American Postmodernist Fiction and the Past by Theophilus Savvas (auth.)

By Theophilus Savvas (auth.)

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Writing the novel as Nixon’s presidency was imploding under the scandal of the Watergate break-in, Coover’s Nixon often appears imbued with the foresight of what will happen to him later. As a result he frequently considers himself not only as an outsider from the American centre, but as a victim just like the Rosenbergs: ‘our purposes, after all, were much the same’, he thinks, ‘to convince a stubbornly suspicious American public—our judges—of our innocence’ (Public Burning 309). Indeed, we may perhaps suggest that in an interesting parallel, Nixon himself was victim of his own mythical stereotype – his preWatergate moniker, ‘Tricky Dick’ – which for many established his guilt in the later scandal before it was actually proved.

However, the Nixon of The Public Burning is not figured as an unsympathetic or unresponsive monster; in fact he is profoundly questioning and profoundly human. Indeed, as William Gass humorously and astutely observed, ‘Coover’s Richard Nixon is a rich and beautifully rendered fictional character. ’39 As a result of this, his adherence to the teleological, or determined view of history, is loosened by the events of the story he relates, and indeed by the very act of telling them. Over the course of a few minutes his thinking on the issue vacillates tremendously, believing the one moment, ‘that everything happening was somehow inevitable, as though it had been scripted out in advance’, before changing his mind and exclaiming ‘Bullshit .

In so doing it provides, I hope, a useful articulation of one way in which postmodernist fiction negotiates its, always ambivalent, relationship with the past as ontological entity, and history, as epistemological discourse. Libra suggests that the use of the past in postmodernist fictions can work as a vigorous and strategic acknowledgement of the fictions necessary for history (as the ‘realist’ epistemology of the past) to function. History is possible because of fictions, just as a fiction such as DeLillo’s is possible because of history (as the past’s representative).

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