- The Quest for Epic in Contemporary American Fiction: John Updike, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo
For important writers of the past fifty years, the quest to write the so-called great American novel, Catherine Morley argues in this engaging and ambitious book, has beneath it the effort to make that novel a modern epic. Such narratives tap into the ancient Virgilian impulse to provide the nation with an origin story and a sweeping view of its history, but truly heroic acts nowadays are in short supply and returns to a homeland often do not succeed. The writers under scrutiny enter literary history so belatedly and laden with irony that they use the gestures of epic instead to "express [End Page 126] some of the sense of disorientation which has accompanied the loss of [the] stable... bedrock of nationhood" (7). In fact, Morley's book, dealing with novelists often acidly critical of US confidence and hegemony, alternates between use of a "national frame" (4) and a more theoretically current embrace of transnational methods (more later on the success of this alternation). Two series—John Updike's Rabbit books and Philip Roth's American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain—sit alongside Don DeLillo's encyclopedic Underworld in Morley's close analyses.
In two introductory chapters—one devoted to theoretical and generic questions, the other to American and Joycean foundations—Morley considers the heterogeneous roots of epics of the late twentieth century. She begins with thorough surveys of theoretical terrain, including Northrop Frye's account of the co-existence of mythic and ironic modes in modern epics like Ulysses and the challenges by New Americanists like Donald Pease and Amy Kaplan to the idea of a unified national narrative. These overviews are some of the strongest components of this book; they handle distinctions between poetry and prose epics, demonstrate the dominant role of Emerson in American individualist and expansionist ideology (and Melville's role in refuting it), and document the tendencies of the "myth and symbol" school of American Studies toward disembodiment and removal from history. Harold Bloom's theory of influence also figures at various points, but especially in the reading of Roth, who "fears the usurpation of his text by his intertextual forebears" (108).
In her examinations of the American texts, Morley repeatedly shows the lofty ambitions of epic reined in by the everyday domesticity and unglamorous history of postwar realism. She reads Underworld, for instance, as "a vast exploration of the small, unofficial pockets of individual American histories through the past half-century" (126). Each of these three authors finds himself attracted to the imaginative properties of myths for giving their wandering heroes structure; but, as Morley writes of Updike, each feels the need to diverge from these myths "when they fail to 'fit' his protagonist or indeed the nation of which he is supposedly representative" (59). Morley's discoveries of epic tropes and their "ironic analogies" can be delightful: for example, she shows Roth slyly using American presidents, Kennedy, Lincoln, and Clinton, in the places Virgil and Milton used biblical and mythical heroes (110); elsewhere she finds him transforming the Iliad, "the original epic of wrath" (113), to connect it to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. With DeLillo, Morley acknowledges postmodern-theory-driven interpreters of his work while aptly suggesting that its mythic and literary underpinnings speak more readily to his unfolding writerly project. (One factual slip in the DeLillo reading, though: Underworld's prologue takes place at the Polo Grounds, not Shea Stadium, as Morley has it .) Whereas the focus of the Updike and DeLillo chapters is exclusively on the Rabbit books and Underworld, respectively, with Roth, Morley takes in much more of his career, leading to some insight but also a sense of unevenness (though this is a common problem in isolating for close-reading one part of Roth's densely intertextual body of work).
Morley is quite persuasive in identifying the common features of these texts' epic ambitions and their often tense relationships...