- Utopia and Terror in Contemporary American Fiction by Judie Newman
Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2013. 181 pp. Cloth, $160.00, isbn 9780415899123.
Judie Newman's Utopia and Terror in Contemporary American Fiction offers an illuminating analysis of the ways in which twenty-first-century U.S. writing has begun to turn its back on what Kathryn Hume has called the "Aggressive [End Page 350] Fictions" by prominent postmodern writers in the final decades of the twentieth century: texts designed to "repel" their readers by the likes of William Burroughs, Philip Roth, Katherine Dunn, and Bret Easton Ellis that Hume identifies in various ways with "the politics of political despair" (20). In contrast, Newman traces a more recent trend toward emotional immersion, or a focus on narratives that actively draw the reader in. In this way, her book complements work on the topics of sincerity (Adam Kelly), reconstruction (Wolfgang Funk), consolation (David James), and "post-postmodernism" (Nicoline Timmer) in contemporary literary studies. In line with this growing body of criticism, Newman posits that such immersion is not straightforward and by no means a regression into simple sensation and sentimentality. Rather, the texts upon which she focuses are those that "employ narrative techniques which draw the reader closely into the text, doubling reader and narrator, or reader and character for example, challenging the predictable emotional scripts of contemporary society, and undermining its political rhetoric and dominant narratives" (2). In other words, they actively utilize emotional identification as a device through which to offer their readers a glimpse at alternative ways of being. Through this focus, Newman's book draws utopian studies together with affect studies to offer an illuminating and original take on the growing field of post-9/11 literary criticism about terror.
The book's original contribution to the field of literature and terrorism is evident from a quick glance at its primary texts. Each of its eight main chapters focuses on work by a relatively marginal author (with the exception of John Updike): Kim Edwards, Susan Choi, André Dubus III, Dalia Sofia, Bernadine Evaristo, and Chitra Divakaruni. This is a conspicuous shift in focus away from the authors who have come to form a canon of sorts in post-9/11 literary studies: Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Safran Foer, Martin Amis, and Frédéric Beigbeder, among a few others, who published novels or short stories within the first decade of the attacks and engage much more explicitly with specific details of the event or its direct aftermath. In contrast, the texts that Newman is interested in tend to approach the discourses surrounding terror in broader or more tangential ways, and it is to the book's advantage that it doesn't limit itself to post-9/11 texts: three of its eight case studies were published in the late 1990s, and their inclusion helps to undermine the now-clichéd notion that September 11 marked a radical break from all that had come before. Indeed, it is especially notable that in her chapter on Updike, the text that Newman chooses to focus on is not the one that might be considered his most obvious in this context—the widely discussed, and [End Page 351] frequently maligned, "9/11 novel" Terrorist (2006)—but, rather, his 1997 novel Toward the End of Time, a speculative fiction about nuclear war between the United States and China. Newman argues that in this novel it is possible to see Updike already beginning to trace the ideological positioning of democracy against "fundamentalism" in Western media and political discourse: a Fukuyamaite utopianism that wrongly viewed itself as postideological and was mobilized by the Bush administration in the lead-up to the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. "After 9/11," Newman writes, "utopian thinking came to shape foreign policy in America, but as a utopianism of the Right" (104).
Newman's focus on emotion is perhaps the book's most instructive feature. She takes a step away from the increasingly dominant view in post-9/11 literary studies that the more successful fictional works are those that...