Is Postmodern Fiction Da Bomb?

By Evans, David H. | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Is Postmodern Fiction Da Bomb?


Evans, David H., Twentieth Century Literature


On Endings: American Postmodern Fiction and the Cold War Novels of Exile and Alternate Worlds

by Daniel Grausam

Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011.196 pages

One might summarize the argument of Daniel Grausam's book On Endings by paraphrasing T. W. Adorno's famous aphorism "the postmodern novel lives on because the moment to realize it was missed" (1) with the relieved addendum, "and a bloody good thing too." For it is Grausam's contention that a central and insufficiently considered element in the matrix of fiction of the postwar years was the prospect of shorter living through physics: the imagination of nuclear-powered apocalypse and the sense of an imminent existential ending finally made possible by the advance of modern science. In a brisk rereading of works by some of the usual postmodern suspects--John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Tim O'Brien, Don DeLillo, Richard Powers--Grausam makes the case that the "radical experimentation of American postmodern fiction is an effect of, and increasingly, an attempt to understand, life lived under the threat of total nuclear war" (4). I will resist the temptation to describe Grausam's claims as explosive, but they are ambitious; this is commendable, but it also means that parts of the argument are inevitably more persuasive than others.

As Grausam is well aware, considerations of the cultural impact of the bomb are not new. There was a boomlet of "nuclear criticism" in the mid to late eighties, when the neo-Cold War rhetoric of the Reagan administration moved the issue of nuclear armament temporarily back to the center of public discourse. No doubt the best-known product of the era was Derrida's essay, "No Apocalypse, Not Now. "The timeliness of these interventions was diminished after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but books arguing for the importance of a bombocentric perspective on post-war culture have appeared regularly since then: for example, Margot Henriksen's 1997 Dr. Strangelove's America and David Cordle's 2006 States of Suspense. Nor is it surprising that novelists writing in the atomic age should be concerned with the prospect of an imminent holocaust. The novel has traditionally imagined one of its primary purposes as delivering the news, and there was no bigger news in the later twentieth century than humanity's acquisition of the capacity to end humanity.

Where Grausam undertakes to stake out original territory, however, is in his attempt to link the bomb with thefirmal innovations associated with postmodern literature. The historically unique situation created by the proliferation of nuclear weapons provided not only thematic material, but also a paradoxically altered form of temporality without which postmodernism would lack much of its distinctive frisson. Nuclear war differed from any previously imagined or realized threat in that it would eliminate the possibility of its own representation. By definition, such a conflict can take place, but can never have taken place, since its historical actualization would explode history as such. Such a consummation confounds our standard conception of narrative, since the end of this story would not fulfill, but destroy, its own beginning. Argues Grausam, "the changed relationship to futurity introduced by the bomb in part produces the complicated relationship to reference" (6) that characterizes much postmodern writing, specifically "its substitution of ontological questions for epistemological ones, its relentless metafictionality, [and] its problems with closure" (151).

Grausam proposes that his interpretation has the additional attraction of rescuing certain postmodern novels, as the churchmen did Virgil's 4th Eclogue, from irrelevance, in this case the irrelevance resulting from their own apparent rejection of history and flight into the putatively unserious realms of metafiction and formalist play. Grausam argues, however, that what look like irresponsibly ahistorical works, sometimes even to their own creators, in fact served as deeply engaged registers of the most important political and technological events of their time (Grausam intends this as a favor, although it strikes me a bit like the Mormon practice of posthumous baptism). …

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