"Postmodernism" suggests fragmentation: collage, hybridity, and the use of various voices, scenes, and identities. Postmodern authors question external structures, whether political, philosophical, or artistic. They tend to distrust the master-narratives of modernist thought, which they see as politically suspect. Instead, they mine popular culture genres, especially science fiction, spy, and detective stories, becoming, in effect, archaeologists of pop culture.
Don DeLillo's White Noise, structured in 40 sections like video clips, highlights the dilemmas of representation: "Were people this dumb before television?" one character wonders. David Foster Wallace's gargantuan (1,000 pages, 900 footnotes) Infinite Jest mixes up wheelchair-bound terrorists, drug addicts, and futuristic descriptions of a country like the United States. In Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers interweaves sophisticated technology with private lives.
Influenced by Thomas Pynchon, postmodern authors fabricate complex plots that demand imaginative leaps. Often they flatten historical depth into one dimension; William Vollmann's novels slide between vastly different times and places as easily as a computer mouse moves between texts.
Creative Nonfiction: Memoir and Autobiography
Many writers hunger for open, less canonical genres as vehicles for their postmodern visions. The rise of global, multiethnic, and women's literature -- works in which writers reflect on experiences shaped by culture, color, and gender -- has endowed autobiography and memoir with special allure. While the boundaries of the terms are debated, a memoir is typically shorter or more limited in scope, while an autobiography makes some attempt at a comprehensive overview of the writer's life.
Postmodern fragmentation has rendered problematic for many writers the idea of a finished self that can be articulated successfully in one sweep. Many turn to the memoir in their struggles to ground an authentic self. What constitutes authenticity, and to what extent the writer is allowed to embroider upon his or her memories of experience in works of nonfiction, are hotly contested subjects of writers' conferences.
Writers themselves have contributed penetrating observations on such questions in books about writing, such as The Writing Life (1989) by Annie Dillard. Noteworthy memoirs include The Stolen Light (1989) by Ved Mehta. Born in India, Mehta was blinded at the age of three. His account of flying alone as a young blind person to study in the United States is unforgettable. Irish American Frank McCourt's mesmerizing Angela's Ashes (1996) recalls his childhood of poverty, family alcoholism, and intolerance in Ireland with a surprising warmth and humor. Paul Auster's Hand to Mouth (1997) tells of poverty that blocked his writing and poisoned his soul.
The Short Story: New Directions
The story genre had to a degree lost its luster by the late l970s. Experimental metafiction stories had been penned by Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, John Barth, and William Gass and were no longer on the cutting edge. Large-circulation weekly magazines that had showcased short fiction, such as the Saturday Evening Post, had collapsed.
It took an outsider from the Pacific Northwest -- a gritty realist in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway -- to revitalize the genre. Raymond Carver (l938-l988) had studied under the late novelist John Gardner, absorbing Gardner's passion for accessible artistry fused with moral vision. Carver rose above alcoholism and harsh poverty to become the most influential story writer in the United States. In his collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (l976), What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (l981), Cathedral (l983), and Where I'm Calling From (l988), Carver follows confused working people through dead-end jobs, alcoholic binges, and rented rooms with an understated, minimalist style of writing that carries tremendous impact.
Linked with Carver is novelist and story writer Ann Beattie (1947- ), whose middle-class characters often lead aimless lives. Her stories reference political events and popular songs, and offer distilled glimpses of life decade by decade in the changing United States. Recent collections are Park City (l998) and Perfect Recall (2001).
Inspired by Carver and Beattie, writers crafted impressive neorealist story collections in the mid-l980s, including Amy Hempel's Reasons to Live (1985), David Leavitt's Family Dancing (l984), Richard Ford's Rock Springs (l987), Bobbie Ann Mason's Shiloh and Other Stories (1982), and Lorrie Moore's Self-Help (l985). Other noteworthy figures include the late Andre Dubus, author of Dancing After Hours (l996), and the prolific John Updike, whose recent story collections include The Afterlife and Other Stories (l994).
Today, as is discussed later in this chapter, writers with ethnic and global roots are informing the story genre with non-Western and tribal approaches, and storytelling has commanded critical and popular attention. The versatile, primal tale is the basis of several hybridized forms: novels that are constructed of interlinking short stories or vignettes, and creative nonfictions that interweave history and personal history with fiction.
The Short Short Story: Sudden or Flash Fiction
The short short is a very brief story, often only one or two pages long. It is sometimes called "flash fiction" or "sudden fiction" after the l986 anthology Sudden Fiction, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas.
In short short stories, there is little space to develop a character. Rather, the element of plot is central: A crisis occurs, and a sketched-in character simply has to react. Authors deploy clever narrative or linguistic patterns; in some cases, the short short resembles a prose poem.
Supporters claim that short shorts' "reduced geographies" mirror postmodern conditions in which borders seem closer together. They find elegant simplicity in these brief fictions. Detractors see short shorts as a symptom of cultural decay, a general loss of reading ability, and a limited attention span. In any event, short shorts have found a certain niche: They are easy to forward in an e-mail, and they lend themselves to electronic distribution. They make manageable in-class readings and models for writing assignments.
Contemporary drama mingles realism with fantasy in postmodern works that fuse the personal and the political. The exuberant Tony Kushner (l956- ) has won acclaim for his prize-winning Angels in America plays, which vividly render the AIDS epidemic and the psychic cost of closeted homosexuality in the 1980s and 1990s. Part One: Millennium Approaches (1991) and its companion piece, Part Two: Perestroika (1992), together last seven hours. Combining comedy, melodrama, political commentary, and special effects, they interweave various plots and marginalized characters.
Women dramatists have attained particular success in recent years. Prominent among them is Beth Henley (1952- ), from Mississippi, known for her portraits of southern women. Henley gained national recognition for her Crimes of the Heart (l978), which was made into a film in l986, a warm play about three eccentric sisters whose affection helps them survive disappointment and despair. Later plays, including The Miss Firecracker Contest (1980), The Wake of Jamey Foster (l982), The Debutante Ball (l985), and The Lucky Spot (l986), explore southern forms of socializing -- beauty contests, funerals, coming-out parties, and dance halls.
Wendy Wasserstein (1950-2006), from New York, wrote early comedies including When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth (l975), a parody of beauty contests. She is best known for The Heidi Chronicles (l988), about a successful woman professor who confesses to deep unhappiness and adopts a baby. Wasserstein continued exploring women's aspirations in The Sisters Rosensweig (l991), An American Daughter (1997), and Old Money (2000).
Younger dramatists such as African-American Suzan-Lori Parks (1964- ) build on the successes of earlier women. Parks, who grew up on various army bases in the United States and Germany, deals with political issues in experimental works whose timelessness and ritualism recall Irish-born writer Samuel Beckett. Her best-known work, The America Play (1991), revolves around the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. She returns to this theme in Topdog/Underdog (2001), which tells the story of two African-American brothers named Lincoln and Booth and their lifetime of sibling rivalry.
A pervasive regionalist sensibility has gained strength in American literature in the past two decades. Decentralization expresses the postmodern U.S. condition, a trend most evident in fiction writing; no longer does any one viewpoint or code successfully express the nation. No one city defines artistic movements, as New York City once did. Vital arts communities have arisen in many cities, and electronic technology has de-centered literary life.
As economic shifts and social change redefine America, a yearning for tradition has set in. The most sustaining and distinctively American myths partake of the land, and writers are turning to the Civil War South, the Wild West of the rancher, the rooted life of the midwestern farmer, the southwestern tribal homeland, and other localized realms where the real and the mythic mingle. Of course, more than one region has inspired many writers; they are included here in regions formative to their vision or characteristic of their mature work.
The scenic Northeast, region of lengthy winters, dense deciduous forests, and low rugged mountain chains, was the first English-speaking colonial area, and it retains the feel of England. Boston, Massachusetts, is the cultural powerhouse, boasting research institutions and scores of universities. Many New England writers depict characters that continue the Puritan legacy, embodying the middle-class Protestant work ethic and progressive commitment to social reform. In the rural areas, small, independent farmers struggle to survive in the world of global marketing.
Novelist Joyce Carol Oates sets many of her gothic works in upstate New York. Richard Russo (1949- ), in his appealing Empire Falls (2001), evokes life in a dying mill town in Maine, the state where Stephen King (1947- ) locates his popular horror novels.
The bittersweet fictions of Massachusetts-based Sue Miller (1943- ), such as The Good Mother (1986), examine counterculture lifestyles in Cambridge, a city known for cultural and social diversity, intellectual vitality, and technological innovation. Another writer from Massachusetts, Anita Diamant (1951- ), earned popular acclaim with The Red Tent (1997), a feminist historical novel based on the biblical story of Dinah.
Russell Banks (1940- ), from poor, rural New Hampshire, has turned from experimental writing to more realistic works, such as Affliction (1989), his novel about working-class New Hampshire characters. For Banks, acknowledging one's roots is a fundamental part of one's identity. In Affliction, the narrator scorns people who have "gone to Florida, Arizona, and California, bought a trailer or a condo, turned their skin to leather playing shuffleboard all day and waited to die." Banks's recent works include Cloudsplitter (1998), a historical novel about the 19th-century abolitionist John Brown.
The striking stylist Annie Proulx (1935- ) crafts stories of struggling northern New Englanders in Heart Songs (1988). Her best novel, The Shipping News (1993), is set even further north, in Newfoundland, Canada. Proulx has also spent years in the West, and one of her short stories inspired the 2006 movie "Brokeback Mountain."
William Kennedy (1928- ) has written a dense and entwined cycle of novels set in Albany, in northern New York State, including his acclaimed Ironweed. The title of his insider's history of Albany gives some idea of his gritty, colloquial style and teeming cast of often unsavory characters: O Albany! Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels (1983). Kennedy has been hailed as an elder statesman of a small Irish-American literary movement that includes the late Mary McCarthy, Mary Gordon, Alice McDermott, and Frank McCourt.
Three writers who studied at Brown University in Rhode Island around the same time and took classes with British writer Angela Carter are often mentioned as the nucleus of a "next generation." Donald Antrim (1959- ) satirizes academic life in The Hundred Brothers (1997), set in an enormous library from which one can see homeless people. Rick Moody (1961- ) is best known for his novel The Ice Storm (1994). The novels of Jeffrey Eugenides (1960- ) include Middlesex (2002), which narrates the experience of a hermaphrodite. Impressive stylists with off-center visions bordering on the absurd, Antrim, Moody, and Eugenides carry further the opposite traditions of John Updike and Thomas Pynchon. Often linked with these three younger novelists is the exuberant postmodernist David Foster Wallace (1962- ). Wallace, who was born in Ithaca, New York, gained acclaim for his complex serio-comic novel The Broom of the System (1987) and the pop culture-saturated stories in Girl With Curious Hair (1989).
The fertile Mid-Atlantic states, dominated by New York City with its great harbor, remain a gateway for waves of immigrants. Today the region's varied economy encompasses finance, commerce, and shipping, as well as advertising and fashion. New York City is the home of the publishing industry, as well as prestigious art galleries and museums.
Don DeLillo (1936- ), from New York City, began as an advertising writer, and his novels explore consumerism among their many themes. Americana (1971) concludes: "To consume in America is not to buy, it is to dream." DeLillo's protagonists seek identities based on images. White Noise (1985) concerns Jack Gladney and his family, whose experience is mediated by various texts, especially advertisements. One passage suggests DeLillo's style: "...the emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness. Mastercard, Visa, American Express." Fragments of advertisements that drift unattached through the book emerge from Gladney's media-parroting subconscious, generating the subliminal white noise of the title. DeLillo's later novels include politics and historical figures: Libra (1988) envisions the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as an explosion of frustrated consumerism; Underworld (1997) spins a web of interconnections between a baseball game and a nuclear bomb in Kazakhstan.
In multidimensional, polyglot New York, fictions featuring a shadowy postmodern city abound. An example is the labyrinthine New York trilogy City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986), and The Locked Room (1986) by Paul Auster (1947- ). In this work, inspired by Samuel Beckett and the detective novel, an isolated writer at work on a detective story addresses Paul Auster, who is writing about Cervantes. The trilogy suggests that "reality" is but a text constructed via fiction, thus erasing the traditional border between reality and illusion. Auster's trilogy, in effect, self-deconstructs. Similarly, Kathy Acker (1948-1997) juxtaposed passages from works by Cervantes and Charles Dickens with science fiction in postmodern pastiches such as Empire of the Senseless (1988), a quest through time and space for an individual voice.
New York City hosts many groups of writers with shared interests. Jewish women include noted essayist Cynthia Ozick (1928- ), who hails from the Bronx, the setting of her novel The Puttermesser Papers (l997). Her haunting novel The Shawl (1989) gives a young mother's viewpoint on the Holocaust. The droll, conversational Collected Stories (l994) of Grace Paley (1922- ) capture the syncopated rhythms of the city.
Younger writers associated with life in the fast lane are Jay McInerney (1955- ), whose Story of My Life (1988) is set in the drug-driven youth culture of the boom-time 1980s, and satirist Tama Janowitz (1957- ). Their portraits of loneliness and addiction in the anonymous hard-driving city recall the works of John Cheever.
Nearby suburbs claim the imaginations of still other writers. Mary Gordon (1949- ) sets many of her female-centered works in her birthplace, Long Island, as does Alice McDermott (l953- ), whose novel Charming Billy (1998) dissects the failed promise of an alcoholic.
Mid-Atlantic domestic realists include Richard Bausch (1945- ), from Baltimore, author of In the Night Season (1998) and the stories in Someone to Watch Over Me (l999). Bausch writes of fragmented families, as does Anne Tyler (1941- ), also from Baltimore, whose eccentric characters negotiate disorganized, isolated lives. A master of detail and understated wit, Tyler writes in spare, quiet language. Her best-known novels include Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) and The Accidental Tourist (1985), which was made into a film in l988. The Amateur Marriage (2004) sets a divorce against a panorama of American life over 60 years.
African Americans have made distinctive contributions. Feminist essayist and poet Audre Lorde's autobiographical Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (l982) is an earthy account of a black woman's experience in the United States. Bebe Moore Campbell (l950- ), from Philadelphia, writes feisty domestic novels including Your Blues Ain't Like Mine (l992). Gloria Naylor (l950- ), from New York City, explores different women's lives in The Women of Brewster Place (1982), the novel that made her name.
Critically acclaimed John Edgar Wideman (l941- ) grew up in Homewood, a black section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His Faulknerian Homewood Trilogy -- Hiding Place (1981), Damballah (1981), and Sent for You Yesterday (1983) -- uses shifting viewpoints and linguistic play to render black experience. His best-known short piece, "Brothers and Keepers" (1984), concerns his relationship with his imprisoned brother. In The Cattle Killing (l996), Wideman returns to the subject of his famous early story "Fever" (l989). His novel Two Cities (l998) takes place in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
David Bradley (1950- ), also from Pennsylvania, set his historical novel The Chaneysville Incident (l981) on the "underground railroad," a network of citizens who provided opportunity and assistance for southern black slaves to find freedom in the North at the time of the U.S. Civil War.
Trey Ellis (1962 - ) has written the novels Platitudes (1988), Home Repairs (1993), and Right Here, Right Now (1999), screenplays including "The Tuskegee Airmen" (1995), and a l989 essay "The New Black Aesthetic" discerning a new multiethnic sensibility among the younger generation.
Writers from Washington, D.C., four hours' drive south from New York City, include Ann Beattie (1947- ), whose short stories were mentioned earlier. Her slice-of-life novels include Picturing Will (1989), Another You (l995), and My Life, Starring Dara Falcon (1997).
America's capital city is home to many political novelists. Ward Just (1935- ) sets his novels in Washington's swirling military, political, and intellectual circles. Christopher Buckley (1952- ) spikes his humorous political satire with local details; his Little Green Men (1999) is a spoof about official responses to aliens from outer space. Michael Chabon (1963- ), who grew up in the Washington suburbs but later moved to California, depicts youths on the dazzling brink of adulthood in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988); his novel inspired by a comic book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), mixes glamour and craft in the manner of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The South comprises disparate regions in the southeastern United States, from the cool Appalachian Mountain chain and the broad Mississippi River valley to the steamy cypress bayous of the Gulf Coast. Cotton and the plantation culture of slavery made the South the richest section in the country before the U.S. Civil War (1860-1865). But after the war, the region sank into poverty and isolation that lasted a century. Today, the South is part of what is called the Sun Belt, the fastest growing part of the United States.
The most traditional of the regions, the South is proud of its distinctive heritage. Enduring themes include family, land, history, religion, and race. Much southern writing has a depth and humanity arising from the devastating losses of the Civil War and soul searching over the region's legacy of slavery.
The South, with its rich oral tradition, has nourished many women storytellers. In the upper South, Bobbie Ann Mason (1940- ) from Kentucky, writes of the changes wrought by mass culture. In her most famous story, "Shiloh" (1982), a couple must change their relationship or separate as housing subdivisions spread "across western Kentucky like an oil slick." Mason's acclaimed short novel In Country (1985) depicts the effects of the Vietnam War by focusing on an innocent young girl whose father died in the conflict.
Lee Smith (1944- ) brings the people of the Appalachian Mountains into poignant focus, drawing on the well of American folk music in her novel The Devil's Dream (l992). Jayne Anne Phillips (1952- ) writes stories of misfits -- Black Tickets (1979) -- and a novel, Machine Dreams (1984), set in the hardscrabble mountains of West Virginia.
The novels of Jill McCorkle (1958- ) capture her North Carolina background. Her mystery-enshrouded love story Carolina Moon (1996) explores a years-old suicide in a coastal village where relentless waves erode the foundations from derelict beach houses. The lush native South Carolina of Dorothy Allison (1949- ) features in her tough autobiographical novel Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), seen through the eyes of a dirt-poor, illegitimate 12-year-old tomboy nicknamed Bone. Mississippian Ellen Gilchrist (1935- ) sets most of her colloquial Collected Stories (2000) in small hamlets along the Mississippi River and in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Southern novelists mining male experience include the acclaimed Cormac McCarthy
(l933- ), whose early novels such as Suttree (1979) are archetypically southern tales of dark emotional depths, ignorance, and poverty, set against the green hills and valleys of eastern Tennessee. In l974, McCarthy moved to El Paso, Texas, and began to plumb western landscapes and traditions. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening of Redness in the West (1985) is an unsparing vision of The Kid, a 14-year-old from Tennessee who becomes a cold-hearted killer in Mexico in the 1840s. McCarthy's best-selling epic Border Trilogy -- All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998) -- invests the desert between Texas and Mexico with mythic grandeur.
Other noted authors are North Carolinian Charles Frazier (1950- ), author of the Civil War novel Cold Mountain (1997); Georgia-born Pat Conroy (1945- ), author of The Great Santini (1976) and Beach Music (1995); and Mississippi novelist Barry Hannah (1942- ), known for his violent plots and risk-taking style.
A very different Mississippi-born writer is Richard Ford (1944- ), who began writing in a Faulknerian vein but is best known for his subtle novel set in New Jersey, The Sportswriter (1986), and its sequel, Independence Day (l995). The latter is about Frank Bascombe, a dreamy, evasive drifter who loses all the things that give his life meaning -- a son, his dream of writing fiction, his marriage, lovers and friends, and his job. Bascombe is sensitive and intelligent -- his choices, he says, are made "to deflect the pain of terrible regret" -- and his emptiness, along with the anonymous malls and bald new housing developments that he endlessly cruises through, mutely testify to Ford's vision of a national malaise.
Many African-American writers hail from the South, including Ernest Gaines from Louisiana, Alice Walker from Georgia, and Florida-born Zora Neale Hurston, whose 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is considered to be the first feminist novel by an African American. Hurston, who died in the 1960s, underwent a critical revival in the 1990s. Ishmael Reed, born in Tennessee, set Mumbo Jumbo (1972) in New Orleans. Margaret Walker (1915-1998), from Alabama, authored the novel Jubilee (1966) and essays On Being Female, Black, and Free (1997).
Story writer James Alan McPherson (l943- ), from Georgia, depicts working-class people in Elbow Room (1977); A Region Not Home: Reflections From Exile (2000), whose title reflects his move to Iowa, is a memoir. Chicago-born ZZ Packer (1973- ), McPherson's student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, was raised in the South, studied in the mid-Atlantic, and now lives in California. Her first work, a volume of stories titled Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003), has made her a rising star. Prolific feminist writer bell hooks (born Gloria Watkins in Kentucky in 1952) gained fame for cultural critiques including Black Looks: Race and Representation (l992) and autobiographies beginning with Bone Black: Memories of a Girlhood (1996).
Experimental poet and scholar of slave narratives (Freeing the Soul, l999), Harryette Mullen (1953- ) writes multivocal poetry collections such as Muse & Drudge (1995). Novelist and story writer Percival Everett (1956- ), who was originally from Georgia, writes subtle, open-ended fiction; recent volumes are Frenzy (l997) and Glyph (1999).
Many African-American writers whose families followed patterns of internal migration were born outside the South but return to it for inspiration. Famed science-fiction novelist Octavia Butler (l947- ), from California, draws on the theme of bondage and the slave narrative tradition in Wild Seed (l980); her Parable of the Sower (l993) treats addiction. Sherley Anne Williams (l944- ), also from California, writes of interracial friendship between southern women in slave times in her fact-based historical novel Dessa Rose (l986). New York-born Randall Kenan (l963- ) was raised in North Carolina, the setting of his novel A Visitation of Spirits (l989) and his stories Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (l992). His Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (1999) is nonfiction.
The vast plains of America's midsection -- much of it between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River -- scorch in summer and freeze in scouring winter storms. The area was opened up with the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, attracting Northern European settlers eager for land. Early 20th-century writers with roots in the Midwest include Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, and Theodore Dreiser.
Midwestern fiction is grounded in realism. The domestic novel has flourished in recent years, portraying webs of relationships between kin, the local community, and the environment. Agribusiness and development threaten family farms in some parts of the region, and some novels sound the death knell of farming as a way of life.
Domestic novelists include Jane Smiley (1949- ), whose A Thousand Acres (1991) is a contemporary, feminist version of the King Lear story. The lost kingdom is a large family farm held for four generations, and the forces that undermine it are a concatenation of the personal and the political. Kent Haruf (1943- ) creates stronger characters in his sweeping novel of the prairie, Plainsong (1999).
Michael Cunningham (1952- ), from Ohio, began as a domestic novelist in A Home at the End of the World (1990). The Hours (1998), made into a movie, brilliantly interweaves Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway with two women's lives in different eras. Stuart Dybek (1942- ) has written sparkling story collections including I Sailed With Magellan (2003), about his childhood on the South Side of Chicago.
Younger urban novelists include Jonathan Franzen (1959- ), who was born in Missouri and raised in Illinois. Franzen's best-selling panoramic novel The Corrections (2001) -- titled for a downturn in the stock market -- evokes midwestern family life over several generations. The novel chronicles the physical and mental deterioration of a patriarch suffering from Parkinson's disease; as in Smiley's A Thousand Acres, the entire family is affected. Franzen pits individuals against large conspiracies in The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992). Some critics link Franzen with Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace as a writer of conspiracy novels.
The Midwest has produced a wide variety of writing, much of it informed by international influences. Richard Powers (1957- ), from Illinois, has lived in Thailand and the Netherlands. His challenging postmodern novels interweave personal lives with technology. Galatea 2.2 (1995) updates the mad scientist theme; the scientists in this case are computer programmers.
African-American novelist Charles Johnson (1948- ), an ex-cartoonist who was born in Illinois and moved to Seattle, Washington, draws on disparate traditions such as Zen and the slave narrative in novels such as Oxherding Tale (1982). Johnson's accomplished, picaresque novel Middle Passage (1990) blends the international history of slavery with a sea tale echoing Moby-Dick. Dreamer (1998) re-imagines the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Robert Olen Butler (1945- ), born in Illinois and a veteran of the Vietnam War, writes about Vietnamese refugees in Louisiana in their own voices in A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain (1992). His stories in Tabloid Dreams (1996) -- inspired by zany news headlines -- were enlarged into the humorous novel Mr. Spaceman (2000), in which a space alien learns English from watching television and abducts a bus full of tourists in order to interview them on his spaceship.
Native-American authors from the region include part-Chippewa Louise Erdrich, who has set a series of novels in her native North Dakota. Gerald Vizenor (1935- ) gives a comic, postmodern portrait of contemporary Native-American life in Darkness at Saint Louis Bearheart (1978) and Griever: An American Monkey King in China (1987). Vizenor's Chancers (2000) deals with skeletons buried outside of their homelands.
Popular Syrian-American novelist Mona Simpson (1957- ), who was born in Wisconsin, is the author of Anywhere But Here (1986), a look at mother-daughter relationships.
The Mountain West
The western interior of the United States is a largely wild area that stretches along the majestic Rocky Mountains running slantwise from Montana at the Canadian border to the hills of Texas on the U.S. border with Mexico. Ranching and mining have long provided the region's economic backbone, and the Anglo tradition in the region emphasizes an independent frontier spirit.
Western literature often incorporates conflict. Traditional enemies in the 19th-century West are the cowboy versus the Indian, the farmer/settler versus the outlaw, the rancher versus the cattle rustler. Recent antagonists include the oilman versus the ecologist, the developer versus the archaeologist, and the citizen activist versus the representative of nuclear and military facilities, many of which are housed in the sparsely populated West.
One writer has cast a long shadow over western writing, much as William Faulkner did in the South. Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) records the passing of the western wilderness. In his masterpiece Angle of Repose (1971), a historian imagines his educated grandparents' move to the "wild" West. His last book surveys his life in the West as a writer: Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs (1992). For a quarter century, Stegner directed Stanford University's writing program; his list of students reads like a "who's who" of western writing: Raymond Carver, Ken Kesey, Thomas McGuane, Larry McMurtry, N. Scott Momaday, Tillie Olsen, and Robert Stone. Stegner also influenced the contemporary Montana school of writers associated with McGuane, Jim Harrison, and some works of Richard Ford, as well as Texas writers like McMurtry.
Novelist Thomas McGuane (1939- ) typically depicts one man going alone into a wild area, where he engages in an escalating conflict. His works include The Sporting Club (1968) and The Bushwacked Piano (1971), in which the hero travels from Michigan to Montana on a demented mission of courtship. McGuane's enthusiasm for hunting and fishing has led critics to compare him with Ernest Hemingway. Michigan-born Jim Harrison (1937- ), like McGuane, spent many years living on a ranch. In his first novel, Wolf: A False Memoir (1971), a man seeks to view a wolf in the wild in hopes of changing his life. His later, more pessimistic fiction includes Legends of the Fall (1979) and The Road Home (1998).
In Richard Ford's Montana novel Wildlife (1990), the desolate landscape counterpoints a family's breakup. Story writer, eco-critic, and nature essayist Rick Bass (1958- ), born in Texas and educated as a petroleum geologist, writes of elemental confrontations between outdoorsmen and nature in his story collection In the Loyal Mountains (1995) and the novel Where the Sea Used To Be (1998).
Texan Larry McMurtry (1936- ) draws on his ranch childhood in Horseman, Pass By (1961), made into the movie Hud in 1963, an unsentimental portrait of the rancher's world. Leaving Cheyenne (1963) and its successor, The Last Picture Show (1966), which was also made into a film, evoke the fading of a way of life in Texas small towns. McMurtry's best-known work is Lonesome Dove (1985), an archetypal western epic novel about a cattle drive in the 1870s that became a successful television miniseries. His recent works include Comanche Moon (1997).
The West of multiethnic writers is less heroic and often more forward looking. One of the best-known Chicana writers is Sandra Cisneros (1954- ). Born in Chicago, Cisneros has lived in Mexico and Texas; she focuses on the large cultural border between Mexico and the United States as a creative, contradictory zone in which Mexican-American women must reinvent themselves. Her best-selling The House on Mango Street (1984), a series of interlocking vignettes told from a young girl's viewpoint, blazed the trail for other Latina writers and introduced readers to the vital Chicago barrio. Cisneros extended her vignettes of Chicana women's lives in Woman Hollering Creek (1991). Pat Mora (1942- ) offers a Chicana view in Nepantla: Essays From the Land in the Middle (1993), which addresses issues of cultural conservation
Native Americans from the region include the late James Welch, whose The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000) imagines a young Sioux who survives the Battle of Little Bighorn and makes a life in France. Linda Hogan (l947- ), from Colorado and of Chickasaw heritage, reflects on Native-American women and nature in novels including Mean Spirit (1990), about the oil rush on Indian lands in the 1920s, and Power (1998), in which an Indian woman discovers her own inner natural resources.
For centuries, the desert Southwest developed under Spanish rule, and much of the population continues to speak Spanish, while some Native-American tribes reside on ancestral lands. Rainfall is unreliable, and agriculture has always been precarious in the region. Today, massive irrigation projects have boosted agricultural production, and air conditioning attracts more and more people to sprawling cities like Salt Lake City in Utah and Phoenix in Arizona.
In a region where the desert ecology is so fragile, it is not surprising that there are many environmentally oriented writers. The activist Edward Abbey (1927-1989) celebrated the desert wilderness of Utah in Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (1968).
Trained as a biologist, Barbara Kingsolver (1955- ) offers a woman's viewpoint on the Southwest in her popular trilogy set in Arizona: The Bean Trees (1988), featuring Taylor Greer, a tomboyish young woman who takes in a Cherokee child; Animal Dreams (1990); and Pigs in Heaven (1993). The Poisonwood Bible (1998) concerns a missionary family in Africa. Kingsolver addresses political themes unapologetically, admitting, "I want to change the world."
The Southwest is home to the greatest number of Native-American writers, whose works reveal rich mythical storytelling, a spiritual treatment of nature, and deep respect for the spoken word. The most important fictional theme is healing, understood as restoration of harmony. Other topics include poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, and white crimes against Indians.
Native-American writing is more philosophical than angry, however, and it projects a strong ecological vision. Major authors include the distinguished N. Scott Momaday, who inaugurated the contemporary Native-American novel with House Made of Dawn; his recent works include The Man Made of Words (1997). Part-Laguna novelist Leslie Marmon Silko, the author of Ceremony, has also published Gardens in the Dunes (1999), evoking Indigo, an orphan cared for by a white woman at the turn of the 20th century.
Numerous Mexican-American writers reside in the Southwest, as they have for centuries. Distinctive concerns include the Spanish language, the Catholic tradition, folkloric forms, and, in recent years, race and gender inequality, generational conflict, and political activism. The culture is strongly patriarchal, but new female Chicana voices have arisen.
The poetic nonfiction book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), by Gloria Anzaldúa (1942- ), passionately imagines a hybrid feminine consciousness of the borderlands made up of strands from Mexican, Native-American, and Anglo cultures. Also noteworthy is New Mexican writer Denise Chavez (1948- ), author of the story collection The Last of the Menu Girls (l986). Her Face of an Angel (1994), about a waitress who has been working on a manual for waitresses for 30 years, has been called an authentically Latino novel in English.
California could be a country all its own with its enormous multiethnic population and huge economy. The state is known for spawning social experiments, youth movements (the Beats, hippies, techies), and new technologies (the "dot-coms" of Silicon Valley) that can have unexpected consequences.
Northern California, centered on San Francisco, enjoys a liberal, even utopian literary tradition seen in Jack London and John Steinbeck. It is home to hundreds of writers, including Native American Gerald Vizenor, Chicana Lorna Dee Cervantes, African Americans Alice Walker and Ishmael Reed, and internationally minded writers like Norman Rush (1933- ), whose novel Mating (1991) draws on his years in Africa.
Northern California houses a rich tradition of Asian-American writing, whose characteristic themes include family and gender roles, the conflict between generations, and the search for identity. Maxine Hong Kingston helped kindle the renaissance of Asian-American writing, at the same time popularizing the fictionalized memoir genre.
Another Asian-American writer from California is novelist Amy Tan, whose best-selling The Joy Luck Club became a hit film in 1993. Its interlinked story-like chapters delineate the different fates of four mother-and-daughter pairs. Tan's novels spanning historical China and today's United States include The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), about half-sisters, and The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001), about a daughter's care for her mother. The refreshing, witty Gish Jen (1955- ), whose parents emigrated from Shanghai, authored the lively novels Typical American (1991) and Mona in the Promised Land (1996).
Japanese-American writers include Karen Tei Yamashita (1951- ), born and raised in California, whose nine-year stay in Brazil inspired Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990) and Brazil-Maru (1992). Her Tropic of Orange (1997) evokes polyglot Los Angeles. Japanese-American fiction writers build on the early work of Toshio Mori, Hisaye Yamamoto, and Janice Mirikitani.
Southern California literature has a very different tradition associated with the newer city of Los Angeles, built by boosters and land developers despite the obvious problem of lack of water resources. Los Angeles was from the start a commercial enterprise; it is not surprising that Hollywood and Disneyland are some of its best-known legacies to the world. As if to counterbalance its shiny facade, a dystopian strain of Southern California writing has flourished, inaugurated by Nathanael West's Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust (1939).
Loneliness and alienation stalk the creations of Gina Berriault (1926-1999), whose characters eke out stunted lives lived in rented rooms in Women in Their Beds (1996). Joan Didion (1934- ) evokes the free-floating anxiety of California in her brilliant essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). In 2003, Didion penned Where I Was From, a narrative account of how her family moved west with the frontier and settled in California. Another Angelino, Dennis Cooper (1953- ), writes cool novels about an underworld of numb, alienated men.
Thomas Pynchon best captured the strange combination of ease and unease that is Los Angeles in his novel about a vast conspiracy of outcasts, The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon inspired the prolific postmodernist William Vollmann (l959- ), who has gained popularity with youthful, counterculture readers for his long, surrealistic meta-narratives such as the multivolume "Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes," inaugurated with The Ice-Shirt (1990), about Vikings, and fantasies like You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon (1987), about a war between virtual humans and insects.
Another ambitious novelist living in Southern California is the flamboyant T. Coraghessan Boyle (1948- ), known for his many exuberant novels including World's End (1987) and The Road to Wellville (1993), about John Harvey Kellogg, American inventor of breakfast cereal.
Mexican-American writers in Los Angeles sometimes focus on low-grade racial tension. Richard Rodriguez (1944- ), author of Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982), argues against bilingual education and affirmative action in Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father (l992). Luis Rodriguez's (1954- ) memoir of macho Chicano gang life in Los Angeles, Always Running (1993), testifies to the city's dark underside.
The Latin-American diaspora has influenced Helena Maria Viramontes (1954- ), born and raised in the barrio of East Los Angeles. Her works portray that city as a magnet for a vast and growing number of Spanish-speaking immigrants, particularly Mexicans and Central Americans fleeing poverty and warfare. In powerful stories such as "The Cariboo Café" (1984), she interweaves Anglos, refugees from death squads, and illegal immigrants who come to the United States in search of work.
In recent decades, the mountainous, densely forested Northwest, centered around Seattle in the state of Washington, has emerged as a cultural center known for liberal views and a passionate appreciation of nature. Its most influential recent writer was Raymond Carver.
David Guterson (1956- ), born in Seattle, gained a wide readership when his novel Snow Falling on Cedars (1994) was made into a movie. Set in Washington's remote, misty San Juan Islands after World War II, it concerns a Japanese American accused of a murder. In Guterson's moving novel East of the Mountains (1999), a heart surgeon dying of cancer goes back to the land of his youth to commit suicide, but discovers reasons to live. The penetrating novel Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson (1944- ) sees this wild, difficult territory through female eyes. In her luminous, long-awaited second novel, Gilead (2004), an upright elderly preacher facing death writes a family history for his young son that looks back as far as the Civil War.
Although she has lived in many regions, Annie Dillard (1945- ) has made the Northwest her own in her crystalline works such as the brilliant poetic essay entitled "Holy the Firm" (1994), prompted by the burning of a neighbor child. Her description of the Pacific Northwest evokes both a real and spiritual landscape: "I came here to study hard things -- rock mountain and salt sea -- and to temper my spirit on their edges." Akin to Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dillard seeks enlightenment in nature. Dillard's striking essay collection is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). Her one novel, The Living (1992), celebrates early pioneer families beset by disease, drowning, poisonous fumes, gigantic falling trees, and burning wood houses as they imperceptibly assimilate with indigenous tribes, Chinese immigrants, and newcomers from the East.
Sherman Alexie (1966- ), a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, is the youngest Native-American novelist to achieve national fame. Alexie gives unsentimental and humorous accounts of Indian life with an eye for incongruous mixtures of tradition and pop culture. His story cycles include Reservation Blues (1995) and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), which inspired the effective film of reservation life Smoke Signals (1998), for which Alexie wrote the screenplay. Smoke Signals is one of the very few movies made by Native Americans rather than about them. Alexie's recent story collection is The Toughest Indian in the World (2000), while his harrowing novel Indian Killer (1996) recalls Richard Wright's Native Son.
Global Authors: Voices From the Caribbean and Latin America
WWriters from the English-speaking Caribbean islands have been shaped by the British literary curriculum and colonial rule, but in recent years their focus has shifted from London to New York and Toronto. Themes include the beauty of the islands, the innate wisdom of their people, and aspects of immigration and exile -- the breakup of family, culture shock, changed gender roles, and assimilation.
Two forerunners merit mention. Paule Marshall (1929- ), born in Brooklyn, is not technically a global writer, but she vividly recalls her experiences as the child of Barbadian immigrants in Brooklyn in Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959). Dominican novelist Jean Rhys (1894-1979) penned Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a haunting and poetic refiguring of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Rhys lived most of her life in Europe, but her book was championed by American feminists for whom the "madwoman in the attic" had become an iconic figure of repressed female selfhood.
Rhys's work opened the way for the angrier voice of Jamaica Kincaid (1949- ), from Antigua, whose unsparing autobiographical works include the novels Annie John (1985), Lucy (1990), and The Autobiography of My Mother (1996). Born in Haiti but educated in the United States, Edwidge Danticat (l969- ) came to attention with her stories Krik? Krak! (1995), entitled for a phrase used by storytellers from the Haitian oral tradition. Danticat evokes her nation's tragic past in her historical novel The Farming of the Bones (1998).
Many Latin American writers diverge from the views common among Chicano writers with roots in Mexico, who have tended to be romantic, nativist, and left wing in their politics. In contrast, Cuban-American writing tends to be cosmopolitan, comic, and politically conservative. Gustavo Pérez Firmat's memoir, Next Year in Cuba: A Chronicle of Coming of Age in America (1995), celebrates baseball as much as Havana. The title is ironic: "Next year in Cuba" is a phrase of Cuban exiles clinging to their vision of a triumphant return. The Pérez Family (1990), by Christine Bell (1951- ), warmly portrays confused Cuban families -- at least half of them named Pérez -- in exile in Miami. Recent works of novelist Oscar Hijuelos (1951- ) include The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien (1993), about Cuban Irish Americans, and Mr. Ives' Christmas (1995), the story of a man whose son has died.
Writers with Puerto Rican roots include Nicholasa Mohr (1938- ), whose Rituals of Survival: A Woman's Portfolio (1985) presents the lives of six Puerto Rican women, and Rosario Ferré (1938- ), author of The Youngest Doll (1991). Among the younger writers is Judith Ortiz Cofer (1952- ), author of Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood (1990) and The Latin Deli (1993), which combines poetry with stories. Poet and essayist Aurora Levins Morales (1954- ) writes of Puerto Rico from a cosmopolitan Jewish viewpoint.
The best-known writer with roots in the Dominican Republic is Julia Alvarez (1950- ). In How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), upper-class Dominican women struggle to adapt to New York City. !Yo! (1997) returns to the García sisters, exploring identity through the stories of 16 characters. Junot Diaz (1948- ) offers a much harsher vision in the story collection Drown (1996), about young men in the slums of New Jersey and the Dominican Republic.
Major Latin American writers who first became prominent in the United States in the 1960s -- Argentina's Jorge Luis Borges, Colombia's Gabriel García Márquez, Chile's Pablo Neruda, and Brazil's Jorge Amado -- introduced U.S. authors to magical realism, surrealism, a hemispheric sensibility, and an appreciation of indigenous cultures. Since that first wave of popularity, women and writers of color have found audiences, among them Chilean-born novelist Isabel Allende (1942- ). The niece of Chilean president Salvador Allende, who was assassinated in 1973, Isabel Allende memorialized her country's bloody history in La casa de los espíritus (l982), translated as The House of the Spirits (1985). Later novels (written and published first in Spanish) include Eva Luna (1987) and Daughter of Fortune (1999), set in the California gold rush of 1849. Allende's evocative style and woman-centered vision have gained her a wide readership in the United States.
Global Authors: Voices From Asia and the Middle East
Many writers from the Indian subcontinent have made their home in the United States in recent years. Bharati Mukherjee (1940- ) has written an acclaimed story collection, The Middleman and Other Stories (1988); her novel Jasmine (1989) tells the story of an illegal immigrant woman. Mukherjee was raised in Calcutta; her novel The Holder of the World (1993) imagines passionate adventures in 17th-century India for characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Leave It to Me (1997) follows the nomadic struggles of a girl abandoned in India who seeks her roots. Mukherjee's haunting story "The Management of Grief" (1988), about the aftermath of a terrorist bombing of a plane, has taken on new resonance since September 11, 2001.
Indian-born Meena Alexander (1951- ), of Syrian heritage, was raised in North Africa; she reflects on her experience in her memoir Fault Lines (1993). Poet and story writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (1956- ), born in India, has written the sensuous, women-centered novels The Mistress of Spices (1997) and Sister of My Heart (1999), as well as story collections including The Unknown Errors of Our Lives (2001).
Jhumpa Lahiri (1967- ) focuses on the younger generation's conflicts and assimilation in Interpreter of Maladies: Stories of Bengal, Boston, and Beyond (1999) and her novel The Namesake (2003). Lahiri draws on her experience: Her Bengali parents were raised in India, and she was born in London but raised in the United States.
Southeast Asian-American authors, especially those from Korea and the Philippines, have found strong voices in the last decade. Among recent Korean-American writers, pre-eminent is Chang-rae Lee (1965- ). Born in Seoul, Korea, Lee's remarkable novel Native Speaker (1995) interweaves public ideals, betrayal, and private despair. His moving second novel, A Gesture Life (1999), explores the long shadow of a wartime atrocity -- the Japanese use of Korean "comfort women."
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982), born in Korea, blends photographs, videos, and historical documents in her experimental Dictee (l982) to memorialize the suffering of Koreans under Japanese occupying forces. Malaysian-American poet Shirley Geok-lin Lim, of ethnic Chinese descent, has written a challenging memoir, Among the White Moon Faces (l996). Her autobiographical novel is Joss and Gold (2001), while her stories are collected in Two Dreams (l997).
Philippines-born writers include Bienvenido Santos (1911-1996), author of the poetic novel Scent of Apples (1979), and Jessica Hagedorn (l949- ), whose surrealistic pop culture novels are Dogeaters (l990) and The Gangster of Love (1996). In very different ways, they both are responding to the poignant autobiographical novel of Filipino-American migrant laborer Carlos Bulosan (1913-1956), America Is in the Heart (1946).
Noted Vietnamese-American filmmaker and social theorist Trinh Minh-Ha (1952- ) combines storytelling and theory in her feminist work Woman, Native, Other (1989). From China, Ha Jin (1956- ) has authored the novel Waiting (1999), a sad tale of an 18-year separation whose realistic style, typical of Chinese fiction, strikes American ears as fresh and original.
The newest voices come from the Arab-American community. Lebanese-born Joseph Geha (1944- ) has set his stories in Through and Through (1990) in Toledo, Ohio; Jordanian-American Diana Abu-Jaber (1959- ), born in New York, has written the novel Arabian Jazz (1993).
Poet and playwright Elmaz Abinader (1954- ), is author of a memoir, Children of the Roojme: A Family's Journey From Lebanon (1991). In "Just Off Main Street" (2002), Abinader has written of her bicultural childhood in 1960s small-town Pennsylvania: "...my family scenes filled me with joy and belonging, but I knew none of it could be shared on the other side of that door."
American literature has traversed an extended, winding path from pre-colonial days to contemporary times. Society, history, technology all have had telling impact on it. Ultimately, though, there is a constant -- humanity, with all its radiance and its malevolence, its tradition and its promise.