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American Energies: Essays on Fiction.

American Energies contains reviews of forty individual American novelists, almost all still alive, all active in the post-WWII years. The collection consists largely of occasional pieces and reviews published previously in various periodicals, and it is grouped into three sections. The essays in the first section, "Backgrounds," describe Birkerts's version of postmodern culture, which he maintains is different not merely in degree but rather in kind from modernist culture, and which seems most closely synonymous in his mind with television culture. Birkerts ably describes the more salient (and cheerless) features of the postmodern landscape: the deleterious effects of the electronic media, the super-abundance of information and simultaneous paucity of wisdom, the psychological and cultural effects of living under the atomic cloud. Birkerts here is lucid and insightful, but perhaps his most important contribution in this volume is his call for contemporary writers to meet better the challenge of describing our culture.

Thus, in the second section, "American Fiction," which treats the state of the art in general terms, Birkerts is not sanguine. Despite his praise for certain individual writers, his consideration of the overall condition of contemporary American fiction clearly tends to be negative, pessimistic: "American fiction, the genre, is in a muddle. I specify genre because the problem does not have to do so much with the works themselves, which are various and often excellent, but with the form itself." The third section, "American Writers," is a collection of reviews wherein Birkerts shows himself to be a discerning reader and lucid writer.

Although the general prospect is bleak, it is not desolate. Birkerts provides a measure of reassurance in "Keepers of the Flame," where he demonstrates how Robert Stone, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo are living up to the tasks of the serious fiction writer despite the cultural impediments that stand in their way. Birkerts clearly takes no pleasure in pointing out the failures of our present novelists. His love of books is unquestionable, and the reader gladly acknowledges his wide reading, his broad perspective, his devotion to print culture, and his ability to write clear and stylish prose, all qualities which are, alas, too often lacking in contemporary academic criticism. One feels certain that he would rather be lauding the robust health of American novels, but his conscience will not allow him to do so.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stewart, Matthew C.
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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