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Fables of American Collectivity Circa 2005

Chris Bachelder’s U.S.!, Lydia Millet’s ‘Oh Pure and Radiant Heart’, and George Saunders’s ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’

Samuel Cohen

Pages 207 - 220


This essay reads three novels from 2005 and 2006 as responses to a long history in the United States of collective social action and of resistance to it. In particular, it reads them as responses to their time’s hostility to Left politics. The essay argues that a common feature of these novels, the turn away from realism, narrowly conceived, and toward the use of the fantastic in constructing alternative or non-realist histories—what it calls the transhistorical fantastic—is a response to this hostility and to the fatalism of the Left in the face of it. Reading this turn from half a decade later, in the light of collective action in the Arab Spring’s Middle East, Wisconsin’s Middle West, and the U.S.-born Occupy Wall Street movement, the essay also sees, in the optimistic insistence in these novels on the possibility of positive social change, a turn toward the future that will emerge as characteristic of very contemporary U.S. fiction.


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