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Understanding Contemporary American Literature

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Understanding Contemporary American Literature

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Toni Morrison's Fiction

Revised and Expanded Edition

Jan Furman

In this revised introduction to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s novels, Jan Furman extends and updates her critical commentary. New chapters on four novels following the publication of Jazz in 1992 continue Furman’s explorations of Morrison’s themes and narrative strategies. In all Furman surveys ten works that include the trilogy novels, a short story, and a book of criticism to identify Morrison’s recurrent concern with the destructive tensions that define human experience: the clash of gender and authority, the individual and community, race and national identity, culture and authenticity, and the self and other. As Furman demonstrates, Morrison more often than not renders meaning for characters and readers through an unflinching inquiry, if not resolution, of these enduring conflicts. She is not interested in tidy solutions. Enlightened self-love, knowledge, and struggle, even without the promise of salvation, are the moral measure of Morrison’s characters, fiction, and literary imagination. Tracing Morrison’s developing art and her career as a public intellectual, Furman examines the novels in order of publication. She also decodes their collective narrative chronology, which begins in the late seventeenth century and ends in the late twentieth century, as Morrison delineates three hundred years of African American experience. In Furman’s view Morrison tells new and difficult stories of old, familiar histories such as the making of Colonial America and the racing of American society. In the final chapters Furman pays particular attention to form, noting Morrison’s continuing practice of the kind of “deep” novelistic structure that transcends plot and imparts much of a novel’s meaning. Furman demonstrates, through her helpful analyses, how engaging such innovations can be.

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Understanding Adrienne Rich

Jeannette E. Riley

Among the most celebrated American poets of the past half century, Adrienne Rich was the recipient of awards ranging from the Bollingen Prize, to the National Book Award, to the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. In Understanding Adrienne Rich, Jeannette E. Riley assesses the full scope of Rich’s long career from 1957 to her death in 2012 through a chronological exploration of her poetry and prose. Beginning with Rich’s first two formally traditional collections, published in the late 1950s, then moving to the increasingly radical collections of the 1960s and 1970s, Riley details the evolution of Rich’s feminist poetics as she investigated issues of identity, sexuality, gender, the desire to reclaim women’s history, the dream of a common language, and a separate community for women. Riley then tracks how Rich’s writing shifted outward from the 1980s and 1990s to the end of her career as she evaluated her own life and place within her society. Rich examined her country’s history as well, asking readers to consider what responsibility each person has—individually and communally—for changing the conditions under which we live. This book documents Rich’s developing charge that poetry carries the ability to create social change and engage people in the democratic process. Throughout, Understanding Adrienne Rich interweaves explications of Rich’s poetry with her prose, offering a close look at the development of the author’s voice from formalist poet, to feminist visionary, to citizen poet. In doing so, this volume provides a survey of Rich’s career and her impact on American literature and politics.

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Understanding Andre Dubus

Olivia Carr Edenfield

Andre Dubus (1936–1999), the author of short stories, novellas, essays, and two novels, is perhaps best known as the author of the story “Killings,” which was adapted into the film In the Bedroom, a nominee for five Academy Awards in 2001. His work received many awards, including the PEN New England Award, the PEN Malamud Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and the Jean Stein Award. In Understanding Andre Dubus, Olivia Carr Edenfield focuses on the major influences that span Dubus’s canon—his Catholic upbringing, Marine Corps service, and turn to fiction at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, as well as the influence that a life-threatening accident had on his work Edenfield traces how Dubus’s experiences serve as a backdrop for the major themes that run through his work: faith, family, and infidelity. His marriages, the complex relationships with his children, and his difficult recovery from a car accident exert a powerful influence on his work. Dubus also takes up the complicated themes of love and marriage, fatherhood and faith, and despair and spiritual healing; his subjects and style were influenced significantly by Ernest Hemingway After Dubus’s novel Broken Vessels was named a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in 1991, he returned to writing shortstories, the genre for which he is still renowned. He focused on a character much like himself who had to learn to navigate the world while afflicted with physical and spiritual disability. In 1996 he published his critically acclaimed short story cycle Dancing after Hours, an appropriate ending to a career that celebrated the healing power of the human heart.

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Understanding Chang-rae Lee

Amanda M. Page

In Understanding Chang-rae Lee, Amanda M. Page provides the first critical survey of the work of one of America’s most acclaimed contemporary novelists. Chang-rae Lee, the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor of English at Stanford University, has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, an American Book Award, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Lee is the author of five novels, including The Surrendered, which was a named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2011. In considering the novelist’s oeuvre, Page examines Lee’s evolving use of narrative perspective and how it attests to the power of voice by showing that storytelling can reveal hidden truths—whether intended or not. After a brief biography, an overview of Lee’s critical reception, and a discussion of his nonfiction essays, Page traces the trajectory of Lee’s career to illustrate the ways his work continues to push against formal and thematic boundaries with each new novel. In her exploration of Lee’s first and best-known novel, Native Speaker, Page introduces many of Lee’s recurring themes, including the pains of cultural assimilation, the significant role of language in identity, and emotional alienation as a result of constructs of masculinity. Page then argues that Lee’s second novel, A Gesture Life, uses evasive narration and the guise of a suburban novel to conceal a meditation on war trauma and contemporary isolation. Aloft, the last of Lee’s novels told in the first person, plays with expected conventions of American suburban fiction to critique the white privilege at the heart of this familiar form. Page also explores The Surrendered, Lee’s ambitious historical epic that deploys third-person perspective to show the variety of ways historical trauma reverberates in the present. Page’s final chapter focuses on Lee’s dystopian novel On Such a Full Sea. In his most bold experiment with narrative voice to date, this novel is told from the collective perspective of an entire community, reflecting on the experiences of a lone girl as she navigates a highly stratified social hierarchy. Page argues that this work shows the culmination of Lee’s interest in the relationship between the individual and the community and the power of a single voice to speak truth.

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Understanding Chuck Palahniuk

Douglas Keesey

Ever since his first novel, Fight Club, was made into a cult film by David Fincher, Chuck Palahniuk has been a consistent presence on the New York Times best-seller list. A target of critics but a fan favorite, Palahniuk has been loathed and loved in equal measure for his dark humor, edgy topics, and confrontational writing style. In close readings of Fight Club and the thirteen novels that this controversial author has published since, Douglas Keesey argues that Palahniuk is much more than a “shock jock” engaged in mere sensationalism. His visceral depictions of sex and violence have social, psychological, and religious significance. Keesey takes issue with reviewers who accuse Palahniuk of being an angry nihilist and a misanthrope, showing instead that he is really a romantic at heart and a believer in community. In this first comprehensive introduction to Palahniuk’s fiction, Keesey reveals how this writer’s outrageous narratives are actually rooted in his own personal experiences, how his seemingly unprecedented works are part of the American literary tradition of protagonists in search of an identity, and how his negative energy is really social satire directed at specific ills that he diagnoses and wishes to cure. After tracing the influence of his working-class background, his journalistic education, and his training as a “minimalist” writer, Understanding Chuck Palahniuk exposes connections between the writer’s novels by grouping them thematically: the struggle for identity (Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, Survivor, Choke); the horror trilogy (Lullaby, Diary, Haunted); teen terrors (Rant, Pygmy); porn bodies and romantic myths (Snuff, Tell-All, Beautiful You); and a decidedly unorthodox revision of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Damned, Doomed). Drawing on numerous author interviews and written in an engaging and accessible style, Understanding Chuck Palahniuk should appeal to scholars, students, and fans alike.

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Understanding Colson Whitehead

Derek C. Maus

Although 2002 MacArthur Fellowship recipient Colson Whitehead ardently resists overarching categorizations of his work, Derek C. Maus argues in this volume that Whitehead’s first six books are linked by a careful balance between adherence to and violation of the wisdom of past generations. Whitehead bids readers to come along with him on challenging, often open-ended literary excursions designed to reexamine accepted notions of truth. Understanding Colson Whitehead unravels the parallel structures found within Whitehead’s fiction from his 1999 novel The Intuitionist through 2011’s Zone One. In his choice of literary forms, Whitehead attempts to revitalize the limiting formulas to which they have been reduced by first imitating and then violating the conventions of those genres and sub-genres. Whitehead similarly tests subject matter, again imitating and then satirizing various forms of conventional wisdom as a means of calling out unexamined, ignored, and/or malevolent aspects of American culture. Although only one of many subjects that Whitehead addresses, race often takes a place of centrality in his works and, as such, serves as the prime example of how Whitehead asks his readers to revisit their assumptions about meanings and values. By jumbling the literary formulas of the detective novel, the heroic folktale, the coming-of-age story, and the zombie apocalypse, Whitehead reveals the flaws and shortcomings of many of the long-lasting stories through which Americans have defined themselves. Some of the stories Whitehead focuses on are explicitly literary in nature, but he more frequently directs his attention toward the historical and cultural processes that influence how race, class, gender, education, social status, and other categories of identity determine what an individual supposedly can and cannot do.

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Understanding Colum McCann

John Cusatis

Understanding Colum McCann chronicles the Irish-born writer's journey to literary celebrity from his days as a teenage sportswriter for the Irish Press in the 1970s, through the publication of his award-winning first story, "Tresses," in 1990, to his winning the 2009 National Book Award in fiction for the international bestseller Let the Great World Spin. In this first critical study of McCann's body of work, John Cusatis provides an introduction to McCann's life and career; an overview of his major themes, style, and influences; and close readings of his two short story collections and five novels. Cusatis traces McCann's redefinition of the Irish novel, exploring the author's propensity for transcending aesthetic, cultural, ethnic, geographical, and social boundaries in his ascent from the status of "Irish novelist" to "international novelist." In the process, this study illuminates the various incarnations of McCann's perennial subject: exile, both geographical and emotional. Cusatis also delineates how the influences of McCann's Irish upbringing, penchant for international travel, and exhaustive and eclectic reading of literature manifest themselves in his fiction. Close attention is given to McCann's stylistic trademarks, such as his poetic voice, use of Christian symbolism, Irish and classical mythology, intertextuality, multiple viewpoints, nonlinear plot structure, and the merger of what McCann deems "factual truth" and "textual truth." Understanding Colum McCann makes use of the existing body of published interviews, profiles, and critical articles, as well as a decade of correspondence between Cusatis and McCann. With international interest in McCann on the rise, this first full-length study of his career to date serves as an ideal point of entrance for students, scholars, and serious readers, and offers the biographical and critical foundation necessary for a deeper understanding of McCann's fiction.

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Understanding Cormac McCarthy

Steven Frye

Named by Harold Bloom as one of the most significant American novelists of our time, Cormac McCarthy has been honored with the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for All the Pretty Horses, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for The Road, and the coveted MacArthur Fellowship. In Understanding Cormac McCarthy Steven Frye offers a comprehensive treatment of McCarthy's fiction to date, dealing with the author's aesthetic and thematic concerns, his philosophical and religious influences, and his participation in Western literary traditions. Frye provides extensive readings of each novel, charting the trajectory of McCarthy's development as a writer who invigorates literary culture both past and present through a blend of participation, influence, and aesthetic transformation. He explores the early works of the Tennessee period in the context of the romance genre, the southern gothic, and the grotesque. A chapter is devoted to Blood Meridian, a novel that marks McCarthy's transition to the West and his full recognition as a major force in American letters. Frye also explores McCarthy's Border Trilogy and his later works—specifically No Country for Old Men and The Road—addressing the manner in which McCarthy's preoccupation with violence and human depravity exists alongside a perpetual search for meaning, purpose, and value.

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Understanding Dave Eggers

Timothy W. Galow

Understanding Dave Eggers is the first book-length study incorporating Egger’s novels, short-story collections, and films by surveying thematic and stylistic developments in the work of one of the most celebrated American authors of the twenty-first century. Timothy W. Galow offers a textual analysis centered on major issues in academic scholarship, but explores them in an accessible way that gives Eggers’s texts primary attention. Unlike other scholarship on Eggers, this work uniquely combines Egger’s early autobiographical works and the subject of celebrity as well as his later texts that deal with humanitarian issues. Galow devotes a chapter to each of Eggers’s major works, from his first book, the Pulitzer Prize–nominated memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, though his most recent novel, A Hologram for the King, a National Book Award finalist about an aging American businessman chasing success in Saudi Arabia. Other chapters cover You Shall Know Our Velocity, What Is the What, and Zeitoun. Each chapter studies the major themes and styles of the featured work while also placing it in the context of Eggers’s oeuvre. In this way Galow examines each text in its own right, but he also offers us a larger guide to all of Egger’s work. Providing important historical background for understanding Eggers’s literary work, Galow examines how Eggers’s texts are deeply invested in both his own public persona and the changing cultural conditions in the United States over the past twenty years. Galow’s careful analysis is conveyed in clear language that engages issues important to contemporary critics without being pedantic or jargon laden. As a result Understanding Dave Eggers can serve as a useful introduction to the author’s work or a valuable resource for the devoted reader.

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Understanding David Henry Hwang

William C. Boles

David Henry Hwang is best known as the author of M. Butterfly, which won a 1988 Tony Award and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, and he has written the Obie Award-winners Golden Child and FOB, as well as Family Devotions, Sound and Beauty, Rich Relations, and a revised version of Flower Drum Song. His Yellow Face won a 2008 Obie Award and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Understanding David Henry Hwang is a critical study of Hwang's playwriting process as well as the role of identity in each one of Hwang's major theatrical works. A first-generation Asian American, Hwang intrinsically understands the complications surrounding the competing attractiveness of an American identity with its freedoms in contrast to the importance of a cultural and ethnic identity connected to another country's culture. William C. Boles examines Hwang's plays by exploring the perplexing struggles surrounding Asian and Asian American stereotypes, values, and identity. Boles argues that Hwang deliberately uses stereotypes in order to subvert them, while at other times he embraces the dual complexity of ethnicity when it is tied to national identity and ethnic history. In addition to the individual questions of identity as they pertain to ethnicity, Boles discusses how Hwang's plays explore identity issues of gender, religion, profession, and sexuality. The volume concludes with a treatment of Chinglish, both in the context of rising Chinese economic prominence and in the context of Hwang's previous work. Hwang has written ten short plays including The Dance and the Railroad, five screenplays, and many librettos for musical theater. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, Hwang was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

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