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On Endings

On Endings: American Postmodern Fiction and the Cold War

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    On Endings
    Book Description:

    What does narrative look like when the possibility of an expansive future has been called into question? This query is the driving force behind Daniel Grausam'sOn Endings,which seeks to show how the core texts of American postmodernism are a response to the geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War and especially to the new potential for total nuclear conflict. Postwar American fiction needs to be rethought, he argues, by highlighting postmodern experimentation as a mode of profound historical consciousness.

    In Grausam's view, previous studies of fiction mimetically concerned with nuclear conflict neither engage the problems that total war might pose to narration nor take seriously the paradox of a war that narrative can never actually describe. Those few critical works that do take seriously such problems do not offer a broad account of American postmodernism. And recent work on postmodernism has offered no comprehensive historical account of the part played by nuclear weapons in the emergence of new forms of temporal and historical experience.On Endingssignificantly extends the project of historicizing postmodernism while returning the nuclear to a central place in the study of the Cold War.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3166-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: On Endings
    (pp. 1-22)

    No one encountering a book review that castigates an author as the “worst writer of his generation” would be surprised to find further incendiary claims, but Dale Peck’s poisonous 2002 review of Rick Moody’sThe Black Veilis worth quoting because it so economically restates one powerful narrative about the American novel after 1945.¹ A scathing critique of Moody’s novel becomes a denunciation of the whole strand of contemporary fiction to which it belongs: these writers are “heirs to a bankrupt tradition,” a tradition that “burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis,...

  5. 1 Institutionalizing Postmodernism: John Barth and Modern War
    (pp. 23-41)

    Holding distinctly antagonistic visions of the nature of fiction during the different phases of his career, John Barth exemplifies the metafictional turn in American writing during the 1960s, and provides a perfect case study for understanding some of the social and political pressures that contributed to the emergence of this new aesthetic. Furthermore, Barth was the great institutionalizer of metafiction both within the American university (first at Buffalo, and then at Johns Hopkins) and for a larger reading audience, providing a public face—in lectures, journalism, and reviews—for what we would come to call the postmodern canon.¹ Yet, while...

  6. 2 The Crying of Lot 49, circa 1642; or, Pynchon, Periodicity, and Total War
    (pp. 42-58)

    A third of the way through Thomas Pynchon’sThe Crying of Lot 49(1966), the mystery deepens. Oedipa Maas’s quest to untangle the confusion surrounding a dead lover’s estate has sent her to seeThe Courier’s Tragedy, a barely known (and in reality nonexistent) Jacobean revenge tragedy. The play initially sounds exactly as you would expect if Pynchon decided to do revenge tragedy: absurd, unbelievably complex, over-the-top, a “Road Runner cartoon in blank verse.”¹ There are land mines, a falcon with envenomed talons, an exploding goat, a lye pit, and a scene in which a character’s tongue is ripped out...

  7. 3 The Time of the Nation, the Time of the State
    (pp. 59-75)

    Early in Robert Coover’sThe Public Burning(1977) the reader gets another shock. We’ve already had to process that Richard Nixon narrates much of the novel, that the Rosenbergs are going to be executed in Times Square during a giant public party, and that Uncle Sam is a “real” person rather than a mythic hero. Now, during a particularly loaded golf game between Richard Nixon and Uncle Sam, the intimacy of Nixon’s contact with the national symbolic turns into pure absurdity. The urgency with which Sam has been forcing Nixon to pursue the execution of the Rosenbergs becomes newly marked...

  8. 4 Unthinking the Thinkability of the Unthinkable
    (pp. 76-103)

    In Tim O’Brien’s 1985 novelThe Nuclear Age,the increasingly hysterical protagonist has only one “practical” response to his fear of imminent thermonuclear war: he digs a big hole in his backyard in the hope of completing a fallout shelter for himself, his wife, and his daughter before the missiles fly.¹ A pure product of the Cold War, and a disenchanted veteran of one of the New Left’s aggressive subfactions, William Cowling’s dreams are haunted by destruction.² O’Brien’s novel reminds us of just how intractable the Cold War seemed to be in 1985; no one could have foreseen that the...

  9. 5 Trying to Understand End Zone
    (pp. 104-123)

    “I became fascinated by words and phrases like thermal hurricane, overkill, circular error probability, post-attack environment, stark deterrence, dose-rate contours, kill-ratio, spasm war. Pleasure in these words. They were extremely effective, I thought, whispering shyly of cycles of destruction so great that the language of past world wars became laughable, the wars themselves somewhat naive.”¹ William Cowling would no doubt be furious at Don DeLillo’s apparent reveling in the language of “professional” nuclear war strategy, revealing as it does the radical divide between signifier and signified at the heart of a strategic culture that could contemplate killing nations.² As lines...

  10. 6 The Dominant Tense: Richard Powers and Late Postmodernism
    (pp. 124-148)

    Born in 1957, Richard Powers is the most publicly visible heir to the tradition of postmodern self-reflexivity outlined in the preceding five chapters, and his stature as one of the most important writers of his generation now seems assured: his honors include a MacArthur “genius” grant and a National Book Award, he has a growing popular readership, and an emerging critical industry is devoted to his work. He came of creative age in the Reagan era when the Cold War was reheated (his first novel,Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance,was published in 1985), and he has...

  11. Afterword: Critical Conventions / Postmodern Canons
    (pp. 149-162)

    In the third chapter ofDemocracy(1984), Joan Didion tells us that the novel she is “no longer writing” was to have been “a study in provincial manners, in the acute tyrannies of class and privilege by which people assert themselves against the tropics,” focusing on a “family in which the colonial impulse had marked every member.”¹ This is classic Didion in its narrative self-consciousness, butDemocracyis also resolutely Didionesque in another way, since the novel she goes on to write is, like much of her fiction, interested in peeling away the veneer of civility to reveal what sustains...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 163-178)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 179-190)
  14. Index
    (pp. 191-196)