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

It is a truism but true nevertheless that the contemporary period in literary history is constantly redefining itself. When great historical markers and changes in the forms and content of fiction correspond, the definitions come naturally. In the 20th century two world wars, the Great Depression, and a sociological transformation involving personal freedoms and civil rights enabled critics to align developing aesthetics with larger cultural trends. But the 21st century has presented no clear distinction other than the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, the aesthetic implications of which remain open to debate. As a result, there is no consensus regarding the essence of our current age other than an acknowledgment that contemporary fiction is by nature a literature in flux.

i General Studies

The editors of Postmodern/Postwar—and After assemble contributors who do their best to align the two great markers named in the title. World War II set the terms for political discussion lasting more than half a century, during which the major artistic development was a rethinking of rules for aesthetic engagement. Here scholarship turns away from the power of postmodern disruption and toward an extension of the influence of modernism. In "Postmodern, Postwar, Contemporary: A [End Page 279] Dialogue on the Field" (pp. 27–56) Andrew Horberek, one of the editors, guides a discussion among critics who mostly agree that academics should pay more attention to general audiences, not just to notice what is being read but "to write in a more public way" themselves. The curriculum for contemporary fiction should be determined more by market forces than by strictly pedagogical standards, as the latter are necessarily biased in favor of the past. If one looks back, as does Brian McHale in "Break, Period, Interregnum" (pp. 59–72), three different versions of what was postmodernism emerge, marked by the years 1966, 1973, and 1989 according to sociopolitical events of the times. In "Cold War Postmodernism" (pp. 73–79) Harilaos Stecopoulos posits that the temporary decline of modernism was the result of state interference in support of Cold War aims, just as postmodernism itself was reduced in John Barth's hands, as David James argues in "How Postmodernism Became Earnest" (pp. 81–91), to an exercise in "virtuosity rather than self-scrutiny." A possible cultural marker is considered by Leerom Medovoi, whose "Reperiodizing the Postmodern: Textualizing the World System Before and after 9/11" (pp. 93–109) suggests that global terrorism makes postmodernism's proclaimed "optimistic globalism" impossible, with Gary Shteyngart's novel Absurdistan proving his case. On the other hand, argues Mary Esteve in "The Idea of Happiness: Back to the Postwar Future" (pp. 127–40), a global perspective disables the habitually binary thinking of modernist fiction, while "happiness as America's uppermost value" can still prevail in the fiction of Richard Powers. But then there are writers such as Thomas Pynchon with novels like Gravity's Rainbow who thwart periodization entirely, as Paul K. Saint-Amour demonstrates in "Perpetual Interwar" (pp. 165–77). In "The New Sincerity" (pp. 197–208) Adam Kelly employs a phrase that becomes central to more than one general study published this year, here with regard to David Foster Wallace's use of "single-entendre principles" to negate the "tyranny of irony" in American culture.

"A modern world comes to itself by staging its own conditions," proposes Mark Seltzer's The Official World. Worlds existing before 1900 were not capable of the "self-conditioning and self-reporting" that have become possible in modern times, and now those reflexive actions cannot be stopped. Pertinent to this chapter are Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity and Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. The first of these novels presents "the inner experience of exteriority" by projecting pain and then managing it by the narrative's manner of observation, [End Page 280] while the second functions as a "gamelike ghost story" made possible by a world of "utter contingency" that by its nature induces violence. In Seltzer's "official world" anticipation shapes action, acting as a "retroactive causality" that takes the place of conventional logic. The reflexivity of a world thus created by its...


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