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Plotting Terror

Plotting Terror: Novelists and Terrorists in Contemporary Fiction

Margaret Scanlan
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 199
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  • Book Info
    Plotting Terror
    Book Description:

    Is literature dangerous? In the romantic view, writers were rebels--Shelley's "unacknowledged legislators of mankind"--poised to change the world. In relation to twentieth-century literature, however, such a view becomes suspect. By looking at a range of novels about terrorism, Plotting Terror raises the possibility that the writer's relationship to actual politics may be considerably reduced in the age of television and the Internet.

    Margaret Scanlan traces the figure of the writer as rival or double of the terrorist from its origins in the romantic conviction of the writer's originality and power through a century of political, social, and technological developments that undermine that belief. She argues that serious writers like Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Doris Lessing, and Don DeLillo imagine a contemporary writer's encounter with terrorists as a test of the old alliance between writer and revolutionary.

    After considering the possibility that televised terrorism is replacing the novel, or that writing, as contemporary theory would have it, is itself a form of violence, Scanlan asks whether the revolutionary impulse itself is dying--in politics as much as in literature. Her analyses take the reader on a fascinating exploration of the relationship between actual bombs and stories about bombings, from the modern world to its electronic representation, and from the exercise of political power to the fiction writer's power in the world.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2192-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    In the Wake of the Second World War, as our Japanese and West German enemies turned into model citizens working economic miracles, the fear and loathing that fascism had so recently inspired were channeled into Communism. Some forty years later, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the evil empire called for a “new public enemy number one,” and terrorism stepped into that role (Said 149). Now it is terrorists who lurk in every shadow, images of terrorist attacks that fill our television screens, and fears of new varieties—nuclear, biological, cyberterrorism—that drive calls for increased surveillance and larger...

  5. Part I. The Terrorist Rival

    • 1 Don DeLillo’s Mao II and the Rushdie Affair
      (pp. 19-36)

      Terror, like a toxic airborne event, floats across the deceptively shiny surfaces of Don DeLillo’s fiction, turning the reassuring rituals of even suburban life—filling up at the self-service pump or playing golf—into desperate acts. The intersecting planes of that world, even at its glossiest, always include nameless dread, the possibility that the banal will erupt into violence, the clichés of the tabloid come to life. Not surprisingly, terrorists, cult murderers, assassins, and hit men have always been at home in that world, butMao II(1991) marks a new phase, DeLillo’s first extended exploration of the relationship between...

    • 2 Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man
      (pp. 37-56)

      Lurking behind Bill Gray’s encounter with terrorism is the possibility that writers are so powerless, their books so seldom read, as to render the question of their political influence moot. InResurrection Man, a 1994 novel about the Northern Irish Troubles, Eoin Mc-Namee also seems to assume the death of the novel as a social force. His writers are two journalists, one dying of cancer and the other drifting into alcoholism; his terrorists are secondary school dropouts, Protestant boys from the Shankill Road. If McNamee’s grim city contains poets delusional enough to consider themselves its unacknowledged legislators, they remain silent....

  6. Part II. Displaced Causes

    • 3 Mary McCarthy’s Cannibals and Missionaries
      (pp. 59-74)

      Both DeLillo and McNamee observe the mass media closely; DeLillo emphasizes the novelist’s waning political influence, Mc- Namee the possibility of the writer’s complicity with terrorism. The career of Mary McCarthy illustrates how a writer’s past political activism can engender this guilty sense of responsibility. By the early 1970s, Mary McCarthy had become that rare creature, the American woman of letters, famous for debating Diana Trilling about Vietnam on the pages of theNew York Review of Booksand being sued by Lillian Hellman for calling her a liar on the Dick Cavett show. Her career as a public intellectual...

    • 4 Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist
      (pp. 75-92)

      Like Mary McCarthy, Doris Lessing had a long history of Leftist activism; unlike McCarthy, she joined the Communist Party and remained a member until the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Like McCarthy, she is a keen satirist of the personal shortcomings of political idealists and the poses and postures of the public meeting. In spite of these considerable strengths, whenThe Good Terroristappeared in 1985 , Denis Donoghue objected to the book’s many inaccuracies. The novel’s heroine, he argued, is “posthumous,” its characters a “libel on hippies”: contemporary English protesters do not talk like that, contemporary English class divisions are...

  7. Part III. Novelist as Terrorist:: Terrorism as Fiction

    • 5 J. M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg
      (pp. 95-107)

      In violent times, some novelists abandon literature altogether, taking to the streets or barricades; others, of course, bring the streets and barricades into their fiction, exposing suffering and injustice, arguing, pleading, and persuading. Those who do neither will stand accused of complacency, perhaps collaboration; when bent on justice, many people firmly believe that those who are not for them are against them. In our time South Africa has been one of those places that seem to compel writers into action, and as a professor at the University of Cape Town, J. M. Coetzee has spent much of his adult life...

    • 6 Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Assignment
      (pp. 108-120)

      Throughout the twentieth century, most terrorist fiction, even that critical of popular beliefs about terrorism, continued to follow the conventions of nineteenth-century realism. For their part, government officials and the press still construct terrorism much as popular fiction does, and terrorists continue to stage their spectacles with an eye to what is now a global stage. Recognizing how often revolutionaries, politicians, and journalists draw on the familiar terrorist story inevitably leads to wondering how it might be disrupted, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt’sThe Assignmentoffers an extended response to that question. In this 1986 novella, Dürrenmatt links the inadequacy of familiar...

  8. Part IV. Is Terrorism Dead?

    • 7 Philip Roth’s and Robert Stone’s Jerusalem Novels
      (pp. 123-138)

      Dürrenmatt’s suspicion of realism takes to one extreme that loss of confidence that we have already seen: a failure of belief in the power of art, and in particular of the realistic novel, to bring about meaningful change in the world. But is terrorism really more effective? Mary McCarthy and Don DeLillo do not seem hopeful for literary art, but their terrorists still throw their bombs in a world where independent political action still makes sense. However crude or uncontrolled its devastations, one cannot doubt that terrorism makes a mark in McNamee’s Belfast, just as it does in Coetzee’s version...

    • 8 Volodine’s Lisbonne dernière marge
      (pp. 139-154)

      Throughout this study, we have noted variations on the terrorist as the writer’s rival, double, and secret sharer, tracing their origins from the romantic conviction of the writer’s originality and power through a century of political, social, and technological developments that undermine that belief. But it seems safe to say that Antoine Volodine’sLisbonne dernière margetakes this theme to its logical extreme.¹ In this 1990 novel, the terrorist is a novelist. Volodine reconstructs the whole romantic literary scene as a scene of subversion against a violent state and then deconstructs it, suggesting that not only the novel, but more...

  9. Epilogue: Conrad and the Unabomber
    (pp. 155-162)

    In an apocryphal story, taught as fact to American schoolchildren for a century, Abraham Lincoln is introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe. “Ah,” remarks the melancholy president, “so this is the little woman who made the great war.” Tiresomely, Stowe’s biographer points out that Lincoln never met the author ofUncle Tom’s Cabin, but we can recognize folkloric truth when we see it. It was once possible to believe that an American president attributed the terrible war over which he presided to the power of a pen wielded by a person who never was allowed to vote in a United States...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 163-182)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 183-194)
  12. Index
    (pp. 195-199)