English 645: Studies in the Novel

Postmodern Fiction and Transnational Politics

Prof. Joseph Conte

Fall 2008

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Literary fiction has turned from narratives of personal revelation to encounters with transnational politics in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.  The “irrational exuberance” of hyper-capitalism that marked the turn of the millennium has ceded to what Don DeLillo calls “the ruins of the future.”  Once we thrilled to Cold War narratives that presented a binary opposition between the US and the USSR, the staple of popular spy novels and films.  Though sometimes critical of the morality of espionage and the “license to kill,” spy thrillers by the likes of John le Carré, Robert Ludlum, and Frederick Forsyth were largely framed by the opposition of democracy and communism, the CIA and the KGB, our “good guys” and their “bad guys.”  If the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought to a close an overt dichotomy in international politics and deprived Western writers of a reliable archenemy, the events of 9/11 not only redirected our “intelligence community” from counter-espionage to counter-terrorism but also compelled writers to attend to a multilateral global political terrain.  We encounter in the work of international novelists a new literary paradigm of transnational political forces in contention with one another.  Following the attacks in Madrid, Bali, London, New York and Moscow, the new century has ushered in an Age of Terror in which the players, the issues, and the motives are being redefined across national borders and alliances.

We’ll examine novels that respond directly or obliquely, personally and politically, to the cataclysm of 9/11, taking some pains to attend to the differing perspectives afforded from other national vantage points.  In Falling Man (2007), Don DeLillo eschews documentary realism in favor of representing 9/11 through its cognitive and psychological effects on one World Trade Center survivor, Keith Neudecker.  In Terrorist (2006), John Updike attempts to show credible motive for the disaffection of an American-born Islamic fundamentalist, the son of Irish-American and Egyptian parents, who commits himself to a suicide attack on the Lincoln Tunnel.  Paul West, in The Immensity of the Here and Now (2003), presents two men who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, the neurasthenia of the twenty-first century, and who are alternately wracked by terror and rage.

We’ll consider how multinational capitalism, for which the secular ideals of representative democracy are a thinly disguised “advance man,” contends with the threat of a transnational theocratic state, branding all anti-Western sentiment as fomenting border-crossing terrorism.  Michel Houellebecq’s Platform (2002) balances a French civil servant between the opposing weights of bureaucracy and sexual tourism, anomie and ecstasy, Paris and Bangkok, secularism and fundamentalism.  Orhan Pamuk sets Snow (2004) in the village of Kars in far eastern Turkey, away from the multicultural city of Istanbul that links Europe and Asia, in order to foreground the tensions and resistance between Islam and Turkey’s secular state as girls, forbidden to wear head scarves to school, commit suicide.

We’ll critique how the protestations of cultural exclusivity can be fashioned to override expressions of individual human rights.  J. M Coetzee, in Elizabeth Costello (2003), fashions eight lectures delivered by the distinguished Austrian novelist, the eponymous Elizabeth Costello, on evil, animal rights, eros, and of course, the purpose of writing in an ethically confused and disputatious world.  The protagonists of Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document (2006) are modeled on the founding members of the Weather Underground, whose espousal of radical action against the American government during the Vietnam War led to the Days of Rage protest in Chicago in October, 1969.  She recalibrates the ethical and political relationship between state-sponsored warfare and militant resistance since the Sixties and how our recent turmoil has forced a reconsideration of the relation between “radical activism” and “domestic terrorism.”

We’ll conclude with Thomas Pynchon’s most recently published encyclopedic novel, Against the Day (2006), set at the turn-of-the-last century when international Anarchism and trade unionism sought to dislodge plutocrats from power and turn the material assets of the industrial monopolies over to the workers.  Moving from the silver mining camps of Colorado Springs to the newly modern cities of Europe, Pynchon’s capacious narrative provides an allegorical indictment of the 21st-century politics of “unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places.”

Course requirements include a seminar presentation and a twenty-page research paper that will integrate non-fiction, cultural and literary critical sources.

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Last revised on Tuesday, January 15, 2008.

Copyright © 2008  Joseph M. Conte.  All Rights Reserved.