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Shopping in Space: Essays on American 'Blank Generation' Fiction.

Although Shopping in Space studies recent American fiction, readers will find no mention of the writers featured in this issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction or of many others (from Don DeLillo to Richard Powers) whose work might seem central to any such discussion. Rather, Young and Caveney, two young British critics, focus on eleven writers whose work grew out of the "punk ethos" of the seventies, was in many cases initially associated with underground New York City magazines such as Bomb and Between C & D, and can be recognized by its "flat affectless prose" and urban subject matter ("crime, drugs, sexual excess, media overload, consumer madness, inner-city decay and fashion-crazed nightlife"). These writers are Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Michael Chabon, Joel Rose, Tama Janowitz, Mary Gaitskill, Catherine Texier, Lynne Tillman, Gary Indiana, David Wojnarowicz, and Dennis Cooper.

As Young and Caveney read the last thirty years of American fiction, the writers discussed are both the first pure representatives of a postrealist sensibility and fiction's reanimators "in the wake of high postmodern experimentation." As such, they are the first to deal successfully with the Disneyfied hyper-reality and nonstop culture shock of contemporary America. What has allowed them to capture whole areas of American life heretofore abandoned to new journalism, rock poets, and silence is their lived experience within the city, that locus of postmodern consumer capitalism, an experience largely unmodified by knowledge of any other world and "alarmingly free of literary references and influences."

Shopping in Space is an ambitious book with much to say about the current scene, contemporary culture's disease(s), narrative theory, the uses of art, and more. What is perhaps most admirable here is the book's willingness to engage seriously the eleven writers selected and its insistence on finding their work meaningful and relevant - from Lynne Tillman's fiction-suspicious fiction whose "every sentence is a monument to a continuing impermanence" to Dennis Cooper as explorer of the body as "the last frontier," his violent, "excremental vision" conjuring finally Barthesian "texts of bliss." Ellis, maybe the best-known writer covered here and typically dismissed as the tasteless (but very profitable) creation of intensive hype, becomes, in the first of three chapters devoted to him, a voice of "puritan disgust," his novels jeremiads bemoaning the affectless "spectacle" of postmodern consumerism, its "depthlessness, centrelessness and cultural schizophrenia."

Shopping in Space is not without problems - from sloppy punctuation and rambling development within chapters to overstatement (is it true that all young Americans are jaded zombies, or that postmodern culture lacks depth? Are the authors saying their subjects and their own work lack depth?). Further, a view from afar seems to have blinded Young and Caveney to much that has happened here: is it really true that American fiction has not come at all to grips with Vietnam or, excepting Vineland, with the psychedelic sixties? Nor are the authors necessarily to be applauded for the dispassion with which they discuss stories involving gratuitous violence, pedophilia, and other, similarly outlaw matters. Finally, despite a professed desire to appeal to general readers, the substantial admixture of jargon and learned reference undermines that particular agenda.

These complaints lodged, Shopping in Space is nevertheless a useful and necessary book - because, as I say, it treats seriously and sympathetically writers largely unknown or too often dismissed as jejune, perverse, marginal. In doing so, Young and Caveney do both the authors and contemporary American fiction a distinct service by rendering this "Blank Generation" more visible and intelligible and by demonstrating that these books are saying something arguably worth hearing.
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Author:Horvath, Brooke
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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