PHILIPP LÖFFLER, Pluralist Desires: Contemporary Historical Fiction and the End of the Cold War (Rochester: Camden House, 2015), 190 pp.
Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 63.1
Philipp Löffler’s Pluralist Desires seeks to rethink historical fiction after the end of the Cold War. As Löffler argues, the novels he discusses share a belief that “when we write about history we essentially write about ourselves” (6), and for them the point of writing about history is “not to establish true accounts of particular historical events but to express the particularity of an individual life or an individual culture” (5). This is, as the study makes clear, more than an argument about particular books: it is a periodizing argument that situates these texts in the post-Cold War as a distinct cultural period. The texts Löffler discusses, key novels by Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and Richard Powers, “offer thoughtful and provocative portrayals of what it means to write about history in the post-Cold War world” (10). Pluralism, of course, has a longer genealogy than just the immediate post-Cold War, and Löffler traces what he calls an “alternative and often neglected historical perspective” on the question of what he calls “cultural pluralism,” one which returns to the philosophical tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche and William James. Löffler ultimately suggests three interlocking reception contexts for his writers in the moment after the Cold War, and by extension that of cultural pluralism as a dominant discourse: the waning of postmodernism, the increasing importance of identity politics for academia, and the similarly increasing centrality of minority fiction to the literary market (32-33).
Pluralist Desires’s claims about what historical fiction is after the Cold War are appropriately cautious. The philosophies at work in the texts Löffler discusses argue that “the truth of history derives from the contingencies of life itself” (28), so that DeLillo, Morrison, Roth, and Powers do not figure as an “organic group of writers,” but rather as individual writers sharing a problem. At the same time, Löffler recognizes that the three contexts of reception he identifies are not deeply related to the end of the Cold War as such; rather, the “significance of 1989 as a global historical event is central, but only to incorporate a rather hybrid bunch of transitions into one overarching narrative” (29), offering a sense of simultaneity rather than a singular determinism.
Against this backdrop of a carefully measured, but theoretically, philosophically, and historically informed understanding of what pluralism means, Löffler’s admirably concise book marshals an impressive number of challenging new interpretations. Through his readings of DeLillo, Morrison, Roth, and Powers, he firmly establishes the way post-Cold War historical fiction picks up the pluralist enterprise both formally and thematically, and at the same time contributes to the study of these writers. Each of the chapters offers what are often brilliant insights into the way Löffler’s perspective necessarily turns previous and alternative readings of these writers around.
Pluralist Desires begins with a chapter on Don DeLillo’s novels Mao II, Underworld, and Cosmopolis. Löffler identifies these novels as sharing a post-Cold War perspective, in which their protagonists are “grappling with a sense of deprivation and homelessness that can only be accounted for through new stories and new patterns of belief” (35). In all of his readings, the consequence of his theoretical perspectives is to refashion well-known discussions into new shapes, so that, for example, the central baseball episodes of Underworld come to figure less as straightforward metaphors of shifting historical constellations—and so, truth claims about what the Cold War was like—but rather “virtual site[s] of memory that [are] premised on the value of the individual subject” (39). Cosmopolis, rather than figuring as a comment on the perversity of the post-Cold War era in a neoliberalized bildungsroman becomes a “pluralistic comment on the particularities of human life” (61), and Mao II, instead of a meditation on literary craft, becomes an affirmation that history can only be powerful if it is understood “pluralistically” (59). What these readings combine to suggest is that DeLillo’s works in the 1990s and early 2000s share an interest in understanding that “our sense of historicity is defined by the particularities of our lives and our lifeworlds,” and so only becomes available in the context of a cultural pluralism that understands individuals through individual sense-making strategies. This, indeed, is what the book continues to argue throughout.
Each of the subsequent chapters expands on, or more properly, elaborates individual instances of, this argument. Toni Morrison’s novels Beloved and A Mercy, Löffler argues, are less properly understood as being about so grand a category as race, or specifically the experience of African-American slavery as a historical truth, and more properly read to figure “an infinite plurality of individual responses to very particular historical circumstances” (70). Roth’s American Trilogy of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain, must affirmatively be read as a trilogy, with I Married a Communist as the centerpiece, to reveal “historical realities as they are consciously transported into life stories of individual people” (126), rather than as broad historical canvases seeking to sketch fifty years of Cold War American life. And finally, Powers’s Plowing the Dark is read with Georg Lukács as a novel of “transcendental homelessness,” which formally and aesthetically encapsulates the post-Cold War moment, even as it represents “the individual subject […] who uses art to change the world, or to make the world meaningful” (133). There is no room here to go into the details of these arguments, which Löffler carries forward with panache and energy, and which reveal unexpected insights into novels which can hardly be said to have escaped critical attention.
Löffler aptly, if too briefly concludes the book with an epilogue that expands his arguments into a large claim about the way academia, and to read again the relevance of so canonical a group of writers as the ones he has chosen here. The book ends fittingly with a set of highly original readings framed by highly original theoretical frames.
Pluralist Desires also inscribes itself in a number of contemporary debates about the nature of critical reading. As Löffler notes early on, the kind of historical experience which he sees at work in his novels “is not in itself a political issue. […] The conceptual and formal logic behind such narratives is distinct from their potential political appropriations” (11). In connection with the recent interest in finding modes of reading less indebted to political critique, Pluralist Desires looks in part a practical application of post-critical reading that does not shy away from making larger claims about the texts under discussion. The book may also be said to usefully expand the notion of historical fiction. Neither DeLillo’s Cosmopolis nor Powers’s Plowing the Dark—both set almost contemporaneously with their dates of appearance—are traditionally “historical.” But in being positioned in a sequence of novels that are historical in the sense that they are periodizing, and which historicize, these two texts become themselves readable as very much concerned with a historical constellation, not merely a contemporary moment. “[T]he post-Cold War world is still in the making,” as Löffler notes in his short epilogue, a fact which gives these texts an emphatically historical relation to the present. In offering this parsing, Löffler helps us understand historical fiction more expansively, more generously, than as narratives tritely taking place in the past.
In sum, Pluralist Desires achieves an impressively compact revaluation of a number of novels written between the end of the Cold War and the early 2000s that may, at first glance, not share as much as Löffler ably shows they do. Pluralist Desires is an inescapable book for students of the authors it discusses, of historical fiction, and of contemporary literature.
Tim Lanzendörfer (Mainz)