Strange times : dissident temporalities and the remaking of history in contemporary fiction
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This dissertation argues that a cluster of contemporary novelists experiment with temporalities in order to challenge the still-dominant Enlightenment view that history moves forward in a linear progression. In directing critical attention to the temporal representation of history in recent fiction, I trace a shift in contemporary preoccupations away from the postmodern concerns about the relationship of history to language, narrativity, and knowability and toward the way that temporal adjustment revises historical thinking. I show that a number of contemporary authors eschew the conventional linkages between time and history that normally structure our engagement with the past. Rather than cut the ties between time and history, however, these texts remake them through unusual temporal frameworks. I develop this argument using three case studies, which demonstrate how a particular historiographical concept—traditionally undergirded by progressivist ideologies—changes under the influence of an unconventional representation of time. Using Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt (2003) and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), I show how queer temporalities, which reject the compulsory rhythms that often govern heteronormative culture, reconfigure archives by considering the inclusion of intentionally falsified documentation. Two works by African American novelists—Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999) and Kiese Laymon’s Long Division (2013)—feature a temporality I call the unified now, which envisions time as past, present, and future folded together in a single unit. This temporality allows them to remake the idea of futurity by exploring how future hopes for social improvement might be realized in the present. Finally, Don DeLillo’s Point Omega (2010) and Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2003) alter the concept of historical scale by considering deep time that requires us to stretch our notion of history from the Big Bang to the death of our planet. They argue that this expansion of scale is the only way to come to terms with humanity’s effect on the natural world. I contend that an exploration of these temporal reorientations is crucial to understanding the contemporary historical imagination and to discovering new ways of perceiving ourselves, defining cultural and social progress, and living responsibly.