Fiction in the Quantum Universe

Fiction in the Quantum Universe

Fiction in the Quantum Universe

Fiction in the Quantum Universe


In this outstanding book Susan Strehle argues that a new fiction has developed from the influence of modern physics. She calls this new fiction actualism, and within that framework she offers a critical analysis of major novels by Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, William Gaddis, John Barth, Margaret Atwood, and Donald Barthelme.

According to Strehle, the actualists balance attention to questions of art with an engaged meditation on the external, actual world. While these actualist novels diverge markedly from realistic practice, Strehle claims that they do so in order to reflect more acutely what we now understand as real. Reality is no longer "realistic"; in the new physical or quantum universe, reality is discontinuous, energetic, relative, statistical, subjectively seen, and uncertainly known- all terms taken from new physics.

Actualist fiction is characterized by incompletions, indeterminacy, and "open" endings unsatisfying to the readerly wish for fulfilled promises and completed patterns. Gravity's Rainbow, for example, ends not with a period but with a dash. Strehle argues that such innovations in narrative reflect on twentieth-century history, politics, science, and discourse.


I began work on this book when a relatively simple problem turned complex: I was exploring the influence that Vladimir Nabokov had on Thomas Pynchon, who took a course from Nabokov at Cornell. But historical reality--the world outside the text that alters the course of fiction when two significant writers meet in a banked lecture hall--has lost ground in the criticism of contemporary fiction. Postmodern narratives appear to many critics to be metafiction: a fiction designed to comment on its own textual and linguistic processes. More generally, critics regard all contemporary writers who have abandoned realism as having abandoned reality at the same stroke. In the prevailing metafictive climate, the world outside of fiction is assumed by some critics of postmodern fiction to be linguistic and textual, by others to be fictive or imaginary, and by virtually all to be beside the point.

In exploring the connections between Nabokov and Pynchon, I found that I needed to redefine the aims and interests of contemporary fiction and to place it in a new context. I had to reconstruct the extraliterary, historical dimension in which similar fictions can make kindred sense, and I needed to supplement the metafictive model with another understanding of current fictional aesthetics. Once I had done so, I could not only complete the project arguing for Pynchon's indebtedness to Nabokov (in a study published in Contemporary Literature in 1983), I could also undertake a meaningful study of a community of novelists.

My first premise is that contemporary fiction departs from realism . . .

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