liberal individualism that seeks value, meaning, and fulfillment within the personal or domestic, as opposed to the public or political, sphere.2 Such priorities are certainly evident within contemporary middlebrow fiction. Although the genre's vague definition enables it to encompass any book with literary aspirations that appeals to a large middle-class audience, the term "middlebrow" most frequently refers to what is also known as women's fiction, read in book clubs, designed to foster identification with a sympathetic female protagonist, and, according to many readers and critics, therapeutically focused on personal or domestic struggles to the exclusion of social or political issues.3 It is this account of middlebrow fiction that I aim to complicate. Although I agree that many novels within the category of women's fiction [End Page 86] exhibit a therapeutic emphasis, I do not believe that the meanings, implications, and ideological functions of this emphasis have been adequately described. For the most part, dismissive attitudes have impeded a truly nuanced understanding of what functions and agendas the therapeutically inflected conventions of middlebrow fiction serve and what meanings they are capable of accommodating. This is not a trivial problem; to deny the importance of middlebrow fiction, in my view, is also to misunderstand the character of politics in contemporary America. The middlebrow novel, I intend to argue, caters to and renders visible a family of increasingly prevalent needs, anxieties, and modes of affect, which has come to represent, for middle-class Americans, not only an indirect way of relating to political struggle, but also a central, valorized site of political struggle in itself. And this intimacy between the therapeutic and the political has become especially salient in light of the Bush administration's "war on terror."
In this essay, I examine one particular work, The Pilot's Wife, by Anita Shreve, an Oprah's Book Club selection about the efforts of a widowed pilot's wife to make sense of the plane crash that killed her husband.4 Undeniably psychological in its emphasis, Shreve's text nevertheless demonstrates the capacity of individual-centered, therapeutic discourse to describe larger social formations and class anxieties through the depiction of a single character's conspicuously conventional interiority. More importantly, instead of retreating from politics, The Pilot's Wife works actively to politicize the domestic sphere in a systematic fashion, cataloguing the ways in which the husband's secret affiliation with the Irish Republican Army has shaped the protagonist's family dynamics. By the end of the novel, Shreve succeeds at endowing all of the psychological impulses, physical gestures, conversations, and memories that usually constitute intimate familial relations with the dramatic valences and affective energies of high-stakes political conflict. Published in 1998, The Pilot's Wife turns out to be remarkably prescient in its insinuation of political terror into the domestic sphere. [End Page 87] This excessive appropriation and proliferation of the political serves psychological needs particular...