British Association for American Studies


Book Review: Fictive Fathers in the Contemporary American Novel by Debra Shostak

Debra Shostak, Fictive Fathers in the Contemporary American Novel (Bloomsbury: New York and London, 2020). pp. 288. £28.99

‘Why is it’, Debra Shostak asks at the beginning of Fictive Fathers in the Contemporary American Novel, ‘that so many works of fiction of the last fifty years, especially those centring on relation within middle-class white families, are haunted by the figure of a father who […] fails his family or vanishes in actuality? […] What are the nature and sources of the originary image of paternal security and authority that cause disappointment, disruption, or trauma when an individual father falls short?’ (2). Powered by these questions, Fictive Fathers is centrally concerned with exploring the relationship that fathers have with fictionality. It explores the ‘double meaning embedded in the titular “fictive fathers”’: in one sense about the representation of fathers in recent fictional texts, but also how these texts narrate the ‘fathers for (and by) whom the pervasive construction of traditional white fatherhood in the United States is laid bare as illusory’. For Shostak, ‘this “fictive” fatherhood constitutes a myth, on the social plane, and a fantasy, on the personal plane’ (3). The book’s critical focus shares a likeness with scholarship such as Sally Robinson’s historical study of masculinity in Marked Men (2000), Hamilton Carroll’s readings of literary and cultural forms in Affirmative Reaction (2011) and, most explicitly, Kaja Silverman’s wide-ranging Male Subjectivity at the Margins (1992).[1] What sets Fictive Fathers apart from these studies is its tight focus on the novel form. This allows Shostak’s book to examine what role narrative has in the conceptualisation of fathers, with particular reference to the themes of time, memory, absence, and failure to which its selection of novels continually return.

Fictive Fathers’s considerable selection of texts offers no surprises. This is the expected canon of contemporary (here understood as post-1970) American authors; Shostak reads novels by John Irving, Jonathan Franzen, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Philip Roth, Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides, Mona Simpson, Carole Maso, Paul Auster, Jonathan Lethem, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Safran Foer, Claire Messud, Bobbie Ann Mason, Tim O’Brien, and Viet Thanh Nguyen across its eight chapters. This substantial collection of primary material is one of this study’s strengths, allowing Shostak to convincingly define a recurring narrative tendency across the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries with plenty of examples. The sheer volume of material here is impressive alone, but even more so is how the book doesn’t feel whistle-stop in the slightest; the analytical method is committed to close readings that offer depth and nuance to each of the authors and texts. Shostak states that her aim is to ‘extend the analysis of fictive fathers to the reciprocal consideration of the children whose lives […] are haunted by the pressures upon and the anxieties among fathers displaced from the security of the dominant fiction’ (15). Accordingly, some of these novels are read through father characters, and others through the experiences of children in relation to their fathers. These pressures and anxieties are inherited, channelled through their incongruence with the imagined construction of fathers as safety, as security – and if this imagined construction is one born of a patriarchal society at large, how are individuals able to reconcile their very personal responses to fatherly absence?

While this monograph is strong throughout, the readings of Auster, Lethem and Nguyen stand out – these are the chapters in which substantial attention is paid to language, form, and narratability. There is a thread that runs from the postmodern language analysis provoked by Auster’s metafictional New York Trilogy and Lethem’s genre-riffing Motherless Brooklyn through to the problem of memory and history in Nguyen’s The Sympathizer.[2] Where Auster examines the very fictiveness of fathers through the acts of writing and reading, and Lethem’s novel presents the deconstructive possibilities of Tourette’s syndrome, Nguyen’s text harbours ‘some measure of melancholic longing within the narrator’s response to his lack of paternal recognition, [and] his project of constructing postmemory is finally defiant: to rewrite a history that disowns the white, Western father’s narrative, along with the father himself’ (218). Nguyen’s inclusion in this volume is a welcome one, especially when the corpus is, as Shostak herself notes in the introduction, otherwise entirely white. It is no coincidence that the reading of Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is among the strongest here: it recognises the particular pressures that are felt at the intersection of racial, national, gendered, and familial identities, and how they are written into both personal and cultural histories. Perhaps there could have been room for specific readings of the other texts’ whiteness in this regard, and what in the recent past has made white fatherly absence both more prominent in fiction and perceived as so jarring. A short conclusion to this collection of readings could have offered some preliminary questions in this vein. Nevertheless, this is an exemplary study that researchers of contemporary fiction should find the time for.

[1] Sally Robinson, Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis (Columbia University Press, 2000); Hamilton Carroll, Affirmative Reaction: New Formations of White Masculinity (Duke University Press, 2011); and Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (Routledge, 1992).

[2] Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy (Pengiun, 1990); Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn (Vintage, 1999); and Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (Grove, 2015).

About the Author

Carl White is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Leeds. His work examines contemporary American fiction and financialization. His writing has been published in Textual Practice and Humanities, and he recently co-edited the WRoCAH Journal.