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  • Fiction:The 1960s to the Present
  • Jerome Klinkowitz

American fiction since the 1960s has been tasked with telling the story of a culture in transition. Whether it be the new styles of diplomacy and warfare bracketed by experience in Vietnam and Iraq, the revolution in personal values pushed forth by the counterculture, or the deconstruction of philosophical assumptions undertaken by literary theorists, writers face a continual challenge to capture a reality that at times seems as fluid as mercury. "Loading mercury with a pitchfork" is how Richard Brautigan described the experience, in this case using poetry to distance himself from the narrative fray. His breakthrough came in 1967 with the novel Trout Fishing in America. Fifty years later "fictioneers" (as Richard Kostelanetz insightfully calls them) continue to brave the perils of both literal and virtual new worlds as the contexts for artistic expression change. Thankfully critics old and new have managed to keep up with the action.

i General Studies

America has always been in transition, a wide range of critics agree. The immigrant experience lies at the heart of it, say both Richard M. Cook, Alfred Kazin: A Biography (Yale), and David Cowart, Trailing Clouds: Immigrant Fiction in Contemporary America (Cornell). Kazin, of course, was one of the premier literary critics of this era, and Cook [End Page 357] does an excellent job of tracing his work's evolution as applied to key writers in studies such as Contemporaries and Bright Book of Life. Even more important is Kazin's status as the child of immigrants, having grown up in a neighborhood of new arrivals and judging that experience as central to the formation of American practices and values. Cowart's immigrants are a more current crowd, including Julia Alvarez, Bharati Mukherjee, Cristina García, Chang-rae Lee, Edwidge Danticat, Wendy Law-Yone, and Junot Díaz. But the very nature of this apparent contrast—between the establishment's Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, and Kurt Vonnegut and the younger multiculturals of Trailing Clouds—reinforces Cook and Cowart's shared opinion that the nature of America itself is a continuous reinvention, a process uniquely enabled by this country's status as a nation always being restaged.

Kazin's On Native Grounds explored this sense of reinvention in classic American literature with great success. Applying it to fiction of the 1960s and after was more of a challenge, as Cook points out: "Having come of age when the 'realist' novel was the prevailing fictional mode (and the main focus of his first book), Kazin rarely felt at home with a postwar fiction that eschewed social and historical realism for more narrowly private or 'subjective' interests." As Jewish American fiction found a place in the mainstream, Kazin felt comfortable encouraging the style of work done by Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, to the extent of telling Edmund Wilson that the stories in The Magic Barrel were "a better guide to the Jews than the Hebrew language." Norman Mailer and Philip Roth however presented problems: Mailer because of his professed disinterest in Jews (favoring fictive projections of himself "that were the farthest thing" from the characterizations Kazin preferred), Roth thanks to his incessant testing of behavioral limits. An especially useful component of Cook's biography is how he integrates Kazin's interaction with these writers with the progress of literary history, a considerable portion of which Kazin bore witness to in his career. Mailer's poses were eventually appreciated as the keys to his fictive art, while Roth's exuberance made more sense as writer and critic became close personal friends. Where Kazin's view faltered, Cook sees despair over the Vietnam War as the cause, prompting him to discount Didion's "astringent prose," Oates's "doomed characters," and Vonnegut's "cartoonish nihilism" as inadequate to the "necessary moral resistance against the forces of chaos and despair." [End Page 358]

Such resistance is seen more positively by the writers covered in Cowart's book. It begins with what he calls a "transitional text," Jerzy Kosinski's Being There, an "iconoclastic parable of American innocence set within a context of susceptibility" to media shaping. Being There was part of...


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pp. 357-386
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