The Rise of the Recent Historical Novel

Print Friendly

Print Friendly

Literary fiction has never been more historical nor historical fiction more literary than at present. As Perry Anderson wrote in the London Review of Books in 2011, the historical novel, which in the mid-twentieth century consisted of only "a few antique jewels on a huge mound of trash," has become, "at the upper ranges of fiction, more widespread than it was even at the height of its classical period in the early 19th century."1 Indeed, one need only glance at the ranks of prize-winning or prominently-reviewed novels to get a sense of what Anderson calls "the pervasive recasting of the literary field around the past."2 Moreover, as James English has recently demonstrated in an analysis of more than 1700 novels, the field of anglophone fiction has undergone "a radical retemporalization" since the 1980s: while popular fiction continues to favor setting novels in the temporal present, literary fiction has turned dramatically and so far irreversibly toward the historical past.3 Others have called into question exactly what type of renaissance this is. In The Antinomies of Realism (2013), Fredric Jameson acknowledges that "the historical novel has never been so popular nor so abundantly produced as at the present time," but he objects that "[w]hat seems to survive at best are a host of names and an endless warehouse of images ... Harlequin 'histories,' in which a romantic tale is played out against this or that costume setting." "What kind of History," he asks, "can the contemporary historical novel then be expected to 'make appear'?"4

This is an important question, the answer to which reveals not only the status of the historical novel in the contemporary literary market, but also as that market's chief commodity the status of the novel writ large. If literary fiction's pronounced turn toward history is in part what defines the novel after postmodernism's grip has slackened, then both the shape of that turn and its historical imagination are of paramount importance to scholars of contemporary literature. With this in mind, this investigation takes up a literary phenomenon centrally invested in the very near-term process of making historical memory, arguing that, amidst contemporary fiction's fascination with history, a new literary sub-genre has taken root: the recent historical novel.

Though it goes without saying that fiction set in the recent historical past has been written since long before the turn of the twenty-first century, in the last two decades an array of novels has coalesced around a set of increasingly common conventions that demand scholarly attention. The genre includes novels that fictionalize the events of 9/11 and its aftermath (Don DeLillo's Falling Man [2007], Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist [2007], Jarett Kobek's Atta [2011], Jay McInerny's The Good Life [2006], Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children [2006], Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge [2013], and Amy Waldman's The Submission [2012]); recent natural disasters (Dimitry Elias Legér's God Loves Haiti [2016], Haruki Murakami's after the quake [2000], and Jesamyn Ward's Salvage the Bones [2011]); the 2003-2011 phase of the war in Iraq (Sinan Antoon's The Corpse Washer [2014], Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk [2012], Phil Klay's Redeployment [2014], and Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds [2012]); the 2008 financial crisis (Jade Chang's The Wangs vs. The World [2016], Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers [2016], and John Lanchester's Capital [2013]); international terrorism (Karan Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs [2016]); the Second Sudanese Civil War (Dave Eggers's What is the What [2006]); the Columbine massacre (Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed [2006]); the 1999 WTO protests (Sunil Yapa's Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist [2016]); and even the early career, election, and inauguration of Barack Obama (Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue [2012], Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah [2013], and Salman Rushdie's The Golden House [2017], respectively).5

Diverse as this incomplete and ever-growing list is, its works all share a common temporal setting: the very recent past. Though Walter Scott first imagined the historical novel in English as a tale "of the last generation" defined concisely by Waverley's subtitle, 'Tis Sixty Years Since these historical novels all take place less than a dozen years in the past.6 That said, what delimits their recency is not some precise quantity ('Tis Five or Ten but not Fifteen Years Since), but the particular form of historicity that this narrow gap belies. Despite the pronounced pastness of their settings, these novels are not and cannot be "period pieces," as the historical events that structure them have not yet congealed into a coherent and legible period. By contrast, these works occupy a historiographical middle distance between event and period, specific date and stylized decade: after Kent State but before "the Seventies," between Iran-Contra and "Eighties Style." This is what distinguishes the recent historical novel from the historical narratives recently described by Nicholas Dames: those that, like Vanity Fair and Middlemarch and The People vs. O.J. Simpson, represent "a shift back two, three, or four decades, into the youth of the writers themselves," thriving not only on the "evocation of a vanished era," but also on the tension "between nostalgia ... and identification, the recognition of how much of that past unhappily persists."7 Devoid of nostalgia not yet developed, shorn of its "different haircuts and outfits" and peculiar "quality of light," the recent historical novel stands as historical fiction nonetheless, invested as it is in documenting the process by which history is made.8

All that said, thus far the above novels have been mistaken less often for historical fiction than they have for works of contemporary realism, set in the present alongside "current events." After all, novels take time to write and edit, publish and distribute: a novelist may aim to set her work in the present but find herself pushed into the past by the realities of the publishing industry. Subject to this inevitable lag time, isn't every work of realist fiction (save the speculative) relegated to a kind of recent history? Perhaps, but there are few people more attuned to the vicissitudes of the publishing process and the strategies one might use to circumvent them than novelists themselves. This is why so many writers of contemporary realism are loath to include specific dates and names (whether of celebrities, or brands, or songs on the radio) and why so many historical novelists love to: these details place a novel in time. Scott himself, in an attempt to distinguish Waverley from what he called a "Tale of the Times," wrote that the latter is not so much a historical portrait as "a dashing sketch of the fashionable world, a few anecdotes of private scandal thinly veiled" (34, emphasis added). A novel set in the present, in other words, must always be set in the indefinite present, its details legible enough to be contemporary, "veiled" enough to avoid becoming antiquated prematurely. Scott, on the other hand, is committed to "fixing ... the date of my story Sixty Years before this present," just as the writers above are to attaching their own novels to particular dates and events in the recent past.9 Their recency may set them apart from the historical novel as it is traditionally understood, but it does not disqualify them tout court as "historical narratives," defined by Genette as any narrative "explicitly placed (even by only one date) in a historical past, even a very recent one."10

In an attempt to outline the rough contours of this genre, this investigation draws on three contemporary novels all set in the very near past: Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) and 10:04 (2014), and Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being (2013).11 In focusing on these three works, I do not contend that they are either the first or the finest of their kind, only that they are particularly representative and self-reflexive examples of this emerging genre. Grounded in catastrophe, mediated by the news, and marked by a particularly ambivalent politics, these novels reveal not only the contradictions at the heart of contemporary historical consciousness, but also the crucial blind spots in literary criticism's approach to narratives of the past. They have emerged from what Linda Hutcheon called "historiographic metafiction" in 1989, what Jameson himself called "postmodern 'nostalgia' art" in 1991, and what Amy Elias called "metahistorical romance" in 2001 yet are distinct from all three.12 Recruiting the "world-historical" event of the classical historical novel (as per Lukács) and repurposing the self-conscious mediation of that genre's postmodern transformations, the recent historical novel positions itself in the pivotal space between literary fiction and contemporary journalism. By fictionalizing the crises of recent history before they become fully historical, the genre represents both an acceleration of the novel's historical imagination and a decelerating double take at the modern news cycle. In this way, the recent historical novel stands as the paradigmatic form of historical fiction in the age of CNN. Amidst contemporary journalism's nearly constant proliferation of events and contemporary literature's decisive turn toward history, recent historical fiction reasserts the novel's relevance while at the same time profiting from the prestige of historicity. It affords its readers the pleasure of witnessing as the events of their lives become literature, history. Yet it also threatens far more than traditional historical fiction to foreclose possibilities for the future, as that very pleasure is derived from a kind of teleology of the present. Though its climaxes are drawn from the crises that mark the contemporary, its denouements deliver only what was and what is. Nevertheless, the recent historical novel appears as a significant genre of contemporary fiction, not only because of its recent and rapid rise, but also due to the temporal deixis that lies at the heart of both the genre and the contemporary itself.

Catastrophe

Jameson has criticized the contemporary historical novel for conjuring the past by way of "stylistic connotation, a new connotation of 'pastness' and pseudohistorical depth, in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces 'real' history."13 Not the historical moment, then, but its aesthetic trappings; not the 1950s, but "1950s-ness." The recent historical novel, however, precisely because of its recency, cannot rely on a convenient aesthetic warehouse of retro fashions, antiquated technologies, and musical golden oldies. Instead, it declares its pastness by attaching itself to particular historical events. In this way, we can describe a work of historical fiction as taking place in some amorphous "Sixties," while the recent historical's dependence on the event will always fix it precisely on this or that day, in this or that year. It is Ben Lerner's narration of the Madrid train bombings that sets Leaving the Atocha Station his debut novel about a young American poet on a fellowship in Spain firmly in the months leading up to, and just after, March 2004. Similarly, Lerner's novel 10:04 about another young writer, in this case trying to make good on an outlandish second-book advance would likely be mistaken for a narrative set in the present, were it not for the twin Hurricanes, Irene and Sandy, that bookend the novel, setting it squarely between 2011 and 2012. The same can be said about Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, divided as it is into alternating chapters between the diary of a Japanese teenager named Naoko and a novelist named Ruth who finds Naoko's diary on a beach in Canada, believing it to have washed up after the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

Early on in 10:04, Lerner's narrator describes the feel of New York City as it prepares for the fast-approaching Hurricane Irene, writing that it was "something like the feel of a childhood snow day ... when the snow seemed like a technology for defeating time" (20). For the reader, however, something like the opposite effect occurs. The storm's nonfictional, precisely datable, eventness cements rather than "defeat[s]" historical time in the novel. Had Lerner rendered the hurricane as a thinly-veiled fictional version of Irene, the novel might be read as set in a kind of amorphous present, "in the time of superstorms." That said, by naming the storm and thus attaching the novel to it, 10:04 is cast into a defined historical past, albeit a very recent one. This commitment to the nonfictional event is at the heart of Lerner's work, and he has made that commitment explicit in interviews, declaring that fiction should not be understood as "an escape from reality but that fiction is a technology for making contact with reality."14 The same is true for Ozeki who, in an interview with the New York Times, explained that she had been working on A Tale for the Time Being since 2006, but when "the earthquake and tsunami hit" in 2011, "I realized that the book I had just written was irrelevant ... I just threw away half [of it]."15 What she added in its place was the tsunami itself.

In this way, the hybrid genre of recent historical fiction benefits from an exchange of cultural capital between its constituent parts. In the context of "the pervasive recasting of the literary field around the past," the work gains prestige from being historical just as it gains relevance from being recent.16 Novelists like Lerner and Ozeki push toward the boundary between fiction and the "real" by way of the collision between fictional storylines and nonfictional events. This move furnishes the novels with a certain authenticity, despite the fact that or, perhaps, because it threatens their very fictionality.17 Whereas more historically distant and more thoroughly historicized events such as World War II seem today, because of their incessant fictionalization, more like the stuff of fiction, the events of recent history work, perhaps ironically, to wrest a novel out of the fictional world and into reality. Early on in 10:04, just after the episode depicting Hurricane Irene, Lerner reprints the iconic Paul Klee image from Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History," with the caption: "The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned" (25). As the pun makes all too clear, it is Lerner's own storm his fictionalization of Hurricane Irene that propels his novel into contact with history as well as philosophies like Benjamin's. Moreover, just as the work is elevated by its contact with capital-H history, the events narrated within gain currency as history by virtue of their being featured in a historical novel: a phenomenon, discussed above, that reveals the genre's agency not only to represent, but also to amend the historical record in fiction. Here contemporary fiction functions as both a currency by which historicity is measured, and the process through which it accrues.

As these examples also make clear, the events that define recent historical fiction are almost always catastrophic: natural disasters, terrorist attacks, political assassinations and violent revolutions.18 This is not to suggest, as Jean-Luc Nancy recently has, that the nature of catastrophe has fundamentally changed in recent history, but rather to argue that fictionalizations of that recent history as opposed to fictionalizations of more distant periods rely on catastrophe as their chief convention.19 Just as the writer of a so-called "period piece" or "costume drama" makes her name with renderings of historically-accurate dialogue or garb, the novelist of recent history hits her stride in rich descriptions of destruction and emergency. The narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station wanders through the streets of Madrid for about a hundred pages, "until I arrived at what they call a scene of mayhem" (117). Moreover, and as the etymology of the term catastrophe suggests, these disasters often represent the structural climax of the novels in which they appear. Here the resemblance to Lukács's historical novel and its plotting of the "world-historical" event or "collision" is most recognizable.20 For Lukács, it is the task of the historical novelist to "creat[e] a plot in which these significant situations become necessary, organic parts of a much broader and richer total action ... a plot which is so contrived that its own inner logic impels it towards such situations because they provide its real fulfillment."21 The genre of recent historical fiction reimagines history as something akin to a disaster film, wherein both the structure of narrative and its ultimate meaning are drawn from catastrophe. Like a disaster film, the novel spends its first two thirds erecting what Lukács would call "a broad picture of the times" the architecture of the tower, the decks of the Titanic before introducing a cataclysmic threat to that structure, precisely "when the action is nearing its climax" inferno, iceberg.22 Within this structure, the world-historical crisis or catastrophe represents both the impetus to write, and the traumatic event the novelist must write her way through.

At one point in 10:04, Lerner's narrator a thinly fictionalized version of himself gives a lecture about how he came to become a writer: "In the story I've been telling myself lately, I became a poet, or became interested in becoming a poet, on January twenty-eighth, 1986 ... Like most Americans who were alive at that time, I have a clear memory of watching the space shuttle Challenger disintegrate seventy-three seconds into flight" (110).23 Yet for the protagonist (as well as for Lerner, who confirms this anecdote in interviews), it is not the disaster itself that inspired him to write, but its powerful transformation into language. For him the decisive moment was not the explosion of the Challenger but Ronald Reagan's presidential address, written by speechwriter Peggy Noonan, later that evening:

[T]he meaning of the words was nothing compared to that first experience of poetic measure how I felt simultaneously comforted and stirred by the rhythm and knew that all across America those rhythms were working in millions of other bodies too. Let me allow the preposterousness of what I'm saying to sink in: I think I became a poet because of Ronald Reagan and Peggy Noonan. The way they used poetic language to integrate a terrible event and its image back into a framework of meaning (112-113).

The call to write and the character of that writing is marked by a shared experience of disaster. If we accept Lukács's claim that "what matters" in a historical novel "is that we should reexperience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel, and act just as they did in historical reality," then the recent historical novel suggests that recent history is a period defined by insistent states of emergency.24 World-historical catastrophe punctuates both narrative time and historical time: a particularly useful function in an age of forever wars and "slow death" threats like climate change.25 Without it, the protagonist would continue merely living, the story merely continuing, events merely proliferating without any definitive rupture to structure the flow. It is the crises in the second half of the terms post-9/11, post-Katrina, post-Fukushima that produce the post-ness of the first half. Cataclysm is what allows the novelist, critic, historian, and reader to mark the passage of historical time. To borrow from Wallace Stevens, catastrophes in the recent historical novel have functioned just as the lights in the harbor do in "The Idea of Order at Key West": they have "Mastered the night and portioned out the sea, / Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles, /Arranging, deepening, enchanting night."26

News

In the Bildungsroman, the key events of a character's youth are often colored by a narrator's mature retrospection. In the detective novel, the central crime is almost always narrated in the criminal's vernacular of confession or the investigator's vernacular of detection. Likewise, in recent historical fiction, the news and its narratives mediate the novel's most significant moments.27 In all of the texts under discussion here, narration of the central historical event is synonymous and simultaneous with narration of its media coverage. Ozeki's novel includes several lengthy passages describing the destruction in Japan, narrated not through the character of Naoko, who lives there and is perhaps present at the disaster, but the character of Ruth, who watches from her computer screen thousands of miles away: "Every few hours, another horrifying piece of footage would break, and she would play it over and over, studying the wave as it surged over the tops of the seawalls, carrying ships down city streets, picking up cars and trucks and depositing them on the roofs of buildings" (112-13). As Hurricane Irene bears down on New York, Lerner writes that "[f]rom a million media, most of them handheld, awareness of the storm seeped into the city, entering the architecture and ... inflecting traffic patterns ... [T]he city was becoming one organism, constituting itself in relation to a threat viewable from space" (17). Here Lerner's style is particularly reminiscent of Don DeLillo's White Noise and its fascination with mediations of disaster and Baudrillardian simulacra the latter a favorite preoccupation of postmodern fiction and the postmodern historical novel in particular.28

Yet while postmodern histories approach mediation most often with a sense of curiosity, sublimity, or playfulness, contemporary novelists like Ozeki and Lerner engage it with what we might call a new sincerity. As it has been described by Adam Kelly, the New Sincerity in literature is both a rejection and an extension of postmodern styles a literary teenager that, for all its rebellion, cannot fully escape the family resemblance.29 Writers of recent historical fiction use many of the same techniques of defamiliarization that mark the postmodern historical novel from Lerner's metanarratives and embedded photography, to Ozeki's dueling narrators and experimental typography in order to pursue a longing for the past with renewed sincerity, effectively re-familiarizing the reader with recent history. All that said, for Lerner and Ozeki, a sincere belief in the novel's capacity to mediate history is not necessarily a positive thing. Whereas the postmodern historical novel used fiction to trouble the concept of mediation, the recent historical novel seems altogether troubled by it.

Indeed, what Lerner's and Ozeki's novels are narrating in passages like these is the contemporary phenomenon not of news mediating experience but of news constituting experience entirely.30 Amidst 24-hour news and handheld computing, the media coverage of a historical event is its lived experience for the vast majority of people on the planet.31 To be sure, these novels include a host of instances in which true to their postmodern forbearers media representation distorts historical memory or supplants it entirely. Yet what was once cause for DeLillo's bemusement and Pynchon's jest now occasions sincere dismay. After the bombs go off in Madrid, Lerner's narrator writes: "I considered walking back to Atocha, but instead I opened El Pais in another window and the Guardian in a third. I sat smoking and refreshing the home pages and watching the numbers change. I could feel the newspaper accounts modifying or replacing my memory of what I'd seen; was there a word for that feeling?" (119).

We find Ozeki's narrator similarly troubled, as she laments how coverage all too quickly moves on from Fukushima to an uprising in Libya and a tornado in Missouri: "What is the half-life of information? Does its rate of decay correlate with the medium that conveys it? ... Does [it] correlate with the decay of our attention? Is the Internet a kind of temporal gyre, sucking up stories, like geodrift, into its orbit? What is its gyre memory? How do we measure the half-life of its drift...the garbage patch of history and time?" (113-114). Here the allusion to Yeats's "The Second Coming" works to underline Ozeki's sense that contemporary "centers" of attention, taken up and discarded ambivalently by news media, "cannot hold." Moreover, the succession of questions in both texts points to a deep uncertainty about the limits of historical experience in the context of contemporary media saturation. In this sense, mediation here smacks less of simulacrum than of a particularly contemporary form of realism.

But what, then, distinguishes "recent history" from "news" in these novels? In the early 1940s, the journalist Alan Barth wrote in the New Republic that the news is "the first rough draft of history" an iconic phrase, printed only a few years after Ezra Pound's own iconic claim that "Literature is news that stays news."32 Perhaps recent historical fiction falls somewhere between news and literature: on the one hand, it attempts to revise journalism's "rough draft" and refocus its increasingly fleeting attention on the events of the recent past; on the other, it is deeply uncertain about the historical significance of those very events in a way that the likes of Walter Scott never had to be. Seen in this light, the recent historical novel appears less like the canonical historical novel than it does the New Journalism or, perhaps less obviously, the popular twentieth-century publishing phenomenon of "Instant Books."33 Described as the perfect "marriage of the worlds of journalism and mass marketing," "Instant Books" were wildly popular paperback accounts of recent historical events that were rushed to press immediately after the events themselves. Beginning in the 1940s and continuing into the 1970s, publishers like Pocket Books and Bantam released titles on the death of Franklin Roosevelt (FDR: A Memorial), the bombing of Hiroshima (The Atomic Age Opens), and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, weeks and in some cases, only days after the events they depicted.34 Not only did these books sell tremendously in the order of hundreds of thousands of copies in their first weeks on sale they also helped to shape the popular memory of the events they narrated. At the height of their popularity, Bantam alone produced up to three such "Instant Books" (or "Extras," as they called them) each year, "as events warranted."35 Though these books were almost exclusively nonfiction and not novels, the "Instant Book" phenomenon provides a crucial historical precedent for the recent historical novel and the middle space between journalism and book publishing that it occupies.

Just as the "Instant Book" turned to the events of newspapers which Benedict Anderson famously called "one-day best-sellers" to create actual bestsellers, the recent historical novel narrates its central events only after they have been narrated by news networks like CNN.36 That said, though it seems difficult to imagine a recent historical novel narrating a catastrophe that did not originally enter the culture, theme music in tow, via cable news, the genre's temporal logic is something like the reverse of cable's commitment to the "live."37 Rather than artificially maintaining a sense of ongoing "presence" or topicality of the given crisis, these novels work to shore up the distance between the event and its narration: its pastness, its historicity. To this end, Lerner and Ozeki draw on the "news memory" of their readers in an effort combat the fragile and amnesiac historical memory that the news itself creates. As each novel approaches its climactic event, its author creates a particular kind of dramatic irony, using significant dates (March 2004) and place names (Atocha Station) last read in the morning paper or seen on the evening news. When Lerner's narrator visits Madrid's Atocha metro station for the first time in the novel, only thirty pages before the bombing, the reader experiences an uncanny sense of déjà vu: the peculiar mingling of half-remembered news coverage with the vague sense of foreboding that its prolepsis somewhat ironically occasions (89). Where do I know that name from? What happened on that date? Is this where it happened? In moments like this, the reader of the recent historical novel is thrust up against the gaps in her own historical memory, reproduced here in the form of a dramatic irony that is available only to those who remember the dates and details. The news and the particular type of historical memory it creates mediates not only the protagonist's encounter with catastrophe, and the form of the novel, but the reader's experience of the novel as well.

Past Perfect

In Sublime Desire, Elias argues that while the historical romance "signals a longing for the past not a longing for a past simpler time or a past simpler culture, but for the past itself as a situating, grounding foundation for knowledge and truth," writers of postmodern historical fiction "seem not to be able to take this longing seriously or even to acknowledge it without irony" or self-parody.38 As I argue above, the recent historical novel works, with a renewed historical sincerity, to repurpose the aesthetics of postmodern historical fiction for wholly unironic ends. As the novelist-narrator of Lerner's 10:04 tells his agent in the opening scene, his goal for his next project is to "work [his] way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid" (4). Here the longing for a stable sense of the past as a "situating, grounding foundation for knowledge" is no longer the subject of parody but an object of renewed desire.

Yet this presents a problem for the would-be novelist of recent history, as recent history is by definition partly unwritten, mostly unfinished, and entirely unstable. Here one is reminded of the German novelist Lion Feuchtwanger's quip delivered as part of his remarks at the Paris Congress for the Defense of Culture in 1935 and quoted in Lukács's The Historical Novel that "in portraying contemporary circumstances I am discomforted by a lack of perspective; it is a scent which evaporates because you cannot close the bottle."39 Halbwachs makes a similar, and similarly playful, remark in The Collective Memory, joking about "the character in the farce who exclaims, 'Today the Hundred Years War begins!'"40 The point in both cases is clear: a certain historical distance is required to properly narrate the events of the past. Rather than wait patiently for the requisite and indeed arbitrary amount of historical distance, however, the recent historical novel works to produce it internally by way of structural juxtaposition.

A Tale for the Time Being, 10:04, and Leaving the Atocha Station all fictionalize periods of recent history, but each novel also situates that recent history in the context of a relatively more distant historical period or event. This functions as a kind of structural version of the grammatical past perfect tense, a novelistic syntax that links the events of the near-past to historical moments that predate them. For as much as Lerner points up the events of 2004 that establish the temporal setting of Leaving the Atocha Station the first throes of the so-called War on Terror, the 11-M Bombings he also works hard throughout the novel to point back to a wider historical context, focusing particularly on the reign of Francisco Franco. At one point, Lerner's poet-narrator, Adam, is embarrassed by an introduction at a reading that casts his work as "intensely political and reminiscent of a Spanish poet I'd never heard of, only instead of protesting Franco, it took on the United States of Bush" (36). Despite Adam's discomfort with the comparison, Lerner spreads such moments of historical juxtaposition throughout Atocha. Likewise in 10:04, Lerner's first descriptions of Hurricane Irene come immediately after a trill of reflections on historical tragedies including the Challenger disaster and the September 11th attacks (11-17). One page in particular features a photograph of Christa McAuliffe, followed by an excerpt from Ronald Reagan's speech on the Challenger explosion, followed immediately by a sentence "An unusually large cyclonic system with a warm core was approaching New York" announcing the onset of Hurricane Irene (16). Here the sequence of juxtapositions in the discourse functions as an argument about the history to which it points: despite the recency of the latest event, it is no less historical than the others that precede it.

In A Tale for the Time Being, Ozeki takes this principle of structural past-perfectness still further. Descriptions of the Fukushima disaster and its aftereffects are interwoven throughout the novel with meditations on 9/11 and World War II. Naoko writes at one point that she needs "to back up a little, to September 11, in order to really explain this properly." This is because "September 11 is like a sharp knife slicing through time. It changed everything" (265). As with Lerner's allusions to 9/11, Ozeki's suggestion that the story of recent history would not be complete or "proper" without the "sharp knife" of earlier events cuts both ways. It poses the question, to be sure, of whether the 2011 Japanese tsunami "slices through time" as deeply as the 2001 attacks on the United States. But the novel seems to answer that question, by way of the structure of its discourse, in the affirmative. As the novel progresses, Ozeki's historical juxtapositions travel further into the past and further into the territory of canonized history. As Naoko learns about "Haruki #1," her great uncle who died while serving as a kamikaze pilot in World War II, excerpts from Haruki's diary become a recurring feature. In the other half of the novel, narrated by the novelist Ruth, the connection between more recent and more distant periods is made even more explicit. Commenting on the fact that Ruth's family is Japanese and her husband Oliver's family is German, she posits that "their marriage was like this, an axial alliance her people interned, his firebombed in Stuttgart a small accidental consequence of a war fought before either of them was born. 'We're by-products of the mid-twentieth century,' Oliver said. 'Who isn't?'" replies Ruth (32).

Just as the play-within-a-play works to shore up, by comparison, the reality of the drama in which it figures, the event-before-the-event of the recent historical novel bolsters the historicity of its own central action. By equating structurally the events it looks back to and the events it narrates at its close, the novel of recent history insists on a kind of historical equivalency. That said, as with any metatheatrical device, the balance of the recent historical novel's past-perfect structure is precarious, and can easily tip from shoring up the novel's construction of the past into threatening it entirely.

 Ambivalence

"It is no accident," Lukács writes, "that this new type of novel" that is, the classical historical novel "arose in England."41 According to Lukács, the literary aesthetics and the national politics of eighteenth-century England colluded to produce it. For Benedict Anderson, writing twenty years later, it is the novel more generally that stands always as an instrument and indicator of national consciousness. The feeling of simultaneity, the temporal "meanwhile" it creates, provides, as does the newspaper, "the technical means for 're-presenting' the kind of imagined community that is the nation."42 Fredric Jameson, writing thirty years after Anderson, argues that the historical novel, in one sense, "confirms our obscure suspicions ... that all great historical novelists must in one way or another harbor conservative sympathies, and have a deep ontological investment in the old ways of life in the process of being destroyed by the new order." After all, the genre "has so often been marshaled to serve political ends, of which nationalism is only the most obvious."43 More than a half century of criticism points to the unmistakable nationalism of the historical novel the novel writ large, in Anderson's case which raises the question: What is the recent historical novel's attitude toward the concept of the nation?

Anderson argues in Imagined Communities that both the novel and the newspaper furnish "the presentation of simultaneity ... a complex gloss upon the word 'meanwhile'" that is essential to the construction of national consciousness.44 Like the assumed simultaneity of the novel's various subplots, the "inclusion and juxtaposition" of various news stories in the daily paper, "implies the refraction of even 'world events' into a specific imagined community of vernacular readers" that is, the nation.45 The recent historical novel positioned somewhere between novel and newspaper seems as if it should double down on Anderson's claim: that is, provide an especially imaginative example of thinking the nation. That said, Lerner and Ozeki each produce phenomena of simultaneity in their novels that contra Anderson actually undermine the status of the nation, crafting intra- and trans-national "meanwhiles" that subvert rather than strengthen that particular imagined community.

In the context of contemporary cable news networks and their global reach, the events of recent history are to borrow from Rebecca Walkowitz "born translated."46 While Anderson suggests that the logic of the newspaper's juxtapositions is a logic of national interest, the structural logic of Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being is precisely extranational. That is, not only does Ruth find out almost instantaneously about the tsunami and reactor meltdown threatening Japan, but the juxtaposition of Ruth's narrative with the novel's other narrator, Naoko, creates a discursive "meanwhile" between Canada (where Ruth is), Japan (where Naoko is), and the United States (where part of the novel takes place, where it was partly written and first published, and where Ozeki claims dual citizenship with Canada). Throughout Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner's narrator wanders Madrid, reads The New York Times online, and watches cable news coverage of "beheadings or contractors firing on Iraqi civilians" (103). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the bombings at Atocha station are narrated in a similarly transnational assemblage of perspectives: "Surprised at how much time had passed, I opened a browser, called up the The New York Times, and clicked on the giant headline. The article described the helicopters I could hear above me" (118). Though I do not mean to suggest that Adam's nationality nor Lerner's or Ozeki's, for that matter has somehow been dissolved by cable news, it is clear that journalism's national interest, described in Anderson, has been supplanted by something far more global, a shift that these novels dramatize in both form and content.

Their media circulation notwithstanding, the central events of these novels are themselves "born translated" as a result of their particularly transnational vernacular of catastrophe. After all, a bomb in a metro station requires little translation to reverberate far beyond national borders. An attack in Madrid, or Paris, or some other capital or its suburb, is often read as an "attack on the West," rather than a strictly national affair. In this way, the lexicon of contemporary terrorism stands as a revision of the adage long embraced by environmentalists and other activists: act locally, stream globally. Though obviously less intentional, climate change's own vocabulary of disaster drought, flood, tsunami, cyclone functions similarly as a lingua franca of the contemporary historical event. Events like the earthquake and tsunami in A Tale for the Time Being are not only legible internationally, they also remind us that an imagined community can do little to insulate one from a global food shortage or nuclear contamination. Naoko's diary washes ashore a continent away; one wonders what else is radiating from nation to nation?

Rather than subvert this sense of imagined simultaneity by exceeding national borders, Lerner's 10:04 creates alternative "meanwhiles" from within. In his extended narration of Hurricane Sandy, Lerner points up what Hartmut Rosa would call contemporary "desynchronization" and what historian Harry Harootunian has termed "noncontemporaneous contemporaneity": that is, the coexistence of multiple temporalities multiple "contemporaries" in the same contemporaneous historical moment.47 Lerner writes:

We never lost power. Another historical storm had failed to arrive, as though we lived outside of history or were falling out of time. Except it had arrived, just not for us. Subway and traffic tunnels in lower Manhattan had filled with water ... Power and water were knocked out below Thirty-ninth Street and in Red Hook, Coney Island, the Rockaways, much of Staten Island. Hospitals were being evacuated after backup generators failed; newborn babies and patients recovering from heart surgery were carried gingerly down flights of stairs and placed in ambulances that rushed them uptown, where the storm had never happened. Houses up and down the coast had been obliterated, flooded, soon a neighborhood in Queens would burn. Emergency workers were fishing out the bodies of those who had drowned during the surge; who knew how many of the homeless had perished? (230-231, emphasis added).

Like Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, Lerner's description of catastrophe stresses a complex simultaneity here intra- rather than international that juxtaposes distance and alienation from the effects of disaster with narrative closeness and emphasized co-presence. As the narrator of 10:04 walks through New York in the aftermath of the storm, he remarks that "Trying to remember the bustling uptown neighborhoods we'd left an hour or two ago ... was like trying to recall a different epoch" (235). "Brooklyn was illuminated across the river," he continues, "sparkling in a different era" (238). Even the cover of the novel an aerial photograph of New York after Sandy that contrasts such "sparkling" districts with their darker neighbors posits a sense of simultaneity that disaggregates national consciousness. Though the three novels under consideration here can all be considered, in one sense, American that is, they are written by American citizens and published in the United States the recent historical novel is by no means a strictly American phenomenon. In fact, quite the opposite: through their complex intra- and trans-national focalization of catastrophes that are themselves "born translated," writers like Lerner and Ozeki use recent history as a means of questioning the very category of the nation in contemporary historical consciousness.

This ambivalence on the part of the recent historical novel with regard to the nation is matched by a commensurate ambivalence about the genre's politics of historical representation. If, as Jameson suggests, the historical novel must always "harbor conservative sympathies," what are the politics of fictionalizing recent history? As Rosa helpfully reminds us, "the very labels 'progressive' vs. 'conservative'" manifest "a temporal index," whereby progressive politics seeks to accelerate the "historical movement" of progress, and conservative politics stand as "'reactionary' in opposing the forces of change and acceleration."48 The left looking to the future, the right to the past: one need only consider Barack Obama's 2012 campaign slogan ("Forward") alongside Donald Trump's in 2016 ("Make America Great Again"). That said, in the contemporary context of "social acceleration," Rosa argues, so-called "progressives" ironically "tend to sympathize with the advocates of deceleration (stressing locality, political control of the economy, democratic negotiation, environmental protection, etc.), whereas "conservatives" have become strong defenders of the need for further acceleration (embracing new technologies, rapid markets, and fast administrative decision-making)."49 As I argue above, the recent historical novel's second pass at journalism's "rough draft" of history does indeed seem to be an effort toward deceleration, combatting the acceleration of historical event-making brought on by the modern news media. At the same time, however, one could easily read the genre's speedy historicism as a symptom of, rather than a treatment for, that same phenomenon. Rosa claims that, in an "acceleration society," the "intra- rather than inter- generational" scale of social change is "mirrored" in a language of contingency and "temporary markers": "People speak of working (for the time being) as a baker rather than being a baker ... going to the Methodist Church rather than being a Methodist, voting Republican rather than being a Republican, and so on."50 Do not Lerner's titles (Leaving the Atocha Station, the minutely-defined 10:04), let alone Ozeki's (A Tale For the Time Being) present a similar discourse of contingency?

After these novels narrate the events of recent history, they end by effectively delivering their protagonists, as well as their readers, back to the present. With the recent past now marked through writing as a bounded and closed period of history, the political present seems as open as Feuchtwanger's metaphorical bottle of perfume. That said, whereas the reader of the classical historical novel encountered war, revolution, and vast change as a kind of "prehistory of the present," the reader of the recent historical novel is left to evaluate not only the transformative power (or lack thereof) of recent events, but also her own political power (or lack thereof) to make change in the present.51 Take, as just one example, the sequence in 10:04 wherein Lerner's narrator opens his home to an Occupy Wall Street protester, offering a hot shower and a home-cooked meal to the man living in a tent in Zuccotti Park (44-49). Though intermittent protests continue to this day, by 2014 when the novel was first published, the main action of the Zuccotti Park demonstration had already ended. Lerner's reader is therefore forced to confront the question of to what extent the recent historical events alluded to in his novel can really be said to be a kind of prehistory for the present. What, in other words, did this event change, really? Everything? Anything?52

In this way, the recent historical novel gives the lie to Lukács's claim in The Historical Novel that though "the present is obscure, the past reveals clear outlines."53 Whereas the central "collisions" of the historical novel and the past-perfect events of the recent historical novel are significant, transformative, and historically canonical, the recent events at the heart of this genre are marked by ambivalence. To pivot back to Feuchtwanger once again, despite the recent historical novel's seemingly progressive intentions, its very recency does not allow or cannot produce any broader narratives about history. Its reader cannot yet know whether this or that was the decisive moment of change or simply a historical red herring. Does the reappearance of a CNN-style "multi-day story" impress the significance of this or that particular historical moment, or belie its very insignificance, plucked as it is from a larger series54 Moreover, by stressing the narrative conclusion of the recent past, writers like Lerner and Ozeki inadvertently emphasize the political and historical uncertainty of the near future. (How will climate change end?55) Though this may, in fact, be part of the authors' project, it also lays bare the extent to which these contemporary writers can or cannot motivate political change. On the one hand, the recent historical novelist works to "open" the present and future by revealing more clearly the recent past; on the other, she seems able only to "process" or "retell," but never to intervene always a step behind catastrophe, ever ready with her pen.

This ambivalence is only further compounded by the particular forms of narrative satisfaction that the genre generates. Part of the pleasure of recent historical fiction comes from something akin to post-traumatic exposure therapy, wherein the reader can once again experience a world-historical catastrophe, only this time without the surprise of its occurrence and the uncertainty of its unfolding. This pleasure is made possible by the genre's deployment of historical irony as dramatic irony. As readers, we know in advance the boundaries of Hurricane Sandy's destruction and that it will not ultimately destroy New York. We know that the people having breakfast at Windows on the World are doomed, and that the raid on the compound in Abbottabad will result in Osama Bin Laden's death. The rest of the pleasure of the recent historical comes, somewhat ironically, when the catastrophic event actually occurs: the storm making landfall, the bombs going off, the planes hitting the towers, but crucially on cue, as we knew they would, confirming our historical knowledge and establishing a fleeting moment of historical predictability. Rick Altman describes the satisfaction of genre as a temporary escape from cultural norms followed by a pleasurable return: "The greater the wrong, the greater the pleasure taken in righting it. The greater the chaos, the greater the pleasure of restoring order."56 In this case, however, the pleasure of order comes from the predictable chaos of historical catastrophe. The genre offers its readers a far less revolutionary, far more conservative reward than its authors might care to admit. Catharsis comes when things turn out just as they should; which is to say, just as they did; which is to say, just as they are now.

Coda / Genre

The recent historical novel affords its readers not only the narrative satisfaction of historical telos, but also the particularly contemporary pleasure of self-recognition. Unlike the traditional historical novel, which begs the question of who one might have been or what one might have done, this genre asks its readers only: where were you? Novelists like Lerner and Ozeki are invested in a kind of generational self-documentation the historical equivalent of their own autofiction that gratifies by way of the pleasant surprise that the reader's memories of recent events are now the stuff of history and, what's more, literary history. While neither this collision of personal and historical memory nor its recounting is particularly new, the acceleration of this process of identification seems to be. Just as 24-hour news assures viewers that there is always an event happening somewhere, the recent historical novel promises yet another event to remember and to remember oneself through. The sublime experience of seeing one's life become history, however, becomes itself almost parodic in a period of ever-proliferating markers and memories. Where were you when JFK was shot? or Where were you when the wall came down? becomes Where were you when the levees broke, when Lehman folded, when the Brexit referendum passed? At the same time, the reader is also invited to imagine recent history, qua history, being looked back upon from the future. In this way, the genre is yet another result of what Mark Currie has argued is an "enhanced ... faculty [for] the anticipation of retrospection," a phenomenon brought on by "an enormous technological apparatus of archiving machines" that results in "the contemporary world increasingly experienc[ing] the present, both personally and collectively, as the object of a future memory."57

Yet this imagined future audience provokes the question of how exactly these books will age of how, that is, recent historical novels like Lerner's and Ozeki's will be read when the history they retell is no longer recent. If the genre itself is to a certain extent historically specific, one wonders to what extent the phenomenology of reading described here is as well. On the one hand, if the historical events at the core of the novel are themselves regarded as pivotal in another decade or regarded at all in two or three it may be in part because of the historiographical work done by the novel and others inspired by it. As the last half-century of historical fiction teaches us, historical interest in a given period or event tends to accrete: a novel begets a film, which in turn begets a television series and more novels. While fiction's power to resuscitate and reclaim lost histories is oft commented upon, its ability to preserve and promote certain histories is equally significant.

On the other hand, if these novels are indeed successful in shoring up the historiographical capital of the events they narrate, they run the risk of being subsumed by them. Rather than a novel of recent history, A Tale for the Time Being becomes just another "Fukushima novel," 10:04 another novel of late-aughts climate change. In this way, the wider lens of historicism's historical distance ironically collapses the distance between event and retelling that the recent historical novel both requires and implies. Just as these works are misread now as being set in the amorphous present ("contemporary fiction about current events"), they may be misread in the future as more about the "when" they describe than when and how they describe it. To some extent, this is already the case with Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station, a novel not even ten years old that appears to have less to do with "recent history" than with "the post-9/11 War on Terror." It's not hard to imagine Lerner's novel on the syllabus of some future (or current) university course with that very title, but it's also easy to see how that association stands to erase the inherent gradation of that post-ness and the multiple periods therein. Historical distance, it seems, may obscure more than it reveals in the case of the recent historical novel, a literary genre whose recency is fundamental to its production as well as its reception.58

This points up a certain deictic quality Recent to whom? Recently from when? at the heart of both the genre and "the contemporary" itself. Theodore Martin, among others, has elucidated the "historically imprecise and temporally indeterminate" quality of the contemporary as a literary period that "doesn't so much delimit history as drift across it."59 Because of this, Martin argues, "the contemporary has its problems": "it is a periodizing term that doesn't exactly periodize; a measure of history that fails to designate a specific literary or historical period."60 That said, for all it shares with the contemporary, the recent historical novel may be as much a manifestation of those problems as a possible way of addressing them. To be sure, the genre's preoccupation with the catastrophes of recent history resembles literary criticism's own efforts to periodize the present (e.g. post-2001 or post-2008). Both focus on discrete events as a way of marking off a period metonymically. But, like the recent historical novel, a literary history founded in a string of events may be both more concretely historical and more ephemeral, undermined as each event is by the fact of the larger string. Seen in this light, reading a work as a "novel of recent history" as opposed to a "9/11 novel" may be more deictic, more "temporally indeterminate," but it may also be more accurate and historically specific. By focusing on contemporary literature's shifts in form and the literary market's allocations of prestige, rather than the historical events these phenomena succeed, we may yet arrive at a more coherent literary history of the present.

With this in mind, yet another way of understanding the rise of the recent historical novel is as a result of the turn toward history with which this investigation began. The market for contemporary literary fiction has become so deeply invested in historicity as a commodity that turning to recent events may be a way of mining for more material and avoiding resource scarcity, as it were. Indeed, the proliferation of historical fiction is so ubiquitous that, only a few years after a world-historical event, readers, critics and even novelists look around and ask "who will write The Great X Novel?" Describing Joseph O'Neill's Netherland (2008) as "the post-September 11 novel we [had] hoped for," Zadie Smith wonders aloud: "Were there calls in 1915, for the Lusitania novel? In 1985, was the Bhopal novel keenly anticipated? It's as if, by an act of collective prayer, we have willed it into existence."61 My argument here is that perhaps both the artistic impetus for the "post-X novel" as well as the critical ambivalence with regard to whether it has yet been achieved are part of the same literary-historical phenomenon. This explains, in part, the apparent contradictions of the recent historical novel: the descendent of postmodernism's formal play and ironic cynicism, raised with renewed sincerity in a time where history cannot be fully distrusted if it is to stand as the very currency of literary prestige.62

At its core, the genre represents not the postmodern "crisis in historicity" that Jameson pointed to at the end of the last century, but a newly-mounted and newly-sincere response to it in this one.63 To be sure, the central characters of Lerner's and Ozeki's novels express a deep longing to commune with history. When Hurricane Sandy fails to impact Lerner's narrator in 10:04 in any meaningful way, "as though we lived outside of history or were falling out of time," he actively seeks it out (230). The narrator of Atocha imagines the jealousy on the part of his friends were he to die in another metro bombing, describing "their amazement and maybe envy at the death I had made for myself, how I'd been contacted by History" (149-50). In A Tale for the Time Being, Ozeki dramatizes this desire for history through the division and juxtaposition of her two narrators: a brilliant structural metaphor that questions the ability of the recent historical past to communicate with the contemporary present, and the present's ability to make sense of what that past has to say. The same can even be said of the title 10:04, which alludes to the 1985 film Back to the Future and the exact time of night when lightning strikes the courthouse clock tower, propelling Marty McFly and the historical lessons he's learned back to the present. According to Elias, postmodern historical fiction used "avant-gardist styles [to] force readers to think about history in new ways."64 Turning this claim on its head, it seems that recent historical fiction is using those same styles to think about the near past with a reinvigorated belief in its ability to be both comprehended and retold. In other words, thinking in old ways about new history.

Lukács contends that "the more remote an historical period and the conditions of life of its actors, the more the action must concern itself with bringing these conditions plastically before us, so that we should not regard the particular psychology and the ethics which arise from them as an historical curiosity, but should re-experience them as a phase of mankind's development which concerns and moves us."65 But does this remain true in the context of a literary field in which historical fiction is more ubiquitous than it has ever been? In a historical moment when catastrophe accumulates and fades almost instantly, when particular actors and events yield to a collection of broad aesthetics the oil crisis gives way to bell bottoms just as Hurricane Sandy will one day be subsumed by skinny jeans don't times long past become ironically more accessible to authors and readers alike? Saturated as our culture is by the trappings and tropes of far-off historical climes, it seems it takes far less to legibly conjure distance a tunic, a typewriter than it does to capture the shape of the recent past.

Alexander Manshel is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department at Stanford University. Earlier drafts of this piece were presented at the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present in Tartu and the Post45 Graduate Symposium in Berkeley. The author would like to thank the participants at both conferences along with Mark McGurl, Kathryn Winner, Palmer Rampell, Anna Shechtman, and Claire Yeo for their invaluable editorial wisdom.

 

  1. Perry Anderson, "From Progress to Catastrophe," London Review of Books 33, no. 15 (2011): 27. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. James English, "Now, Not Now: Counting Time in Contemporary Fiction Studies," Modern Language Quarterly 77, no. 3 (2016): 395-418. []
  4. Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism (London: Verso, 2013), 263, 259. []
  5. This trend also includes popular thrillers (David Videcette's The Theseus Paradox [2015]), young adult literature (Jewell Parker Rhodes's Ninth Ward [2010]), and short fiction: Hassan Blasim's The Corpse Exhibition (2014), Deborah Eisenberg's Twilight of the Superheroes (2006), Jhumpa Lahiri's "Going Ashore" (in Unaccustomed Earth, 2008), Patrick McGrath's Ghost Town (2005), David Foster Wallace's "The Suffering Channel" (Oblivion, 2004), et al. []
  6. Walter Scott, Waverley or 'Tis Sixty Years Since (New York: Penguin, 1985), 33-36. In his iconic and dazzling introduction, Scott defines the novel as "neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners," as those two genres, "to be interesting, must either refer to antiquity so great as to have become venerable, or  ... must bear a vivid reflection of those scenes which are passing daily before our eyes, and are interesting from their novelty." By contrast, Scott explains, "My hero will neither have iron on his shoulders, as of yore, nor on the heels of his boots, as is the present fashion of Bond Street." []
  7. Nicholas Dames, "'The People v. O.J. Simpson' as Historical Fiction," Public Books, http://www.publicbooks.org/the-people-v-o-j-simpson-as-historical-fiction/. Dames draws connections between nineteenth-century novels and contemporary television, both of which bear out "the idea that realism's gaze was sharpest when focused on the recent past, neither beyond living memory nor quite like the contemporary world." See also Peter Childs's "Contemporary Past" for an account of a similar set of novels published in the late 20th and early 21st century and set primarily in the 1960s and 1970s that "are not set in the present, but which are also not historical novels" (1). Childs, "The Contemporary Past: C21st Literature and Recent Heritage," "What Is the Contemporary" Conference, University of St. Andrews, Scotland, September 2014. Unpublished Conference Paper. []
  8. See Dames. Under this rubric, Pynchon's Bleeding Edge, listed above, represents a kind of limit case. Despite the many connections between the novel and the conventions discussed below, the work set during the first dot-com bubble in the spring and fall of 2001 also works hard to conjure and define a "period style" for the early 2000s. []
  9. Scott, Waverley or 'Tis Sixty Years Since, 36. []
  10. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse Revisited, trans. Jane E. Lewin (New York: Cornell UP, 1988), 80. []
  11. Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station, (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2011); Lerner, 10:04 (New York: Picador, 2014); Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (New York: Penguin, 2013). All hereafter cited parenthetically. In sketching out "the rough contours of this genre," I take my cues from Rick Altman's now-iconic "semantic/syntactic approach." For Altman, any literary genre can be divided into its "semantic elements," or "building blocks," such as "common topics," "key scenes, character types," settings or formal techniquesand its "syntactic aspects": the "meaning-bearing structures" that organize those building blocks, such as plot structure, character arc, and theme. A Hollywood western, for example, can be characterized by the presence of horses, sheriffs, saloon gunfights, and the use of fast tracking shots; but it is also defined thematically, as a narrative of negotiating "the border between two lands," "two eras," or "two value systems." Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: BFI Pub., 1999), 89; "A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre," Cinema Journal 23, no. 3 (1984): 10-11. []
  12. Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988); Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 18-20; Jameson, Antinomies, 298-99; Amy Elias, Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001). []
  13. Jameson, Postmodernism, 19-20. []
  14. Kevin Caners, "Ben Lerner on 10:04, The Politics of Imagination, and the Craft of Writing," Audio blog post, The Publichttps://soundcloud.com/kevincaners/the-public-ben-lerner-1004-a-novel-at-the-very-edge-of-fiction, 2:00-10:00. In the same interview, Lerner comments that part of his project in 10:04 was to "explore the seam between reality and fiction": to make "[a] kind of flickering edge" between the two genres "explicitly part of the work." []
  15. Felicia R. Lee, "What the Tide Brought In," review of A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. New York Times, March 12, 2013. []
  16. Anderson, "From Progress to Catastrophe," 27. See also David Shields, who argues that "a burgeoning group of interrelated but unconnected artists in a multitude of forms and media lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti ... are breaking larger and larger chunks of 'reality' into their work." Above all, these artists are invested in "a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real." David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (New York, Vintage Books, 2011), 3-5. []
  17. At one point in Reality Hunger, Shields cites a review of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking by Andrew O'Hehir: "Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any" (82). In his interview with Kevin Caners, Lerner argues that "a fundamental human anxiety about what counts as authentic experience [is] really fundamental to the novel as a form." Caners, "Interview," 4:00. []
  18. Perry Anderson makes a similar point in "From Progress to Catastrophe," although his focus is on the novels of the so-called "postmodern revival": "Military tyranny; race murder; omnipresent surveillance; technological war; and programmed genocide. The persistent backdrops to the historical fiction of the postmodern period are at the antipodes of its classical forms. Not the emergence of the nation, but the ravages of empire; not progress as emancipation, but impending or consummated catastrophe" (28). []
  19. Jean-Luc Nancy, After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes, trans. Charlotte Mandell (Fordham University Press, 2014), 3-4; 29-30. Nancy claims that as a result of the interconnection and interdependence of technologies, economies, and communities "every kind of disaster hereafter will bear the mark of that paradigm represented by nuclear risk ... A hurricane, a tsunami, a drought today may have effects of a magnitude incomparably beyond what they had been just a hundred years ago," Nancy continues, arguing that Fukushima is both "a powerfully exemplary event" while at the same time cautioning that "we should not think that the conjunction produced in Fukushima is exceptional" (3-4, 29-30). []
  20. Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1983), 41-2; 127-8. As Lukács puts it, "Certain crises in the personal destinies" of the central characters must "coincide and interweave [with] the determining context of an historical crisis" (41). []
  21. Ibid., 128. []
  22. Ibid.; This recurrent structure also calls to mind Elias's description of the "Postmodern historical imagination as a post-traumatic imaginary" (xi). For Elias, the "metahistorical romance" of the late twentieth century is marked by a "compulsive, repetitive turning toward the past" that functions as a "ceaselessly deferred resolution to the questions of historical agency that it poses" (xii). For twenty-first-century writers of recent history, however, such questions of historical agency that is, the novel's ability to confront and capture traumatic histories are far less fraught. []
  23. All of the novels under discussion here feature writers as their central characters, a fact that points out the connections between recent historical fiction and the increasing popularity of autofiction in the contemporary novel. One way of accounting for this is to read the genre's novelist-as-protagonist as a contemporary manifestation of Lukács's "middle of the road hero," "always ... more or less mediocre, average" (33-38). In the context of contemporary social media, the writer figure no longer a figure of artistic autonomy, aloofness, apartness becomes an emblem of the compulsion to publicly narrate the events of daily life and publicly curate reactions to global crises. Lukács claims that "Scott's greatness lies in his capacity to give living human embodiment to historical-social types. The typically human terms in which great historical trends become tangible" (35). Given the great contemporary trend toward amateur autopoiesis then, perhaps the recent historical novel's metafiction is, in fact, a kind of realism. Protagonists, they're just like us. []
  24. Lukács, The Historical Novel, 42. []
  25. Lauren Berlant argues that the concepts of "crisis ordinariness" and "slow death" are more helpful than the rhetoric of catastrophe, as it "belies the constitutive point that slow death ... is neither a state of exception nor the opposite, mere banality, but a domain where an upsetting scene of living is revealed to be interwoven with ordinary life" (102). Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011). []
  26. Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Vintage, 2015), 136. []
  27. The use of news media in historical novels is at least as old as John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy and his iconic "newsreel" sequences. That said, the recent historical novel's use of news mediation does not merely evoke a historical background what Lukács would call "the historical milieu" but is instead tied inextricably to these novels' narration of historical events. []
  28. Echoes of DeLillo's influence on Lerner are apparent throughout 10:04. Like DeLillo, Lerner ventriloquizes and personifies the various "voices" of the modern mediascape, rendering them as dialogue alongside and between the voices of his characters: "'Get tested for HIV today,' said the poster on the D" (31). Moreover, Lerner also employs the characteristically DeLillovian trinity (e.g. "Visa, Mastercard, American Express") as a kind of punctuating appositive for passages: "I frankly admire how she appeared capable of taking or leaving me, of taking and leaving me simultaneously, found it exciting, inspiring even, as if the energy we had generated were now free to circulate more generally, sharing everything a littlebodies, streetlights, mixed media" (29). []
  29. Kelly describes New Sincerity as a kind of "post-postmodern embrace of 'single-entendre' principles'" that nonetheless "must be informed by a study of postmodernist fiction. Kelly, "The New Sincerity," in Postmodern/Postwarand After: Rethinking American Literature, ed. Jason Gladstone, Andrew Hoberek, and Daniel Worden (Iowa City: University of Iowa, 2016), 197-208. Lee Konstantinou outlines a similar jettisoning of postmodern irony, if not postmodern form, claiming that contemporary "postironists" work "us[ing] techniques associated with postmodern metafiction" in order to "help readers cultivate belief." Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016). []
  30. For an earlier account of this phenomenon specific to television news, see Mary Ann Doane, "Information, Crisis, Catastrophe," in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism (1990): 222-39. Doane argues that there is "a certain slippage between the notion that television covers important events in order to validate itself as a medium and the idea that because an event is covered by televisionbecause it is, in effect deemed televisualit is important. This is the significance of the media event, where the referent becomes indissociable from the medium" (222). []
  31. At one point in Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner's narrator cannot discern the exact temporalityor indeed, ontologyof what he's seeing on screen, a moment Lerner emphasizes with a convenient pun, made possible by the narrator's mediocre Spanish: "I passed a bar that had a TV on and I could see images of a swarming crowd ... At first I thought it was footage from earlier in the day, but then I noticed it was dark. Is this living, I asked the bartender, pointing to the screen. He blinked at me. Is this live, I corrected myself. He nodded. I drank and watched and eventually went home and fell asleep" (137). Compare this, for example, to Niklas Luhmann's claim in the opening of The Reality of the Mass Media: "Whatever we know about our society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media." Luhmann, The Reality of the Mass Media (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), 1. []
  32. Alan Barth, "Synthetic Misanthrope," review of The Autobiography of a Curmudgeon, by Harold L. Ickes. New Republic 17 May 1943, 677; Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (New York: Faber and Faber, 1934), 29. []
  33. For a brief discussion of the New Journalism in the context of historical realism, as well as a reading of Joan Didion's The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) a recent historical novel that engages this same triangulation of journalism, fiction, and recent history see Samuel Cohen, After the End of History: American Fiction in the 1990s (Iowa City: University of Iowa, 2009), 17-8, 138-53. For a fascinating account of the "Instant Book" in midcentury publishing, see Kenneth C. Davis, Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984). []
  34. Davis, Two-Bit Culture, 345-7, 81-2. "The first true American-produced instant books came from Pocket Books: Franklin Delano Roosevelt: A Memorial, which was off the presses six days after Roosevelt's death, and The Atomic Age Opens, on sale three weeks after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. NAL had published an instant book more typical of the genre in 1960 when it produced The Case Against Adolf Eichmann in the wake of his capture in Argentina by the Israelis" (346). []
  35. As Davis notes: "Some of them were successful; others were not. One of the failures was The President's Trip to China, produced after Nixon's historic trip to the People's Republic of China and his meeting with Mao." Davis, Two-Bit Culture, 347. []
  36. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006), 34-35. []
  37. According to Luhmann, the logic or "reality" of mass media dictates that news outlets must convey "the impression that something [has] already happened, but only just ... that what has just gone into the past is still present, is still interesting and informative." He continue, "Events have to be dramatized as events" given that their observation "now occurs almost as the same time as the events themselves." This explains both "live" coverage of the "aftermath" of an event, as well as the production of that event's own signature title sequence and theme music, packaging that works to brand events as multi-day stories rather than mere one-offs. That said, like the news narratives that structure them, novels of recent history appear far more interested in the event itself than its aftermath: the sudden catastrophe rather than the slow process of rebuilding in its wake. Luhmann, Reality of Mass Media, 25-26, emphasis added. []
  38. Elias, Sublime Desire, 22-23, original emphasis. []
  39. Lukács, The Historical Novel, 235-236; Feuchtwanger's solution to this problem especially in "a very hectic age" which "very rapidly turns all that is present into history" is, quite unlike Lerner and Ozeki, to turn to the distant past. "[I]f to-day's milieu will in any case be historical in five years' time, then why should I not just as well choose a milieu which lies as far back as I please, if I want to express a theme which I hope will still be alive in five years' time?'" []
  40. Maurice Halbwachs, The Collective Memory (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 82. []
  41. Lukács, The Historical Novel, 31. []
  42. Anderson, Imagined Communities, 24-25, original emphasis. []
  43. Jameson, Antinomies, 266, 260. []
  44. Anderson, Imagined Communities, 25. []
  45. Ibid., 32-33, 63. []
  46. Rebecca Walkowitz, Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015). []
  47. Hartmut Rosa, "Social Acceleration: Ethical and Political Consequences of a Desynchronized High-Speed Society." Constellations 10.1 (2003): 22; Harry Harootunian, "Remembering the Historical Present," Critical Inquiry 33, no. 3 (2007): 471-94. According to Harootunian, "wherever both capital and science succeeded in implanting their exemplars" there arose a totalizing notion of contemporaneity that "displaced and diminished awareness of ... coexisting temporalities ... exporting the image of dissonant rhythms to the periphery, where it became a sign of a rift between modernity and nonmodernity" (479). []
  48. Rosa, "Social Acceleration," 20 []
  49. Ibid. []
  50. Ibid., 19, original emphasis. []
  51. Lukács, The Historical Novel, 53. []
  52. In Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner dramatizes this very question in the scene in which Adam participates in a panel on "Literature Now"that is, literature in the wake of the 11-M bombingsalmost immediately after the bombings themselves (161-175). The scene's literary-critical skepticism with regard to the power of "the event," combined with the novel's own sincerity in inscribing and institutionalizing that power, stands as a perfect crystallization of the ambivalence under discussion here. []
  53. Lukács, The Historical Novel, 235. []
  54. Rosa points out that "despite widespread acceleration and flexibilization which create the appearance of total contingency, hyper-optionality, and unlimited openness, 'real' change is in fact no longer possible: the system of modern society is closing in and history is coming to an end in a 'hyper-accelerated standstill' or 'polar inertia'" (16-17). []
  55. See Kunkel, who cites Lerner's 10:04, "the exception proving the rule that the contemporary experience of climate change has so far eluded the grasp of literature." Though Kunkel mistakenly reads the novel as "set in the present," Lerner's fictionalization of the recent past only further strengthens Kunkel's central point. That is, the novel's very pastness suggests not only that the causes and effects of man-made climate change have already arrived, but also that this period is of historical importance. Though, as I argue below, the particular pleasures afforded by the genre of recent historical fiction seem to somewhat ironically undermine its potential "opening" of the political present. Benjamin Kunkel, "Inventing Climate-Change Literature," The New Yorker,  October 24, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/problem-climate-change-novel. []
  56. Altman, Film/Genre, 156. []
  57. Mark Currie, "The Novel and the Moving Now," NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 42, no. 2 (2009): 322. []
  58. While the genre that I have outlined here is historically specific contingent on fundamental changes in the news media and their effects on historical consciousness it does open the door to rereading works from throughout the 20th century that themselves center on the catastrophe, coverage, and political ambivalence of recent events. Consider, as just one example, Ann Petry's novella In Darkness and Confusion (1947). []
  59. Theodore Martin, "The Currency of the Contemporary," in Postmodern/Postwarand After: Rethinking American Literature, ed. Jason Gladstone, Andrew Hoberek, and Daniel Worden (Iowa City: University of Iowa, 2016), 231. See also Martin, Contemporary Drift (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017). []
  60. Ibid., 231. []
  61. Zadie Smith, "Two Paths for the Novel," The New York Review of Books 55, no. 18 (November 20, 2008). http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2008/11/20/two-paths-for-the-novel/ []
  62. Interestingly, though Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall was published just two years before Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station, only one is eligible for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, an award of £30,000 that honors "writing of exceptional quality which is set in the past," with the sole caveat that "the majority of the storyline must have taken place at least 60 years ago." "About the Prize," accessed March 1, 2017, http://www.walterscottprize.co.uk/about-the-prize/. []
  63. Jameson, Postmodernism, 22. []
  64. Elias, Sublime Desire, 46. []
  65. Lukács, The Historical Novel, 42. []