British Association for American Studies


Book Review: American Fiction in Transition: Observer-Hero Narrative, the 1990s, and Postmodernism by Adam Kelly

Kelly, Adam. American Fiction in Transition: Observer-Hero Narrative, the 1990s, and Postmodernism. Pp. 147. New York/London: Bloomsbury, 2014. £19.95.

amfiction in transAmerican Fiction in Transition focuses on four novels from the ‘long 1990s’ – Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000); Paul Auster’s Leviathan (1992); Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides (1993); E. L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks (1994) – that are emblematic of what Kelly convincingly argues is a significant contemporary literary genre: the observer-hero narrative. Kelly notes how his chosen novels emerge out of a prior tradition in which a ‘skeptical’ narrator depicts the actions of a more ‘romantic’ hero, but contends that his own selections are characterized by a key development specific to the 1990s: ‘signs of a transition beyond postmodernism’ (5).  For Kelly, ‘each novel becomes in large part the story of the problem of telling the story, the problem of explaining the seemingly inexplicable decisions the hero takes, the key transitions to which his life bears witness’ (3).

Kelly sees the disintegration of subjectivity as a fundamental crisis in postmodernism, especially because of the emphasis placed on events over decisions; an emphasis which precludes the possibility of individual agency. As a corrective to Jameson’s notion of postmodernity, he argues that the contemporary observer-hero novel stages ‘resistance to postmodern fragmentation and stasis’ (3), allowing ‘fresh engagements with questions of temporality, agency and decision at the human scale’ (2). Reacting to their ‘postmodern inheritance in new and valuable ways’ (23), Kelly suggests that an illustration of the Derridean notion of undecidability allows these authors to ‘explore…the consequences of the theoretical de-centering of the subject’ and ‘offer intimations of human agency that can challenge that worldview’ (32). Rather than a ‘renewal of the dialectical method’ called for by Jameson, he suggests that we look to Derrida for how to ‘rethink the notion of the event to bring it closer to the notion of the decision’ (3). The novels selected here all foreground the problems that narrators’ face when deciding how to represent events, and in doing so they emphasize a return to what Derrida has termed ‘ethical-political responsibility’, which – in the wake of postmodernism – ‘can only inhere in a singular decision beyond the calculation of totalizing rules and dialectical understanding’ (28).

iain williams kelly

The book evinces Kelly’s expertise at tracing the genealogy of a literary or theoretical field. His handling of Derrida is particularly impressive, aligning analysis of each novel with a relevant Derridean concept – secrecy, testimony, narcissism, and justice – whilst displaying a flair for synthesizing complex ideas without being reductive. Moreover, his close readings are assured, marrying extensive critical knowledge with original insights, and sophisticated yet lucid syntax. Kelly is also extremely convincing in his assertion that the observer-hero narrative appears at times of historical and theoretical transition, and compellingly suggests that this may be more prominent within a U.S. literary tradition due to the late arrival of Romanticism and a corresponding narratological paradox: how do you represent an ‘exceptional’ hero whilst claiming the democratic equality of all men?

There are perhaps a couple of areas that could have seen a little more explication. Framing the 1990s as a period of transition, for example, needs further justification (4). Although Kelly goes on to suggest that we need to rethink the term ‘transition’ to emphasize the co-existence of the new with the old (particularly in the case of postmodernism [5]), it could be argued that the 1990s were a decade characterized by a continuation of Cold War rhetoric and culture and further expansion of neoliberal economics, rather than transition.[1] Furthermore – as noted by Kelly himself – the book’s exclusive focus is on novels by white, heterosexual, male authors (16). Kelly attempts to account for this by providing two examples of novels by ‘non-white and/or non-male’ authors that do not quite fit his criteria – Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying and Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer – but his project would be better served by briefly highlighting a few more representative novels that do fit his study, rather than those that do not. His caveat that the challenges of these novels can be ‘generalized’ is more reductive of difference than expository of similarities.

In simultaneously attempting to define a literary genre, characterize a historical era, and posit theoretical developments ‘after’ postmodernism, Kelly is attempting to do a great deal in such a slender volume, and yet he handles his tripartite project with aplomb, abetted by his clear writing style and convincing methodology. On the whole, this ambitious book is an enlightening and challenging contribution to nascent studies of the 1990s, and of ‘post-’ postmodernism.


[1] See for instance Fabienne Collignon’s excellent recent article on the ‘post’-Cold War 1990s and David Foster Wallace, ‘USA Murated Nation, or, the Sublime Spherology of Security Culture’, Journal of American Studies 49.1 (2015), 99-123.

About the Author

Iain Williams is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on David Foster Wallace and how his work engages with notions of sincerity and authenticity. He holds an MA (Hons) in American Studies and an MSc in U.S. Literature, both from Edinburgh. An article on Wallace is forthcoming in the journal Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction.