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Novel Shocks: Bureaucratic Surrealism and the US Novel from 1948-1962

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(Thesis) Ph.D.
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Novel Shocks argues that the US novel transforms in the 1950s. Treating the post-war period as a key transitional moment between the decline of the economic and geopolitical systems that operated under what Giovanni Arrighi terms the British “systemic cycle of accumulation,” and the rise of the US cycle, I argue that the US novel too enters a period of transition. I develop a theory of a genre I term “bureaucratic surrealism” that captures the formal and political concerns of this transitional period. I take up Franco Moretti’s claim that, beginning in the wake of World War I, the novel was no longer able to absorb the “traumas” of modernity, but suggest that the novel understands what Moretti terms “trauma” as forms of what Sigmund Freud calls “shock.” The central claims of this dissertation are two-fold: first, that the novel’s temporality, spatiality, and subjectivity are not only, as Moretti suggests, “dismantled” by shock, but that shock also begins to generate and produce different kinds of narrative time, space, and subjects; second, that throughout the 1950s, novels approached the most pressing political and social questions of their moment through the language, imagery, and symptomology of shock. In short, I suggest that shock acts as what Fredric Jameson terms an “ideologeme” of the social and political struggles of the 1950s. This dissertation opens by framing the problem of shock in the 1950s novel through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The following chapters trace how three seemingly disparate novels—Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch—offer a series of narrative solutions to the problem of shock. I conclude by suggesting that after Catch 22 a new novelistic regime emerges, one in which shock moves to the centre of the form. Looking ahead to the works of Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, Samuel Delaney and William Gaddis, I suggest that the neoliberal novel emerges, in a sense, from Snowden’s wound.
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Thesis advisor: Lesjak, Carolyn
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