What is the Interaqnum?

Interaqnum

We’ll define the Interaqnum as the period between the Gulf War and the Iraq War—so, roughly 1991 to 2003. And we’ll characterize it by naming its major writers and identifying their shared attitudes and subjects.

Why shouldn’t we be allowed to invent a literary epoch? History is an overlapping series of arbitrary time frames; the moment between the wars in Iraq is less arbitrary than others. And while literature doesn’t necessarily define a historical period, it certainly provides the raw cultural material that critics love to shape into a lasting monument to an age. So that’s what we’ll do.

The writers we’ve selected to illustrate the literature and the overall tenor of the Interaqnum are those whose fiction reflects the particular American fixations of the time; those who produced their first major works during the Interaqnum; those whose work seems poised to influence the fiction that will be written from now on.

 

Michael Chabon

Wonder Boys (1995)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)

He won the Pulitzer and a generation of enthusiastic fans by exploring what it means to be a real-life superhero.

 

Dave Eggers

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000)

This may not be a work of fiction, but it uses fiction’s bag of tricks, and everybody in America read it hungrily. Plus, he launched the most important new publishing venture of the Interaqnum.

 

Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides (1993)

Middlesex (2002)

His two eerie, affecting bestsellers were both products of the Interaqnum.

 

Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything is Illuminated (2002)

This schlocky trip through one young man’s Holocaust fantasia somehow won over a bunch of Interaqnum readers.

 

Jonathan Franzen

Strong Motion (1992)

The Corrections (2001)

His magnum opus dramatized some of the major interpersonal concerns of the age.

 

A. M. Homes

The End of Alice (1996)

Music for Torching (1999)

Her transgressive stories are disturbing precisely because they felt so plausible at the time.

 

Shelley Jackson

Patchwork Girl (1995)

The Melancholy of Anatomy (2002)

Skin (2003)

It’s like feminists finally got past reclaiming their bodies from Freud and just decided to be really weird and perverse.

 

Jonathan Lethem

Motherless Brooklyn (1999)

Fortress of Solitude (2003)

Another prize-winning author who resurrected old archetypes like the detective and the superhero with grand results.

 

Rick Moody

The Ice Storm (1994)

Purple America (1996)

Demonology (2001)

He brought a hard-won grace to chilling stories of dysfunction and addiction.

 

Haruki Murakami

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991)

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997)

Norwegian Wood (2000)

Sputnik Sweetheart (2001)

A Japanese guy obsessed with America, he made plenty of hip, noir-loving Americans obsess over him.

 

Chuck Palahniuk

Fight Club (1996)

Choke (2001)

We know he’s a crock of shit, but his downtrodden macho voice has been adopted by fauxhawked bros across the country.

 

Annie Proulx

Postcards (1992)

The Shipping News (1993)

Close Range (1999)

The Shipping News was lauded from every corner, and “Brokeback Mountain” had a second life as an important movie.

 

George Saunders

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996)

Pastoralia (2000)

Already his antic satires are being widely imitated.

 

W. G. Sebald

The Emigrants (1996)

The Rings of Saturn (1998)

Austerlitz (2001)

His work runs the trauma of WWII through the sieve of personal memory.

 

Zadie Smith

White Teeth (2000)

Her debut was dazzling and fiercely contemporary; she could become one of the best critics of her generation.

 

David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest (1996)

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999)

He questioned the basic tenets of Interaqnum life with a tenacity that would have seemed crazy, if it wasn’t so smart.

 

So, in broad strokes we’ll paint the Interaqnum as a time when literature focused on the personal flip-outs that we suffer during a time of relative comfort and stability. Unlike the ’80s, when up-and-comers like the Brat Pack and William T. Vollmann were pushing the extremes of indulgence and depravity in the world around them, the writers of the Interaqnum had a fairly safe, affluent age in which to explore the quaverings of their own fickle souls. Their attention was fixed somewhere on a spectrum between neurotic analysis and self-doubt, at one end, and an exuberant or manic embrace of multiplicity and complexity, at the other end. This also distinguishes them from some of the post-Interaqnum work that has come out, which is often marked by an awareness of personal responsibility and social interconnectedness. (Such as Eggers using his latest books to champion a Sudanese refugee and a hurricane-ravaged Muslim family; Tao Lin blitzing the internet in search of simple human empathy; Colson Whitehead, Hari Kunzru, and Aleksandar Hemon dragging us into the post-racial, post-national stew of the present day; etc.) In other words, we can plot our Interaqnum writers on a continuum as follows.

Franzen, Moody, and Wallace used rather formal means (or, in Wallace’s case, extremely formal means) to depict the white American male’s insecurity within his own skin.

Palahniuk attempted the same, but went too far and channeled a grotesque kind of suburban rage.

Eugenides and Homes took a calmer, more specific look at people who are inwardly driven to perversion and desperation.

Saunders was no less dark in his assessment of America at rest, but he wrapped his biting criticisms in smartass fables and satire.

Eggers, Foer, and Smith let their exuberance loose, inviting the whole world into their books, but they sometimes came across as cloying or willfully naïve.

Chabon and Lethem were also exuberant, but it showed more in their method of storytelling, which channeled their ambitions and their geek knowledge into a fresh take on marginalized genres.

Like a voice in the wilderness, Proulx fell somewhere outside the spectrum; she updated our perpetual American longing for a cowboy past. Sebald and Murakami embodied what we expect of foreigners—trippy, almost supernatural narratives layered over ponderous investigations that never get resolved. In that sense they revealed how we looked at the world beyond our borders.

In conclusion, these books show that during the Interaqnum we were all quaking in our shoes, either with a vague, pent-up excitement, or with a debilitating and unwarranted anxiety.

So there it you have it.

Quickest definition of a historical era ever.

What did we get wrong?

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10 Comments

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10 Responses to What is the Interaqnum?

  1. Franzen’s Strong Motion doesn’t make the cut as an Interaqunum novel?
    Your list is a little dude-heavy, but the people I’d like to add are either Canadian (was there anyone serious about books who didn’t swoon for Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red?) or not main-stream enough to hang with the crowd you have listed (I’m thinking Shelley Jackson.). Maybe Barbara Kingsolver?
    Anyway, I really like this post.

  2. Matt

    I have to second Strong Motion. I know I keep blathering away about how everyone should read it, but that aside, it’s maybe the Interaqnum-iest of Interaqnum novels.

    If we’re talking about women, Jennifer Egan and Pat Barker’s themes seem to make them prime candidates for inclusion. Also, while it it doesn’t fit within the timeframe, Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country seems very Interaqnum-y. The fact that it came out in 2006 might explain its failure to catch fire saleswise.

  3. Andy Lin

    Can we include Jonathan Safran Foer even though everyone (but not me) hates him and only Everything Is Illuminated is technically within that time period? I remember telling someone once that my best advice for white males wishing for literary success is to change their first name to Jonathan and move to Brooklyn.

    Shelley Jackson is amazing. When I first read Patchwork Girl, I remember thinking that one day it will be looked back upon as the first great fictional work of future. But then hyperfiction never took off. Maybe something like the Kindle will, ummm, rekindle, that sort of stuff. I don’t know why people aren’t making eBook-specific literature that is distinct from “old” books and taking advantage of the things that it can do differently.

  4. Andy Lin

    Also, this list is too male-dominated to possibly be correct. Unfortunately, I am not too familiar with female writers, so I can’t fix it. But I am also adding Jhumpa Lahiri.

  5. fictionadvocate

    I like these edits. Thanks, guys.

    I’m adding Strong Motion to the Franzen entry.

    Jonathan Safran Foer was in my original draft. I think his book (it’s only worth talking about his first one) was a crock of shit, much like Palahniuk’s. It was all fake guilt and chintzy magic. But it was widely read, and it does demonstrate a kind of anxiety about how we can view the atrocities of the past from our present, comfortable state. So it fits well in the Interaqnum. I’ll add an entry.

    Of Jhumpa Lahiri I haven’t read much, but my impression is that she has a very classic, realist take on the American immigrant experience. So while she was really successful during the Interaqnum, it doesn’t seem like she was speaking directly to the time period. More like she was executing some extremely well-crafted stories in a traditional literary vein. I might be totally wrong about that. Andy, care to stick up for her?

    And yeah, if anyone wants to make a case for Shelley Jackson (like give me a one-sentence blurb to justify her on the list), I would appreciate it, because I’ve only read a little bit of her, but she seems like someone who left a mark on the era. (And on the bodies of the people she tattooed. Zing!)

  6. Matt

    I’d say that Lahiri’s stories, while excellent, lack neurotic element described above, as well as the implied political relevance.

  7. Andy Lin

    I don’t really like Lahiri that much, but she sort of came to epitomize what I think happened during the time period of the Interaqnum, which was the death of the white (often Jewish) male literature.

    In fact, I would argue that the problem with how you’ve defined the Interaqnum period is that you’re trying to categorize these (mostly) white male writers and calling it the period’s literature.

    But I think the real literary gestalt of the era was the rise of minority/immigrant literature. Jhumpha Lahiri happens to be the one of the most visibly successful, commercially and critically, and I think even if her literature doesn’t end up enduring (who knows?), it would be difficult to look back and say she wasn’t a fairly significant figure of the time. Immigrant literature had been done before, of course, but not to the degree of her success which is at least a result of her prose-skills, and not some sort of exoticism. So I think Lahiri has plenty of “implied political relevance.” There are a more diverse group of readers and writer reading literature today because of her. And to the list of minority writers of significance, I would add Ha Jin.

    Now, that’s not to say the white male is dead. For that matter, any literary era is as much defined by market forces as anything else. And Interaqnum can be defined any way you wish, and to what seems to have been established, I might add Steven Millhauser to that list.

    Also, the list suffers from being mostly English language works, and a bit overtly American. But I guess we all only know what we’ve read, and can read…

  8. Good call(s), Andy. I’ll be the first to agree that the authors I’m using to define the Interaqnum are by and large white American males. I’ll also remind you that I don’t particularly love any of them. Part of the reason I wanted to try and define this as a literary era is so I can point to it and say, “We’re done with that stuff. Let’s shelve it and move on.”

    Ha Jin was in my first draft. But then I had an uncomfortable realization. I think there is (or was) a wedge between readers who want books to grant them access to different cultures, and readers who want books to grant them insight into their own culture. I used to work for a big literary agent in California whose most important clients were women novelists from East Asia and India. It was weird seeing the publicity those authors got. Their books were praised mostly for what they revealed about, like, royal life in ancient Japan, or family dynamics in modern India. They were very well written and could have stood alone as literary texts, but they were mostly valued as gateways to other cultures. One of the basic reasons novels are so great is because they reveal people and places and behaviors that we can’t imagine on our own. But I definitely think we market and review books by immigrants and minorities differently, as if their main value lies in showing us how compelling other cultures are, rather than showing us new ways to perceive ourselves. And it’s the latter kind that gets all the highest praise (and can potentially “define” an “era”) while the former can be, at best, a glimpse into other lives. Nobody talks about Ha Jin’s impact on our collective self-image.

    Or at least, there USED TO BE a wedge between those two types of books. If you look back at the four authors I’ve singled out as “crush objects” on this blog, one is British/Pakistani, one is a Bosnian immigrant, and one is a black guy. (The fourth one, Jane Berentson, is awesome for unique reasons.) Part of what I love about these authors is that they come from outside the Anglo/Jewish male tradition, but they most certainly aren’t exotic writers, and their work is so oblivious of the old distinctions, and so determined to succeed in its own right, that it blows right past that wedge.

    So I guess another thing we could say about the Interaqnum is that, for a while, readers were so fascinated with books from Iran, books from China, books from Africa, that they relegated them to a different place on the shelf. And now, if we can put the literature of the Interaqnum behind us, we’re ready to shuffle those two stacks of books together.

    Steven Millhauser is great. I’m reluctant to add him, though, because Edwin Mullhouse is from 1972, and it’s probably my favorite of his books.

  9. Fiction Advocate, you added Strong Motion but followed it with “he makes the list on the strength of a single book.” Grammar proponent objects.
    As for Shelley Jackson, I’d say she’s part of an experimental literature movement that’s somehow really playful and somber at the same time. Like Patchwork Girl and The Skin Project, but also her collection Melancholy of Anatomy, which I re-read every six months or so. It’s like feminists finally got past reclaiming their bodies from Freud and just decided to be really weird and perverse, her work comes from that.
    Also, you should write a separate post on your thoughts about wedges and grant-access and race and America’s fascination with other people’s racial histories.

  10. fictionadvocate

    One of these nights the Fiction Advocate is going to be staking out the city from his perch atop a gargoyle on the tallest skyscraper, just eavesdropping on all the conversations the good citizens are having about fiction, and out of nowhere the Grammar Proponent will swoop in. Only one of us is going to survive. I can’t wait!

    Fixed Franzen, and added Jackson.

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