Date of Award

2016

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Naomi Mandel

Abstract

Fictional representation of historical war is a contentious subject. Two dominant modes of thought prevail: the realist and the anti-realist approach to representation. This dissertation argues that absurdity is a more constructive tool for investigating authors’ artistic renditions of war in the latter half of the twentieth century. The absurd novel contains comic exaggeration, parody, black humor, surrealism, the fantastic, and a general subversion of the traditional novel’s form. Absurdity, as an artistic technique, signals to readers that despite the real-life referents for historical war, the author’s fictionalization is not the representation. Absurdity serves two purposes: first, absurdity signals to the reader that this text is a work of fiction; and second, absurdity enables the novelist to overcome the representational challenges of war.

The absurd functions as an artistic placeholder and enables authors to elide concern surrounding ethics or accuracy. Absurdity facilitates some language for the author’s personal perception of his experience, without holding him accountable for documenting the real. The aesthetic freedom of the absurd narrative also provides authors a critical distance that enables their meaning-making for the war experience. For the three authors in this dissertation, their absurd narrative constructions incite social and political commentaries. These remarks that are illuminated by absurdity indicate that these authors continue to work toward an understanding of their chaotic wars in the contemporary moment of their writing; in short, absurdity functions as a placeholder for the representation that has eluded these authors.

Within this dissertation, authors who are writing on three different decades of war are included to establish a study on the evolution of war, as a conception, and to illustrate the narrative absurdity that shifts with the historical context to reflect the aesthetics, ethics, and politics at work in each of these wars. Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Everything is Illuminated, includes a fantastically written meta-narrative that accentuates the incomprehensibility of organized genocide during World War II. Michael Herr’s Dispatches demonstrates the surrealism and falsified governmental rhetoric that shapes his depiction of the Vietnam War. Ending with the Persian Gulf War, I analyze Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead to delineate the complications that technologically advanced military strategies create for the conception of war at the end of the twentieth century, especially pertinent as ground combatants were rendered nearly redundant in this war. Combined with the nonstop media coverage of the Gulf War, the subtle absurdity of Swofford’s novel illustrates the increasingly convoluted nature of understanding war at the end of the twentieth century. In the conclusion, I extend the possibility of studying absurdity in the context of twenty-first century war through discussion of 9/11 and Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In bringing together these authors who fictionalize three different periods of American twentieth century war, I reveal that the absurd is an artistic technique that firmly roots these wars in public memory while leaving crucial questions about representation open-ended.

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