- Pluralist Desires: Contemporary Fiction and the End of the Cold War by Philipp Löffler
Scholars of contemporary literature and culture quite regularly frame their analyses around the end of the Cold War, deeming this historical juncture explanatory for shifts in literary and cultural values. As the narrative goes, the demise of the Eastern Bloc created a distinct post-Cold War cultural period—one functioning as a direct response to the end of the Cold War. In Pluralist Desires, Philipp Löffler complicates this narrative by suggesting that the conception of this new cultural and literary period, which extends until at least 9/11, relies too heavily on notions of historical linearity. Löffler instead reads contemporary American historical fiction through a pluralistic lens in order to explicate the ways in which subjective experience can be used as a historical sense-making strategy. To enhance the specificity of this endeavor, he looks primarily at the following novels: Don DeLillo’s Mao II (1991), Underworld (1997) and Cosmopolis (2003), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and A Mercy (2008), Philip Roth’s American Trilogy (American Pastoral , I Married a Communist , and The Human Stain ), and Richard Powers’ Plowing the Dark (2000).
Pluralist Desires focuses on the contemporary historical novel because it “reflects and endorses a pluralistic reading of the world” (6). Drawing from late nineteenth century philosophers such as William James and Friedrich Nietzsche, Löffler contends that the end of the Cold War did not, by itself, spawn such pluralistic readings. The “emergence of identity concerns in American culture” (15) also stems from the decline in postmodernist literature, the institutional growth in identity claims, and the development of an “ethnicity-sensitive middle-class literary market” (15).
The opposing concepts of universality and particularity become pivotal when discussing writing about history, or scholarship of contemporary historical fiction. Pluralist Desires insists upon the importance of the particular—of subjective experience—in producing historical truth. Perhaps the most apt example of subjective experience’s imperative can be found in the analysis of Beloved. Written during the Cold War and set just after the Civil War, the novel is often interpreted by critics as representing a sort of universal experience for which seemingly all African Americans can relate to. Löffler regards this purely race-based reading as a marginalizing of Morrison’s greater pluralistic project. In this new interpretation, Morrison’s [End Page 580] self-reflexive tendencies underscore “the fact that the accessibility of historical worlds is always personal” (71).
Arguably the book’s most significant contribution to contemporary literary scholarship comes in its contention that, unlike the definitively postmodernist text, which subverts claims of authenticity and eschews the notion of historical truth, the contemporary historical novel aims to render history intelligible through mediated individual experience. Making sense of the past is always at least in part an effort to make sense of one’s present. Löffler prudently employs Nietzsche’s concept of “plastic power” to explain the process through which the writer of historical fiction reconstructs history by means of the particular and subjective. Thus, Morrison’s characters are not merely universal symbols of African American plight, and Morrison’s readers cannot “distinguish between real slaves and their mere textual representation” (137).
The application of plastic power helps account for historical discrepancies, such as those instances in contemporary historical novels in which something may be factually inaccurate but true in feeling. The pluralistic privileging of individual experience with respect to history means that how one experiences or feels history holds more value than a universal narrative of that same history, as the latter is always trending towards the sort of historical linearity that Pluralist Desires repeatedly contests.
Repeatedly, Löffler presents evidence that these universal narratives of history are now obsolete, having been overridden by the truth of one’s subjectivity. In Plowing the Dark, the real and the virtual are indistinguishable, and both are used productively to make sense out of life in the present. In Underworld, baseball memorabilia collector Marvin Lundy perceives the...