Millennial Fiction and the Emergence of Posthuman Cosmopolitanism
TABLE OF CONTENTS Page Introduction 1 Chapter I: Literature and Millennium 14 Chapter II: The Corrections 58 Chapter III: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close 101 Chapter IV: You Shall Know Our Velocity! 161 Chapter V: Posthuman Cosmopolitanism 218 Bibliography 255 i
Introduction In late April of 2000, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani claimed that since the 1990s, a "new wave" of writers has been reinventing literature. According to Kakutani, this flood tide of innovation includes work from the "masters of the contemporary novel"—Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Phillip Roth—and also the efforts of "[y]ounger writers who [... ] were at the same time assimilating that earlier generation's innovations, and developing distinctive voices of their own." In this latter category Kakutani includes, among others, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, and Mark Danielewski. Morrison, DeLillo, Pynchon, and Roth had by this time of course long since made their respective marks on literature. Kakutani observes, however, that in the late '90s these writers begin "to throw off their old inhibitions" and grapple with the "big subjects [... ] once spurned as unmanageable." Gone is the "withdrawing, turtlelike" minimalism of the '70s and '80s, its "grudging non-sequiturs" and "spiky, anorexic narratives." The new wave of writing is marked by "raucous, gutsy works that render with stark verisimilitude the clang and clamor of people's everyday lives." Whereas for an older generation of writers this reinvention marks a shift away from a set of practices that had emerged around the stylistic innovations of postmodernism, Kakutani asserts that younger writers such as Wallace and Eggers "had grown up with discontinuity and flux. Chaos was not intimidating to them; it was simply how things were." Although all of these authors, both younger and older, have made important contributions to the contemporary literary landscape, it is to the younger group of writers that I will pay particular attention in the pages that follow. The reason for this focus: always having inhabited "discontinuity and flux" makes the texts that this younger group of authors produce a potentially rich site of inquiry into the
2 everyday "chaos" their works represent—which is to say, specifically, the transitional "threshold" moment of the turn of the millennium in which practices of everyday life have finally taken on a fully informational, networked character. This isn't to suggest that the work of the previous generation doesn't also provide crucial insight into the complexities of social and cultural formations at the opening of the twenty-first century—this certainly couldn't be further from the truth. I do claim, however, that the milieu from which the work of these younger writers emerge requires a critical apparatus that takes into account the particular formative influence of "discontinuity and flux," and that, in turn, such a reading provides a unique insight both into the millennial period and into the opportunities and potential problems it poses. The term "milieu" is used here in a strong and etymological sense of the word (mi- in the middle and lieu place) in order to evoke the threshold at which these texts are written. As authors who, for the most part, spent their early formative years in a pre-internet social structure but emerge as mature writers just as the "always-on" network becomes pervasive, this particular group offers a unique perspective on the threshold of the millennium and, as such, offers a rich site of inquiry into the transitions made as we move, as a global society, into the twenty-first century. The difference I am suggesting between these two subsets of "new wave" writers is not one based on age or artistic "maturity." Certainly these factors are present, but they do not play a significant part in the inquiry I propose here. As the title I've given this project indicates, the concept of "millennialism" is important both to how I am situating this body of literary work and to how I am approaching my reading of it. Generational theorists Neil Howe and William Strauss describe the millennial cohort—those born between 1982 and 2002—as "more numerous, more affluent, better educated, and more ethnically diverse" than any other Americanyouth generation in living memory (4). Though the writers I am interested generally do not fall into the millennial
cohort per se (most of them are "Generation X-ers"), they have been advanced by different establishment quarters as representative of the present millennial moment (much in the same way that "Silent Generation" authors came to produce the dominant voice of postmodernism). Just like the demonstrated characteristics of the millennial generation thus far (as documented by Howe and Strauss), millennial literature calls into question traditional ideas about ethnicity, about the relationship of national to global obligations, about cooperation and collaboration, and about confronting apparent chaos of contemporary global life directly. Kakutani writes that these authors "[tackle] the crazy, multifarious reality they see around them head-on." There are a number of texts that stand out as pivotal works in this group. The texts I will address at length here—Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Dave Eggers's You Shall Know Our Velocity!—all certainly fit that description. In the larger scope of millennial fiction, however, several other authors and works provide a useful context for situating the engagement I will take up with these specific texts. As a starting point, we can recognize the group of authors closely associated with the San Francisco-based (and Brooklyn-infused) McSweeneyite circle that began to take shape in the late 90s. Started as a publishing house and literary quarterly by Dave Eggers, McSweeney's features a number of recurring authors and guest editors including—in addition to Eggers—George Saunders, Nicole Krauss, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Sarah Vowell, Amanda Davis, Jonathan Safran Foer, Vendela Vida, Nick Horby (who Gordon Burn, in a 2004 Guardian article, dubs "Eggers's chief European cheerleader"), Aimee Bender, Rick Moody, Heidi Jalavits, and David Foster Wallace. Taking a wider view, a number of authors outside of the McSweeney "cabal" (another of Burn's turns of phrase) have also made important contributions to the field of
4 millennial fiction: Jonathan Franzen, Lorrie Moore, Colson Whitehead, and Gary Shteyngart, for instance, are all doing work that carries a characteristically millennial stamp. In terms of key texts for the millennial era, Zadie Smith (another occasional overseas McSweeney's collaborator) pinpoints David Foster Wallace's massive Infinite Jest (1996) as a crucial starting point: [A] college-dorm favorite and the heaviest hardback of its time. It sat like a challenge on the shelves of hipsters everywhere. If you couldn't write a bigger one you could compete with your roommate to see how far you could throw it from a standing position. Either way, Infinite Jest was the book you were going to have to deal with sooner or later, just as a previous generation had to deal with Gravity's Rainbow, or Midnight's Children, or The Recognitions, (qtd in Burn) Though perhaps not a properly "millennial" text itself, Infinite Jest arguably served as a touchstone for the authors that would later define the millennial novel. Taken together with his 1993 article "E Unibus Plurum," this work places Wallace squarely in the role of "proto- McSweeneyite" and situates him as a pivotal figure in the rise of millennial fiction. Texts that we might consider properly "millennial" begin to emerge in the early 2000s. Four years after Infinite Jest Dave Eggers publishes his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000); the following year Jonathan Franzen releases The Corrections (2001). The popular reception of both of these books was overall positive—and it was recognized, even then, that these authors were doing something that their predecessors had not. Writing of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (hereafter AHWOSG) in the New York Times, Sarah Mosle states that Eggers "never succumbs to easy cynicism [...], that his real achievement is to provide a counterweight to what Ian Frazier once called 'the encroaching Hefty bag of death,'
5 and to write about it, in our age of irony, with genuine, unsentimental poignancy." In risking sentiment—and, as many critics have read it, in exploiting the deaths of his parents in order to launch his writing career—Eggers exposes himself to intense and very personal criticism from a popular media apparatus that has invested heavily in scorn for such signs of weakness. It is a hallmark of the millennial moment, however, to not automatically dismiss such openness as maudlin. Michuko Kakutani, in her Times review of AHWOSG, writes that "although Mr. Eggers's eagerness to continually footnote his narrative [...] can be intensely irritating, his use of porno gimmickry does not undercut the emotion of his story but somehow heightens it by throwing the passages of earnest sentiment into high relief." Franzen's Corrections (his third novel after The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion) was also met with accolades. Although it is a very different book from AHWOSG, praise for the corrections is also, like the positive reviews of Eggers's work, often marked by the return to a focus on individuals as idiosyncratically imbued with a messy but rich humanity. In his Guardian review of The Corrections, for instance, James Wood refers to Franzen as "the slightly damaged child of Don DeLillo's peculiar relationship with American culture." Wood reads Delillo's Underworld as representing an "interconnectedness of American society by picturing it as a web threaded on strings of paranoia and power - a kind of Bleak House of the digital age." The problem, argues Wood—and what differentiates Delillo's novel from the work of Dickens— is that "in Underworld there are no connections at the human level at all, because there are no human beings in the novel." He goes on to say that The Corrections is "a book of DeLillo-like breadth and intellectual critique which [is centered] on human beings"; Franzen, in effect, takes what he can from the postmodern legacy and infuses that tradition with humanism in order to create, as Michuko Kakutani puts it, "a remarkably poised performance, [a] narrative held
6 together by myriad meticulously observed details and tiny leitmotifs that create a mosaiclike picture of America in the waning years of the 20th century." A return to humanist inquiry is not the only connection these two "millennial" texts share. David Gates, in the New York Times, writes that "a novel like The Corrections [seems] part of a new mainstream, [one] in which either teasing hints of formalism dress up the randomness or irruptions of randomness juice up the formalism." From this impression we might read The Corrections as a connecting link between the traditional novel form and the persistent self-conscious rumination so characteristic of the McSweeneyites, both of which engage millennial themes and concerns (about ethnicity, about the relationship of national to global obligations, about cooperation and collaboration, about directly confronting the apparent chaos of contemporary global life) in productive ways. Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated (2002) provides another important landmark in the emerging terrain of the millennial novel. A story of a second generation Jewish- American's search for his roots in formerly Nazi occupied Ukraine, Foer's novel, according to Guardian reviewer Mark Lawson, "transmit[s] linguistically a message that lesser writers might have conveyed editorially: the unreliability of reconstructing foreign events." The skill that Foer brings to his text, of course, is not exclusively millennial—but the insight Everthing is Illuminated sheds on the contemporary state of global (mis)communication is unique. Lawson argues that Foer recognizes the difficulty of his "distance from the history he is trying to see" in a distinct way. Lawson doesn't go so far as to put a "millennial" stamp on this insight, but, as we shall see, this concern with individual connections across the global expanse is a primary concern of millennial fiction.
7 This is not to say that millennial fiction is always global in scope. Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude (2003) takes place primarily in a single neighborhood in New York City. The novel's themes, however, address on a local level questions of the role of the individual in contemporary society. Because of an increasing awareness of the interconnection of social spaces, these kinds of questions, even though local, no longer register as isolated from the rest of the world. As reviewer Peter Kurth writes in Salon, Fortress of Solitude is "a Bildungsroman in the exact sense," the story of main character Dylan Ebdus's "self-development in the context of place and time." The story takes place in the nineteen-seventies, but nonetheless successfully raises questions about race, gentrification, and community building that are perhaps more pressing now than ever. New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott writes that "Dylan's 'whiteboy' status marks him as a ready-made victim, to be divested of lunch money through a complex transaction—a disconcerting amalgam of mugging, con artistry and mock affection—known locally as 'yoking.'" This "yoking" is used to explore the "white guilt Dylan learns to embrace and to deflect almost as soon as his mother lets him out of the house" and to unpack the still very complicated story of contemporary race relations. Though Dylan's childhood neighborhood is eventually gentrified, this process is staged in a way that considers, as Scott puts it, a "utopian possibility, a reminder of the mysterious human power, deeper than race or real estate, that can, however fleetingly or futilely, transform fortresses of solitude into neighborhoods." As with other millennial texts, the role of the individual and of her awareness of her place in the globally interconnected world plays a crucial role in these questions. Nicole Krauss's The History of Love (2005) is the final entry in this brief overview of landmark millennial texts. Like the other novels discussed here, Krauss's book is formally distinct, but is thematically engaged with millennial concerns, particularly about cooperation and
8 collaboration and about directly confronting the apparent chaos of contemporary global life. New York Times reviewer Laura Miller comments that whereas Krauss's first novel, Man Walks Into a Room (2002), "carefully followed the recipe for making a postmodern novel of ideas after the fashion of Don DeLillo," The History of Love has more "vigor" and reads as "more lived in than read about." Of the texts discussed so far, this book is the most concerned with the act of writing and with the way order and an understanding of the world is created at the hands of each individual agent. Like Foer (to whom Krauss is married), Krauss is interested in how her characters consciously construct meaning in order to create the kind of world in which they want to live. This doesn't mean that they are always successful, but the way in which they pursue their goals (by reaching out and discovering how they fit in with the world—i.e. versus carving out an identity for themselves that isolates them from the interconnected web around them) signals a new importance placed on the individual and a new way of conceptualizing the individual's role in the global whole. As for scholarly criticism, many of these texts are still too recent to have been the basis of a substantial body of academic work. Many of them have been taken up in journal articles, though often they are read through more traditional academic lenses. Francisco Collado- Rodriguez, for instance, examines Foer's use of dual narratives in Everything is Illuminated ultimately to "evaluate the power of fiction as an ethical instrument" (54). Jamie McCulloch, in The International Reviw of Fiction, examines the use of traditional picaresque literary devices in the work of Foer and fellow McSweeneyite Michael Chabon. Daniel Punday's 2008 Critique article "Kavalier and Clay, the Comic-Book Novel, and Authorship in a Corporate World" does begin to analyze millennial fiction (in this case, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) through something other than a distinctly twentieth century critical lens.
9 Punday argues that "Kavalier and Clay represents a different kind of economic narrative, a story not about altering the self to fit the marketplace, but about the ability to reshape the marketplace to one's own vision" (300). Though he doesn't frame his reading around an emerging period (i.e. millennial fiction) as I do here, he does recognize that Chabon's book "reveal[s] an attempt to redefine economic escape as the basis of personal identity at the turn of the twenty-first century" (301). As I have discussed above, the concept of personal identity and individuality is of fundamental importance to the millennial text. Henri Lefebvre's formulation of "the everyday" provides an initial framework through which we can begin to situate the contribution to critical inquiry I am interested in tracking here. According to Lefebvre, the everyday can be defined as "a set of functions which connect and join together systems that might appear to be distinct" (9). The everyday is the "most universal and the most unique condition, the most social and the most individuated, that most obvious and the best hidden; [it] constitutes the platform upon which the bureaucratic society of controlled consumerism is erected." Lefebvre offers the "judicial, contractual, pedagogical, fiscal, and police systems" as examples of the kinds of "systems" joined together in the everyday, but also stresses that "everydayness" does not itself "designate a system but rather a denominator common to existing systems." I propose that the "everydayness" which binds these otherwise distinct systems together finds uniquely insightful examples in works of millennial fiction. Lefebvre argues that "[m]odernity and everydayness constitute a deep structure that a critical analysis can work to uncover" (11). The "deep structure" of this literature, as I argue in what follows, constitutes a significant break with the kinds of conceptualizations about the everyday which have preceded it. As Edward Ball states it in "The Great Sideshow of the
10 Situationist International," the "everyday" is characterized by "the understanding that capitalism has established for itself a virtually totalized social field, one in which all areas of life are articulated for the survival of the given means and relations of production" (25). I argue that in the case of millennial literature, the individual's subjective relationship to those relations of production—and therefore a crucial component of the "set of functions" that join together the various systems of everydayness—is undergoing a transformation. This transformation in itself is not a revolutionary move—certainly not inasmuch as the global inequalities inherent to capitalism are concerned. It does, however, open up the possibility of new routes available to progressive politics seeking egalitarian ends. In order to map those routes and sketch out some of the potential solutions they suggest, a properly "millennial" reading of these texts is necessary. This approach does, however, beg a legitimate question: why turn to literature at all? What does it add? Why not just read the critical theory and apply it to "real life" situations? I argue that the popular literary text offers a privileged site from which to examine "deep structure" of the millennial everyday. Michel de Certeau, in his reading of the everyday, argues that "[o]ur society has become a recited society, in three senses: it is defined by stories (recits, the fables constituted by our advertising and informational media), by citations of stories, and by the interminable recitation of stories" (186). In short, no matter where we turn for explanations of the narratives that make up the everyday ("the denominator common to existing systems"), we encounter fictions. According to de Certeau, "[t]he media, advertising, and political representation all function in this way" (187). Literature, too, is caught up in this regime of representation and recitation. Literature, however, allows for the positing of what I will refer to throughout this inquiry as "states of exception." These exceptions allow the literary text to ask "what if?" questions, to imagine scenarios in which certain limitation and inhibitions of the
11 current everyday were removed. How might we act, think, react? I don't suggest that the process of responding to these questions predicts concrete real world outcomes; there is no fortune telling here. I do suggest, however, that in speculating about social actions and reactions given the artificial manipulation of "everyday" social variables, these texts allow for the exploration of an everyday narrative that is not completely predetermined by the totalizing pressures of consumer culture as we know it at the turn of the twenty-first century. In light of a) the increasingly tight-knit web of global capital (what Hardt and Negri refer to as "Empire") and b) the explosion in personal electronic networking that has occurred over the last fifteen years (both in the United States and abroad), I propose that a reading of the millennial everyday must necessarily take these two critical factors into account on a fundamental level. Though these are not, of course, the only important critical angles in the reading of contemporary texts, I contend—and will show—that they are nonetheless crucial in developing the full meaning and import of texts such as the one's I will be concentrating on in this study, namely The Corrections, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and You Shall Know Our Velocity! My project here is to synthesize a reading of the economic, technosocial, and literary in order to develop a more holistic approach to reading the literary production of the turn of the twenty-first century. Specifically, I will provide the groundwork for understanding literature in terms of global capital and "information age" social practice and then turn to specific novels that suggest contemporary revisions of these intellectual positions. I will eventually theorize the emergence of a new figure in the millennial social landscape: the posthuman cosmopolitan. The "payoff of this particular inquiry is threefold. First, I will elaborate a reading of millennial fiction which works to take into account the particularities of this new literary
12 formation. As I note above, many of these texts have already been the focus of scrutiny—both on the part of popular and academic presses. Such inquiry often, however, fails to take into account the fundamentally unique nature of the millennial approach to interpreting the contemporary world. By sketching out a preliminary description of posthuman cosmopolitanism and of the figure of the posthuman cosmopolitan, we can begin, as literary critics, to take millennial texts on their own terms and to tease out the new insights this group of texts has to offer. Second, as I have already touched on in the literature review above, I will flesh out a millennial reading of the role of the individual in the global economy, in technoculture, and in social progress. Given the changes that have occurred in communication just of the last ten years, the role of the individual on the world stage has changed drastically. In order to encourage the social conditions needed for millennial individuals to lead rich, fulfilling, and socially responsible lives, recent changes in the way individuals fit into the whole of society must be worked out. To this end, an emphasis on the importance of the individual will be a thread that runs throughout this inquiry. From the possessive individualism of Locke and Hobbes, to competition, to commons cooperation, to spontaneous collaboration, and finally to posthuman cosmopolitanism, there will be sustained attention to the individual agent as an influential force on social dynamics. Ultimately, we will see that the possessive individual postulated in the sixteenth century—and which forms a necessary foundation for capitalism—is no longer the only subject position available. With these changes comes new opportunity for social progress also come new potential pitfalls for progressive movements. This brings me to my third and final point about the insights to be gained from this inquiry: it will work to create a better understanding of new structures of social change and of resistance to oppression emerging at the turn of the millennium. Global
13 technoculture creates new opportunities for creating alternatives to the totalizing and dehumanizing narratives of capitalism. What is ultimately at stake in this reading is a question which a more nuanced understanding of the contemporary period might help to answer: how might millennial contributions to the global social order be used to create a more egalitarian and human world instead of simply being subsumed into the machine of capitalism and used to widen the gap between freedom, equality, and resources and the vast majority of the world's population? I will begin this inquiry in chapter one by more closely defining key aspects of global economics and technoculture in relation to the everyday and to the emerging formation I have identified as posthuman cosmopolitanism. This groundwork will set the stage for more detailed readings of these themes in the chapters to follow. These storylines show the history and formation of the possessive individual as he has come through history to the twenty-first century as well as the rapidly changing nature of the millennial technocultural apparatus which offers the possibility of radically changing that inherited possessive individualist identity. I will close this first chapter with a discussion of the methodology I use to read the literary selections that follow and provide a brief overview of those chapters as they pertain to my critical focus as a whole.
14 Chapter I: Literature and Millennium In order to fully understand how the twenty-first century individual fits into global society, we must first flesh out the story of how that individual has been constructed as an economic subject under the dominant and totalizing narrative of the last several centuries: capitalism. In order to provide historical context for the novel readings that follow, I will relate an account of (i) the advent and rise of possessive individualism, (ii) how possessive individualism provides the basis for capitalism, (iii) what ideology is and how it operates as an integral force under capital, and, finally, (iv) how all of these historical processes and concepts work together to create the condition we now know as globalism. In this final section, I will narrow the focus from the historical to the current and show what this often euphemistic term— globalism—means in terms of material conditions and quality of life for the vast majority of the world's population. i. Possessive Individualism Although there is little universal consensus on at what point the exchange of goods and services truly became "global," it is generally agreed that the dominant global economic system at the end of the twentieth century finds its origins in the capitalist mode of market production that displaced feudalism in sixteenth century Europe. The necessary precondition of capitalism was (and still is) possessive individualism. In The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, CB Macpherson traces the philosophical foundation of possessive individualism through the work of Hobbes and Locke and into the mid-twentieth century. One of the primary concerns that runs through the writings of both Hobbes and Locke, and which seems to be relegated to the sidelines in much contemporary discussion of those writings, is the idea of obligation. Both Hobbes and Locke wrote at a time of violent social upheaval. The seventeenth century in