American literature has always prided itself on responding to conditions of modernity, on breaking up calcified cultural traditions and establishing new modes of representation that might better reflect an evolving world. Looking back over his artistic and editorial career in 1912, William Dean Howells proudly aligned himself with a rejection of ossified aesthetic practices: “Literature,” he said, “which was once of the cloister, the school, has become more and more of the forum and incidentally of the market-place.” It is, though, one of the curiosities of the present day that the liberal version of the United States which became institutionalized in the second half of the twentieth century, and which is still reflected today in the novels of luminaries such as Philip Roth and John Updike, continues to exert such a strong hold on the popular imagination. Roth’s powerful fictional accounts of recent American history exhibit disdain for what he takes to be the vulgarizing influences of mass culture and ways in which such degrading forces impact upon the existential sensibilities of his heroes, yet Roth’s novels are still regarded, especially in Europe, as an incisive account of American life in the first decade of the new millennium. But, as we see from novels such as The Plot Against America, Roth’s creative imagination is still anchored primarily in the Second World War and its aftermath, and it has little interest in addressing ways in which the United States in the twenty-first century has been forced to accommodate forces that exceed the epistemological premises of what Roth called, in the title of one of his books, “American Pastoral,” that old notion of America as a privileged location, a world set apart. Contemporary American literature is necessarily repositioning itself amidst a welter of transnational forces: international terrorism, global warming, industrial outsourcing, the instability of financial markets, and so on. American literature in the twenty-first century is thus becoming a very different kind of animal from its twentieth-century predecessor, one that follows the Howells principle of responding to changing circumstances, but which is veering away significantly from the model of American singularity and exceptionalism that the generation of Roth and Updike tended to take for granted.
Unlike Roth, the fiction of Jonathan Franzen takes the new worlds of computer science and global media as givens, but then seeks to open up spaces within these abstract grids of information technology where human emotion and identity can be explored. Whereas many versions of American pastoral going back through the nineteenth century sought to create a protected space from which technological progress was simply excluded—one thinks, for example, of Sarah Orne Jewett’s stories of the 1890s, set in rural Maine—Franzen rejects such a notion of retreat. Instead, he attempts to render a more complex version of contemporary life, one that opens up crevices within the monolithic structures of corporate America. The question Franzen thus confronts is how personal authenticity might be articulated, even within a global framework of structural displacement and irony. His novels deliberately make thematic connections between the domestic and the foreign: for example, in The 27th City (1988), Franzen starts with a map of “St Louis and Vicinity” as the frontispiece, and he goes on to chronicle how the Missouri city was “appalled” when a thirty-five-year-old woman serving as Commissioner of the Bombay police in India was appointed as its new police chief. In The Corrections (2001), the gradual disintegration of a family unit in the Midwestern town of “St Jude” is linked to the collapse of the dotcom boom and to turbulence in global financial markets, with the scenes set in Lithuania enabling the hero, Chip Lambert, to get a different perspective on family life in America: “From a distance of four thousand miles, everything he’d left behind in the U.S. looked manageably small.” True to its academic provenance—Chip starts his career teaching cultural theory at a college in Connecticut—The Corrections can be seen as a kind of thesis novel, knowledgeably critiquing human relations to science and finance while also intertwining the domestic and the international.
Dave Eggers, less conspicuously theoretical in his orientation, began his career by taking a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, where his “old school teachers” trained him to take “facts very seriously.” In 1998 he founded an independent publishing house in San Francisco that puts out McSweeney’s, a quarterly literary journal to which his friend David Foster Wallace and others contributed. Eggers thus came to fiction relatively late, publishing his first novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in 2000. Yet the true “genius” of this work is to have updated the stylistic idiom of New Journalism for the television age. Fiction inspired by New Journalism, a genre pioneered by Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer in the 1960s, sought to enliven the often stale conventions of prose fiction by embracing within it vivid factual narratives more typically associated with journalistic reportage, and A Heartbreaking Work, which chronicles the death of the narrator’s parents and his efforts to bring up his younger brother single-handedly, similarly prides itself on its factual authenticity: indeed, the front cover proclaims the book is “based on a true story.” As we know from the work of Paul John Eakin and other critical studies of autobiography, all confessional narrative, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau onward, is necessarily a retrospective fiction in one form or another; but what is interesting about A Heartbreaking Work is the way it seeks to validate its own story by repositioning it as the common property of an entire generation. Eggers deliberately reorients publishing conventions, spoofing the copyright page and so on, to reinforce an urgent sense that this narrative both exceeds the conventional boundaries of fiction and is universally applicable: “This can be about you! You and your pals.” Eggers’s innovative mode of realism, in other words, lies in its aesthetic of interchangeability, the way it presents the narrator as “the common multiplier for 47 million,” using the image of a “lattice” to evoke the connective tissue that binds his contemporaries together, and manipulating cultural memories of television as the fulcrum upon which these common experiences turn. After the loss of their parents, the narrator in A Heartbreaking Work talks of recreating a surrogate family environment through TV simulation—“I am making our lives a music video, a game show on Nickelodeon, lots of quick cuts, crazy camera angles, fun, fun, fun!”—and there are innumerable references here to specific television programs: Blind Date, 21 Jump Street, The A-Team, Flipper, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Veronica’s Closet, The West Wing, The Simpsons, and so on. There is also an extended scene where the hero auditions for MTV's “seminal program” The Real World, a reality TV series following the lives of a group of cohabiting young people, which is said to be filming its next season in San Francisco:
Everyone’s seen the show. We all despise it, are enthralled by it, morbidly curious . . . is it because in it we recognize so much that is maddeningly familiar? Maybe this is indeed us. Watching the show is like listening to one’s voice on tape: it’s real of course, but however mellifluous and articulate you hear your own words, once they’re sent through this machine and are given back to you, they’re high-pitched, nasal, horrifying.
On one level, The Real World functions reflexively as an emblem of Eggers’s characteristic style of televisual realism, where his own family environment mirrors the surrogate family portrayed on the reality TV show. Television aesthetics, which typically present a scenario as if it were happening “live” (even when it isn’t), are predicated upon an illusion of immediate relay, and Eggers reproduces this idiom by transferring his narrative into the slipstream of a present tense, where the crossovers between human consciousness and the “breezy frivolity” of “limitless cable TV” are both highlighted and counterpointed. In Mistakes We Knew We Were Making, a supplement conjoined to the novel and operating as what it calls a “corrective appendix” to it, the narrator talks about “my brain’s 24-hour worst-case-scenario cable channel,” as though he were envisaging the events unfolding around him as a plotline from television. On another level, though, this electronic community of sentiment serves to validate rather than ironize the integrity of the narrator’s emotions. In his theoretically informed appendix, Eggers cites Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, where nostalgic recollection is intercut with McCarthy’s own acerbic demystification of the flawed nature of such recollections, as one of his literary models; but in a still more abstruse section within Mistakes entitled “Irony and Its Malcontents,” Eggers employs a self-deprecatingly small typeface to challenge theoretically the validity of an application of irony to all “contemporary cultural production” by “agéd arbiters.” The author’s point is that life is much more of a continuum, a mixed bag—as he says, “we don’t label our days Serious Days or Humorous Days,” so why our art?—so that austerely to categorize messy human emotions within a rigidly ironic framework is ultimately to be excessively reductive and demeaning, “akin to the too-common citing of ‘the Midwest’ as the regional impediment to all national social progress (when we all know the ‘Midwest’ is ten miles outside of any city).” Eggers thus seeks to validate the power of human sentiment, associating this power of affect both with the much-maligned Midwest and also with the kind of sentimental popular culture, associated with mass media forms, that became the common property of the MTV generation. Rather than representing the Midwest as a specific geographic region of the United States, Eggers conceptualizes it as a democratic zone defined by its distance from prestigious urban centres and by its openness to the circulation of electronic sentiment.
The appendix to A Heartbreaking Work specifically declares that “[t]rue community cannot be political,” and it argues not for any instrumental form of collectivism but for the “warmth of other people, their electricity.” Eggers makes a point in this novel of playing up his Irish Catholic background, and the communitarian strand in his work generally stems more from a desire to connect with a secularized version of universal consciousness, urbi et orbi, than from any sectional or national politics. His second novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity (2002) attempts deliberately to unite domestic and global through the madcap scheme of its protagonists, Will and Hand, to travel around the world in a week, and though of course it is a particularly skewed and partial view of the wider world that emerges here, nevertheless the sense of curiosity about Senegal, Morocco, Estonia, and the various other places they visit reinforces this putatively religious notion of a global “communion of souls.” The narrator’s travels bring home to him the simultaneity of the global village: he watches a “cable-access comedy improv show” in Estonia and a porno channel on TV in Egypt, and he celebrates the way the Earth’s “endless chorus” is linked to “fiber optic cables, the way they can hold all that information.” But the novel also foregrounds the limits of mediated representation: “That Hand didn’t know more about Morocco—that it was green, for starters—demonstrated the great gaps in knowledge that occur when one gets most of one’s information from the internet.” There is, then, a phenomenological grounding to this escapade, an acknowledgement of the irreducible quality of place. As Eggers himself put it in an interview when the novel appeared: “Don’t ever believe anyone who says that the world’s been explored, there’s nothing left to see, all that. I mean, have you driven through Wyoming? Wyoming just makes you weep. We’re so lucky to have it, all of it.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Eggers is more invested in the global politics of environmentalism than in the predictable routines of U.S. party politics, and his short story “Your Mother and I,” included in the collection How We Are Hungry (2005), entertains the fantasy of inducing George Soros to buy the Amazon rainforest in order to preserve it for the planet. Eggers’s remarkable 2006 novel, What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, extends this concern with global politics by ventriloquizing the voice of a refugee from the Sudanese civil war who comes to live in Atlanta. Prefaced by a map of Sudan and Ethiopia, What is the What seeks deliberately to raise awareness about social and economic conditions in Africa, and again it does so through a modified form of New Journalism, whereby the real life story of Valentino is recast in fictional form. Eggers admitted that he experienced considerable difficulty in finding the right modus operandi for this book—“whether it would be fiction or nonfiction. After about eighteen months of struggle with it, we settled on a fictionalized autobiography, in Valentino’s voice.” Yet the powerful effect of this hybrid form lies in its insistence upon its own authenticity, the way it implicitly peels back its own layers of artifice to convey a powerful illusion of historicity. Just as A Heartbreaking Work validates its presentation of human sentiment by erasing the boundaries between real life and television, so What is the What dramatizes a sense of political urgency by linking the novel to its own website (where the real-life story is continually being updated), and by pointedly donating all the profits from the book to the Sudanese community.
All of this presupposes a very different notion of authorship from that which we associate with Roth or Updike, and also a very different understanding of the scope of “American literature.” Rather than deferring to the traditional mystique of the author, Eggers’s work prefers to position the writer as an amanuensis of the global community, a correlative to the universal celebrity enjoyed by Princess Diana, whose death is symptomatically honoured in What is the What: “It seemed the whole world knew this person named Diana, and if the world knew her, the connection between the peoples of the earth was tighter than I had imagined.” When he moves to the United States, Valentino finds himself living in the city which is also the headquarters of CNN—a coincidence highlighted when, thanks to the patronage of Ted Turner, the refugees of the “Lost Boys” foundation in Atlanta celebrate their collective birthdays at the CNN Center. All of this testifies again to Eggers’s attempt to write an ostensibly transnational novel, one where the Sudanese immigrants to the United States construct a virtual community among themselves through e-mail, and where the fates of Africa and America are inextricably linked together by the spectres of international terrorism and politics—Valentino talks of “the web of money and power and oil that made our suffering possible”—as well as by the tentacles of the global media. It would, of course, be easy enough to relate What is the What to more conventional narratives of U.S. immigrant literature: Valentino hails the “kaleidoscopic possibilities” of America, claiming that to live in the United States is to be “blessed,” since, despite 9/11, the country offers “lives of opportunity and ease” by comparison with the situation for his compatriots in Sudan. His panegyric here to the Statue of Liberty, “startling and far more beautiful than I thought possible,” also emphasizes the traditionalist element in the novel, whereby America is presented as a natural force for good in the world. But it would be reductive entirely to conflate this globalized perspective with the state of narcissism—a narcissism both of famous individual writers, and of U.S. culture in general—that typified self-conscious invocations of a “voice of America” during the second half of the twentieth century, in Updike’s “Rabbit” sequence as well as Roth’s historical fictions. For Eggers in the twenty-first century, human rights themselves have become a global commodity, circulating alongside electronic entertainment networks, and his own serious work on behalf of non-profit organizations in San Francisco is of a piece with his ethical aspirations to introduce into his fiction a true planetary spirit.
To relocate American literature within a planetary context is not just to disturb the customary demarcation of its territory, but also to challenge the conventional epistemological framework upon which such territorial claims are grounded. In 1985, the Californian cultural critic Donna Haraway published her influential “Cyborg Manifesto,” where “polymorphous” information systems disrupt assumptions of “organic holism” by introducing confusion about the parameters of mind and body. Similarly, the posthumanist aspects of Franzen and Eggers subvert time-honoured assertions of American pastoral, the blithe understanding of the protected American landscape as potentially redemptive and regenerative, and introduce in its place a universalist dimension that renders the relation between human beings and their location much more opaque. One of Eggers’s stories, “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned,” is narrated by a dog, lending the story a spirit of alterity, a vaguely otherworldly air, the same kind of ontological displacement of human consciousness hypothesized in Haraway’s work. As with Haraway’s similar exploration of the parameters of animal vision in her Companion Species Manifesto (2003), itself a companion to her “Cyborg Manifesto,” the permutations and negotiations among different levels of consciousness —machine/human/animal— introduce a kind of negative theology, where what we do not (and cannot) know becomes just as important as what we are able to recognize. In “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway explicitly takes issue with the nationalistic and anthropocentric forms of pastoral celebrated by Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden (and subsequently endorsed by Roth in works such as American Pastoral) when she asserts: “A cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden.” Instead, Haraway argues in The Companion Species Manifesto, all “connection” is “situated” and “partial”: “I believe that all ethical relating, within or between species, is knit from the silk-strong thread of ongoing alertness to otherness-in-relation.” Otherness-in-relation would be a more accurate description of how the fictions of Franzen and Eggers relate to the external world than more conventional notions of territorial appropriation, regional loyalty or national ownership. Situating their narratives on the boundaries of the human and nonhuman, these novelists describe a world where the “virtual . . . leaks into actual,” rendering the older cognitive maps based on three-dimensional Euclidean geometry anachronistic.
To subvert conventional assumptions of American pastoral, however, is by no means also simply to dissolve the phenomenological concept of a home country. One of the most striking things about American writers in the MTV generation is the way they are concerned to draw ethical extensions and connections between themselves and others without referring these processes of mediation back, as writers in the earlier part of the twentieth century did so compulsively, to a national form of belonging. Familiar critical jeremiads about the debilitating effects of globalization on the field of literary studies tend typically to posit a binary opposition between the “anonymous” effects of global capital on the one hand and what Daniel T. O’Hara calls “the passionate pleasure of being fully alive” on the other. But the mistake here is to imagine that ethics can only be the prerogative of a liberal subject, an assumption that fails to take into account the more complicated and variable ways in which global consciousness has entered into the American cultural domain in the twenty-first century. The liberal perspective, however, cannot properly account for the implications of the contemporary transition from a national to a post-national environment, nor can it accommodate the complexity of the MTV generation’s engagement with alien dimensions. One of the reasons Roth’s later novels have been so successful in critical terms is that they make reassuringly familiar assumptions about the scope of national synecdoche, the ways in which a liberal subject might operate as an emblem of the national body as a whole. In the work of Eggers, by contrast, this national narrative is dissolved into a different kind of ecosystem, one organized around the global flow of information, where ethical affinities are grounded not in direct relations to territory or patrimony but in more circuitous ways. Moreover, the evolution of broadcasting in the United States, marking the transition from a rhetoric bound into the circumference of national space to one encompassing a global marketplace, can be seen as both an agent of, and a correlative to, these shifts in literary consciousness. Developing from the rigidly spatialized notion of suburbs positioned in a subordinate relation to the metropolis during the postwar era, through the hydra-headed expansion of electronic media that characterized the 1980s and 1990s, the American conception of a “homeland” in the global twenty-first century embraces the paradoxes of a post-9/11 state, where the phenomenological attachment to home is enfolded within a homeland exposed to radically different technological conditions, whose perimeters can never again be entirely self-regulating.