American Fiction in Transition: Observer-Hero Narrative, the 1990s, and Postmodernism
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American Fiction in Transition is a study of the observer-hero narrative, a highly significant but critically neglected genre of the American novel. Through the lens of this transitional genre, the book explores the 1990s in relation to debates about the end of postmodernism, and connects the decade to other transitional periods in US literature. Novels by four major contemporary writers are examined: Philip Roth, Paul Auster, E. L. Doctorow and Jeffrey Eugenides. Each novel has a similar structure: an observer-narrator tells the story of an important person in his life who has died. But each story is equally about the struggle to tell the story, to find adequate means to narrate the transitional quality of the hero's life. In playing out this narrative struggle, each novel thereby addresses the broader problem of historical transition, a problem that marks the legacy of the postmodern era in American literature and culture.
witnessed by the narrators, is described in a paragraph of lyrical intensity: at the moment Cecilia is impaled by a spike “through her inexplicable heart” (31), the boys, downstairs at her birthday party, hear “the sound of a watermelon breaking open” (30). In the midst of their account of the event comes the following observation: A human body falls fast. The main thing was just that: the fact of a person taking on completely physical properties, falling at the speed of a rock. It didn’t matter
assign it to him here, out of the chronology of things . . . to suggest the force of him . . . as if we were able to derive him from the disaster he had brought about” (170). And even when he comes around to introducing Sartorius in this manner, McIlvaine worries that conveying the doctor’s effect may be beyond the reach of his language: “I don’t know if I can portray the effect of an overriding mentality . . . This man I had never seen seemed to characterize the room where Martin lay” (169). Yet
reconstituted, that this remains a society in name only. The final chapter of The Waterworks is full of hints about the isolation of the individual in New York life, the absence of any larger social unit. “One way or another, these were all single, unrelated men,” McIlvaine notes of the principles in his story (239), and further on, he describes Martin Pemberton’s aunt as having a tenuous connection to her nephew “in the great tradition of this in-name-only family” (241). And finally, in
clearly portrayed the effect that history has on an individual’s possibility for self-creation” (209), and Jennifer Glaser’s remark that the novel’s “high tragedy” stems from Coleman’s inability to change with the times in his “adhering to outmoded standards” (1473). 6 The complexites of Roth’s borrowing from the tragic tradition are equally evident in American Pastoral. While the chapter titles—“Paradise Remembered,” “The Fall,” “Paradise Lost”—would seem to suggest that the paradigmatic
“He’s Not Like Other Girls” (interview with Geraldine Bedell). Observer (October 6, 2002). Online access. October 1, 2012. www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/ oct/06/fiction.impacprize. —. “Jeffrey Eugenides” (interview with Jonathan Safran Foer). BOMB 81 (2002): 74–89. Online access. October 1, 2012. www.bombsite.com/issues/81/articles/2519. —. “The Novel as a Mental Picture of Its Era” (interview with Bram van Moorhem). 3am (2003). Online access. October 1, 2012.