Contemporary American Fiction

February 24, 2011

Author: David Brauner

Edition: First

Publisher: Edinburgh University Press

Pages: 256

Price: £60.00 and £16.99

ISBN 9780748622672 and 22689

Contemporary US fiction is a developing field. Its protagonists have to fight for their place at the table, and critics are understandably nervous about the verdict of posterity. Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth? Yes. Paul Auster, Don DeLillo? Probably. Dave Eggers, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer? The jury is still out.

David Brauner addresses this problem in the concluding chapter of his lively new textbook, which is part of the Edinburgh Critical Guides series. His choices, he admits, represent a gamble; although familiar heavyweights Auster, DeLillo and Roth make an appearance, he also has time to assess works by Brett Easton Ellis, Eugenides, Gish Jen, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Powers and Annie Proulx.

Brauner chooses a thematic rather than systematic approach, with contemporary US fiction viewed under the headings of irony and paradox, "alternate histories", race and ethnicity, and genre.

This last theme allows Brauner to examine the relationship of the film adaptation to US literature today. Recent film versions of Proulx's short story Brokeback Mountain, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and McCarthy's No Country for Old Men have tended to simplify the narratives and play down the irony and ambiguity of the original texts. Brauner highlights how - especially in the adaptations of Proulx's and Frazier's texts - directors have remained enthralled by a mythical American West that the original writings are keen to problematise.

There are many fascinating avenues of enquiry. Particularly interesting is Brauner's treatment of the racial dynamics at work in writers such as Roth, Powers and Jen, where liminal racial identities (Jewish, Chinese-American) become ways of examining the fractures in racial politics in the US.

Students and teachers of literature will find a wealth of new approaches to recent US prose writing here. An informative section describes the ways in which contemporary US literature is both in thrall to and critical of postmodern pop culture. Books such as DeLillo's White Noise and Easton Ellis' American Psycho - both addressed by Brauner - appear on the surface disdainful of contemporary culture. The ridiculous university featured in White Noise promotes Hitler and Elvis studies as undergraduate courses, while the grotesque hyper-consumerism of the serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho seems like a savage indictment of Western values. Yet, at the same time both books revel in the detail of the postmodern, consumerist environments they describe.

This textbook will also be of interest to students of modern US history - the history of race relations, attitudes to the American past, the changing dynamics of gender and responses to consumerism are all treated thoughtfully by Brauner. This is not a comprehensive overview - the work of Marilynne Robinson is a notable omission - but it is a sharp and accessible guide to the varied and fascinating currents at work in recent US fiction.

Who is it for? Undergraduates studying contemporary US literature and their seminar leaders.

Presentation: Sharp, accessible and imaginative. Each chapter ends with a clear summary and a series of questions for discussion.

Would you recommend it? It is a lively and imaginative introduction to some of the most important themes in contemporary US prose fiction and well worth purchasing.

Recommended

From Agamben to Zizek: Contemporary Critical Theorists

Editor: Jon Simons

Edition: First

Publisher: Edinburgh University Press

Pages: 288

Price: £60.00 and £19.99

ISBN 9780748639731 and 639748

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