Halldorson, Stephanie S. The Hero in Contemporary American Fiction: The Works of Saul Bellow and Don DeLillo.
Heroes--who needs them? Or, better put, who will stand up for them while keeping a straight face? The movies will surely keep giving them to us as long as there are Russell Crowes available to go off bearing a crossbow (rifle, sword, what have you) and saving the day. Meanwhile, TV has let the bad-guy-as-hero, once revolutionary, practically become a cliche in itself. But what about literature? Serious literature? And more to the point, literary criticism? Nobody there seems to be holding out for a hero. The institutionalization of the anti-hero, the general eclipse of the terminology of Joseph Campbell and the like in favor of systems, contested forces, historicism old and new, postmodernism's diminishment of agency--all these seem to have mitigated the mythos when it comes to the terms we find most useful to unpacking main characters.
Stephanie S. Halldorson is aware of these grounds for skepticism about her focus, and she pitches her book not as a study of the hero per se but of American perceptions of him (in this study, it is all hims). She works with a basic definition of heroes as figures in fiction who "[extend] themselves beyond normal human endurance ... and [return] with a cultural, social, moral, or ethical lesson for the community" (6). But what Americans take to be heroes in their fictions are most often "assumed heroes" (8), she argues, "successfully marketed" (124) but not true journeyers, heroes who have been given the mantle "without the trouble of actually enacting an existentialist quest" (155). Moreover, she claims, the culture, in a distorted Emersonianism, encourages skipping over the difficult work of becoming a hero altogether, telling us in various ways that everyone not only can be but already is a hero. "America has become the triumph of the assumed hero" (117), and only the best novelists can chart the intricate, anxious ways in which we have rushed to fill the void of a heroless existence.
Halldorson is a fluid writer, and her sentences continually suggest a concern for both her own writing's aesthetics and those of the novelists she chooses to grant her attention. She has also chosen a topic--refreshing in today's literary criticism--that both Bellow and DeLillo would recognize as their own, a question they probed in making their literature. Too frequently, though, a vagueness creeps into Halldorson's writing, usually in support of a reader-response theoretical framework that seems quite operative in the Bellow chapters but less so in the DeLillo ones. At times the approach leads to too simple a mimeticism, as in these lines from the preface: "The reader has an impulse to the heroic (to help create the world) but does not have the ability to do so and, therefore, needs a character to do it for them [sic]" (xi). At other moments Halldorson is simply too cryptic: in reference to Mr. Sammler's Planet she asks, "The reader is in the position of coaxing an old man out of bed: what possible argument is there to move?" (84).
Halldorson elects to focus her chapters on pivotal works for each author's conception of the heroic--Henderson the Rain King and Mr. Sammler's Planet for Bellow, White Noise and Mao H for DeLillo--with ample attention throughout to other parts of each writer's corpus. The Bellow choices are both problem novels of a sort, and Halldorson does well in identifying the sources of Bellow's motives for breaking new ground and of critics' perplexity over the books' differences from the rest of his work. Her study illuminates the role of "fixer philosophies" in Bellow's characterizations and the surprisingly negative response to The Adventures of Augie March and subsequent changes in Bellovian heroism. While this four-book approach does allow Halldorson to navigate two large bodies of work, the long readings have a tendency to become over-focused, loaded up with tangential concerns raised by previous critics and drifting from the governing question into more generalized ideas. As they seek out new vistas, the readings seem often to be implicitly acknowledging the limits of the central term rather than giving it true texture.
While Halldorson does draw some connections between Bellow and DeLillo, suggesting that mutual interests in "play acting" at being a hero and the theorization of patterns provide two such threads, she does not mine thoroughly enough the legacy of modernism in both. Groupings of books that break us out of predictable postmodern schools and the tendency to isolate Bellow from his (non-Jewish) peers are always welcome; but DeLillo, with his odd mixture of Joycean aestheticism and keen interest in the contingencies of the technological, makes the fit with Bellow a difficult one. Halldorson's thesis does capture the abiding DeLillo satire of worship of false heroes, as when David Bell, in the opening pages of DeLillo's debut, Americana, claims that Burt Lancaster was a "pyramid," "like a city in which we were all living....Within the conflux of shadow and time there was room for all of us" (12-13). But in general the notions of "assumed heroes" and their falsehood, when applied to DeLillo, hardly seem adequate to the wide range of ambiguity and technologized simulation his works examine.
Halldorson's final reading, of Mao H, does situate it, intriguingly, as DeLillo's entry into a battle with mass media for rights over "the imagination of the world" (148), with Bill Gray a writer struggling with the "true heroic narrative" (151) of a bygone era. Unfortunately, though, most of Halldorson's writing does not advance our understanding of these writers at fundamental levels. Perhaps more importantly, on the historical scale, should not a book about contemporary portrayals of the hero at least acknowledge some of the excesses of false heroism the US has endured for the past decade? While books about novels should tread warily when invoking the War on Terror and Iraq, to not bring up that context on this particular topic seems like a failing, especially in the case of DeLillo (for whom Halldorson chooses some of the older, more well-worn books). Still, Halldorson does give a rather horrifying picture of a world bereft of truly fortifying stories, propping up assumed heroes everywhere, a world in which "everyone must present an image of triumphant self-reliance--as hero--but without a narrative to tell or a community to tell it to" (126).
JEFFREY SEVERS, University of British Columbia
DeLillo, Don. Americana. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin, 1989.
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2010|
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