Contemporary Long Fiction Analysis

The New Novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The single most important change in the novel after World War II was the degree to which it challenged and reacted against what the novel had been traditionally. Within a decade of the war’s end, signs were afoot that the modernist period of literature—a literary movement that had begun after World War I—had probably run its course. The watchword of the modernists had been “alienation.” As the Industrial Revolution of the mid-nineteenth century had flowered at the beginning of the twentieth century, momentous changes had taken place that called for new ways of understanding the world and the people in it. A machine age was beginning. For the first time in the history of Western civilization, large numbers of people were abandoning the rural environment and agrarian life in favor of cities and a life of mercantilism premised upon the mass manufacture of material goods. If the literature of the period is to be trusted, this shift wrenched humankind from the most trusted human verities and demanded new ways of conceiving what it means to be human.

Within a decade of the end of World War II, modernism’s “alienation” seemed to be transmogrifying into something other. New watchwords such as “isolation” and “anxiety” were in the offing, and new, postmodern considerations came to the fore. With the development of the atomic bomb, humankind had in its hands enough power to destroy civilization. Fundamental concepts from the Enlightenment—attempts to understand the world through temporal and spatial coordinates as well as through cause-and-effect relationships, assumptions of the primacy of reason in the human experience, and assumptions of the primacy of the individual—were challenged, questioned, and defied by a new generation of novelists who appeared after 1945.

This change has been reflected in a wide variety of names, most of them suggesting reaction against the status quo or rebellion against constraint. American critics called it “antiliterature” or the “antinovel,” while in France experimental forms of fiction were variously labeled écriture blanche, chosisme, école du regard, or école de minuit. In both Europe and the United States, the form eventually came to be called the nouveau roman or, loosely translated, the New Novel.

Spearheaded by a number of authors—among them the French writers Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Claude Simon, Robert Pinget, Marguerite Duras, and Jean Cayrol, and...

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Women novelists

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The novel flowered internationally following World War II. Despite all that has been written about the decline of print literature and the rise of electronic media after 1945, the depth and breadth of talented novelists have arguably never been greater than in this single period. Witness Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet in France, the Soviet Union’s Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, India’s Salman Rushdie, Germany’s Nobel laureate Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll, and Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes; the trend continued as a younger generation of enormously talented novelists, England’s Graham Swift and Julian Barnes to name but two, began to take their rightful place in world letters. Many women may be counted among the preeminent novelists of the postwar period, particularly South Africa’s Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer, both of whom won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Canada’s Margaret Atwood, and Chile’s Isabel Allende. That these women hail from countries not normally identified with the forefront of the Western world’s letters attests to the growing internationalization of the novel.

Lessing’s two most widely read novels are The Golden Notebook (1962) and The Four-Gated City (1969). First published before the second-wave feminist movement had received high recognition, The Golden Notebook became a feminist landmark with its ambitious, unyielding account of the political, personal, and professional lives of writer Anna Wulf. Attempting to reconcile her inner self with the self that she shows to the world at large, Wulf turns to her notebooks. The struggle to define herself as a woman and as a person is played out in four different notebooks: one for her political self, another for her personal self, a third for her self as an author confounded by writer’s block, and a fourth, the “golden notebook” of the title, in which she brings the other three together.

This idea of creating a whole that is more than the sum of its parts is central to Lessing’s writing, as is maintaining one’s mental stability in an unstable world. Both themes are dealt with in The Four-Gated City, the fifth and last installment of her Children of Violence pentology, five works published individually as Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple from the Storm (1958), Landlocked (1965, 1991), and The Four-Gated City. Lessing’s protagonist, Martha Quest, is her most compelling and certainly most complex heroine. The pentology follows Martha from her youth as a rebellious teenager through her middle age, during which she copes with teenagers of her own. A woman not unlike what is known about Lessing from her autobiography Walking in the Shade (1997), Martha takes up residence in London and becomes politicized as she finds herself involved in the communist scares of the period and deeply involved in the lives of people she encounters. Many of Martha’s actions are daring, risky, and sometimes foolish, for experience is Martha’s goal—to experience life in a manner different from how, as a woman, she has been taught to live. Commitment, however, is the lesson to be taken to...

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Magical Realism

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Allende attempted to reconcile the political novel with the epic in The House of the Spirits, just as she attempted to reconcile the effect of people on history and the effect of history on people, the private world of a family and the public world in which people’s lives are finally lived, and the hold nature has on people’s minds and the hold the supernatural maintains on their souls. Allende’s subsequent novels, such as El plan infinito (1991; The Infinite Plan, 1993) and Hija de la fortuna (1999; Daughter of Fortune, 1999), have been somewhat less ambitious but no less skillfully written. Her prose is filled with vivid, often surprising imagery. To read her work is akin to waking from a dream only to find that one has not been dreaming, for her spiritual world is as faithfully and realistically rendered as are her accounts of revolutions.

Allende’s work has been associated with Magical Realism, a genre of writing that appeared after World War II. Magical Realists make little or no distinction between the real and the surreal; characters seem to inhabit a world where the magical is no less substantial than the commonplace event. The term “Magical Realism” has been used in discussions of the works of a wide variety of fiction writers, including Graham Swift, Sandra Cisneros, Peter Carey, Alusaine Dunbar, B. Kojo Laing, Milan Kundera, V. S. Naipaul, Tomaso Landolfi, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Marina Ama Omowale Maxwell. Ordinarily, however, Magical Realism as a description is reserved for the work of those writers who draw from particular South American and Spanish traditions of the absurd or the grotesque, predominantly Laura Esquivel, Horacio Quiroga, Carlos Fuentes, Alejo Carpentier, Roberto Gonzalez Eschevarria, Julio Cortázar, and José Saramago, who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Of the Magical Realists, Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982, is perhaps the most well known. His novel Cien años de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970), one of several works set in the village of Macondo in the South American lowlands of Colombia, relates the history of the Buendía family from about 1830 to 1930. The novel is less a family chronicle than a physical and metaphysical exploration of human life. García Márquez is capable of stunning physical description. In...

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The postmodern American novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Not surprisingly, much that changed in the novel worldwide after World War II also changed in the American novel—sometimes more so. Perhaps the most important development in American novels after the war, however, was the manner in which America itself and the place of its citizens within it were portrayed. What kind of country was the United States to become, now that Europe was disabled and the United States was so unthinkably strong? Was it possible that modernism’s sense of alienation was now going to be institutionalized, employed, made part of the social infrastructure? Modernism had chronicled the assimilation of immigrants into the American grain. Much of that assimilation was complete by the end of World War II....

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Black humor

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The problem that Bromden ponders is a familiar one in postmodern novels. If the Combine, rather than Nurse Ratched, is the enemy, how is one to rebel against it? The Combine is tantamount to postmodern American life itself. Therefore, the enemy is everywhere yet, paradoxically, nowhere to be found. Can acts of rebellion be heroic in a world so absurd, one in which the enemy is everywhere and nowhere, or are they simply self-destructive? These and similar questions became the focus of what has come to be called the black humor novel. It is marked by a darkness of authorial vision and an absurd, sometimes surreal, depiction of contemporary life. Mostly, however, it is definable through its sense of gallows humor. This school of...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The form of Catch-22 might be said to reflect its theme. The novel begins in the middle of Yossarian’s tour of duty, then moves back and forth through time and space without warning or guidance on the part of the author. Such a curious sequencing of events is dizzying, even to those willing to read the novel repeatedly, but then, that is the point. That is precisely the kind of lesson Yossarian would have readers take to heart from what he has learned. Temporal and spatial coordinates no longer tell people where they are; when the world has gone mad, one bombing run is the same as any other, and one enemy the same as all the enemies one may encounter.

Such an authorial strategy has been termed metafiction;...

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The Native American novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Among the developments in the American novel during this period was the degree to which it began to privilege gender and ethnicity as defining factors in the American experience. New categories began to appear in literary criticism and on the shelves of bookstores: the Native American novel, the Asian American novel, the Latina/Latino novel, the African American novel, and the feminist novel. Novels written by Native Americans, such as Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine (1984; revised and expanded 1993) and The Plague of Doves (2008), have brought new and important perspectives to bear on the established canon of American literature. While only a few of these have earned a full position in that canon, any number of...

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The Asian American novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Among Asian American novels of significance are Gus Lee’s China Boy (1991) and Honor and Duty (1994), Lisa See’s Flower Net (1997), Mako Yoshikawa’s One Hundred and One Ways (1999), Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989), Gish Jen’s Typical American (1991) and its sequel Mona in the Promised Land (1996), Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants (2009), and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989), The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), and Saving Fish from Drowning (2005). All of these deal with the clash of Western and Eastern cultures and explore this clash by placing their central characters in family units that extend for...

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The Latino/Latina novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972) and Tomás Rivera’s y no se tragó la tierra/and the earth did not part (1971; also known as This Migrant Earth, 1985;and the earth did not devour him, 1987) both represent the essence of the Latino/Latina novel. Published within months of one another, these pioneering efforts in the establishment of a postwar Mexican American literature reaffirmed traditional verities at a time when so much of postmodern literature seemed to be putting them aside.

Rivera’s characters try to reconcile their Catholicism and their belief in a higher pagan power with the cruelties and hardships that make up so much of their daily experience. Backbreaking...

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The African American novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

A relatively clear pattern can be found in the development of novels written by African American men. This literary tradition began with slave narratives in the nineteenth century, such as those of Frederick Douglass. It developed through the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s—where jazz music influenced the poetry of Countée Cullen, Claude McKay, and others—and reached new heights just before and just after World War II with the novellas and novels of Richard Wright (Uncle Tom’s Children, 1938; Native Son, 1940) and James Baldwin (Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1953; Giovanni’s Room, 1956). After World War II, Ellison and younger writers such as Ernest J. Gaines (A Gathering of Old...

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The feminist novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Several African American women, such as Audre Lorde, Patricia J. Williams, Barbara Smith, and Alice Walker, are often classified as feminist writers, although Walker prefers the term “womanist” to describe the perspective of women of color. During the 1970’s, feminist literature was associated with a particular left-of-center political agenda that connoted a call for political activism. Marge Piercy, Rita Mae Brown, Allison Lurie, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, and Erica Jong were included in this category. Readers of these authors’ novels often expected certain themes to be addressed, certain plot situations to be explored, and characters to develop in particular ways. However, the body of work produced by women novelists after...

(The entire section is 1192 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Aldridge, John W. Talents and Technicians. New York: New York University Press, 1992. Addresses developments in the American novel at the end of the twentieth century through discussion of the works of Jay McInerney, Ann Beattie, Donald Barthelme, Brett Easton Ellis, and others of their generation. Aldridge is a noted scholar whose After the Lost Generation (1951, 1985) is a landmark study of American modernism; his The American Novel and the Way We Live Now (1983) addresses the novel’s transition from modernism to postmodernism.

Bell, Bernard W. The Contemporary African American Novel: Its Folk Roots and Modern...

(The entire section is 499 words.)