Utopia and Terror in Contemporary American Fiction by Judie Newman

April 25, 2013

In 2002 Martin Amis said: “After a couple of hours at their desks on September 12, 2001, all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation.” Many said that 9/11 could not, or should not, be written about; others argued to the contrary. And, as Amis implies, the compulsion of the writer is to address such events.

The intervening decade has provided readers with a plethora of literature written in response to or referencing the attacks on the Twin Towers. Those works have, in turn, given rise to a stream of books analysing the literary response to the act of terror. Some are concerned with contextualising works in the light of those written about previous conflicts; others seek to overview and analyse the literary responses generated.

Judie Newman’s Utopia and Terror in Contemporary American Fiction represents a sharper focus on the concept of terror in relation to the seemingly contradictory notion of Utopia. Focusing on texts published in the past 15 years, she begins investigating those that address the concept of Utopia through language and symbol.

She uses Amy Waldman’s satirical short story Freedom to pose questions about the quest for Utopia and its relationship with desire. In an attempt to create a “happy” island nation for released prisoners, who closely resemble those held captive in Guantanamo Bay, Waldman’s “freedom” becomes an exercise in the manipulation of desire by an autocratic dictator. Her story is set in a globalised world reliant on the commodification of emotion to drive it.

Newman furthers her investigation with a close reading of the imagery in the short stories of Kim Edwards, whose descriptions of “other worlds” are delivered as vivid moments of perfection. However, whose image of perfection is being explored, and what do these notions of perfection rely on? Newman contends that the desire for perfection may in fact be dangerous, owing to its reliance on the satiation of desire.

In addressing Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest, Newman explores the links between the writer and the terrorist. This novel is based on the real-life case of American Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who conducted a series of attacks on US soil from 1978 to 1995. Kaczynski sought to create a neo- Luddite Utopia in place of what he saw as an over-technologised and processed society. In pursuing his own narrative, Kaczynski can be viewed as a writer, a creator of worlds, but in Newman’s close reading, this association is undone and the “primacy of writing as a creative force” is detached from the destruction of terror.

Later chapters focus on US engagement with the Middle East and the clash of utopian ideals in the work of André Dubus III and Dalia Sofer. In considering John Updike’s Toward the End of Time, Newman explores the use of dystopia and relates this to colonialism driven by concepts of Utopia. She then moves beyond America with an assessment of Bernadine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots, where the narrative fluctuates between a “rational” exposition of scientific racism and the terror experienced through racism. Chitra Divakaruni’s novel One Amazing Thing is reflected on as a text that connects the possibility of Utopia within the very experience of disaster.

This is a focused investigation demonstrating a keen analysis of narrative technique. Newman also draws on relevant debate by authors including Naomi Klein and Kathryn Hume to support her arguments. As the George W. Bush’s administration’s “War on Terror” has come under criticism for being a war against an abstract term, it feels fitting that writers have sought to explore terror through the ostensibly unobtainable concept of Utopia. Newman’s effort is both timely and considered.

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