Monday, November 9, 2009

"After the End of History"

IT'S the kind of phrase, however memorable, that the speaker probably wishes he could take back. when francis fukuyama responded to the fall of berlin wall -- the close of the cold war -- by calling it "the end of history" it seemed to make sense, and it fit into an argument by postmodern scholars -- fredric jameson especially -- that we were living in a context-free epoch that had no use for history either in its literature or popular culture.

but history continued to happen, and this week the berlin wall moment is back in the news. i'm also reading an intriguing new book in which samuel cohen, an english professor at the university of missouri, argues that history did not disappear from our literature either. cohen sees the 90s -- the period between "the end of history" and 9/11's "end of irony" -- as "an interwar decade," and looks at six of the best novels the period produced and two that came right after.

those novels are by thomas pynchon, philip roth, toni morrison, tim o'brien, joan didion, jeffrey eugenides, jonathan lethem and don delillo, all hefty books well worth the study.

i know cohen only slightly, from speaking by phone for two stories on updike, here and here, and i like his gen-x perspective. updike himself doesnt much figure in the new book, but he offers this delicious epitaph from "rabbit at rest": " 'i miss it,' he said. 'the cold war. it gave you a reason to get up in the morning.'"

so i'm enjoying cohen's tightly and clearly written "after the end of history: american fiction in the 1990s" -- and not just because it's the kind of study i might have written had i stayed in the academy.


Pete Bilderback said...

Fukuyama probably wishes he could take a lot of his words back. In fact, he's tried. I never bought his argument, and at the time I felt it was based in large part on a misreading of Hegel. But then, that was back when I read things like Hegel, and I can't for the the life of me remember how I thought he misread him now. I guess it's enough that he's been proven wrong in a thousand other ways.

Scott Timberg said...

In college I was fascinated with Hegel, but that stuff has slipped out of my feeble mind as well...