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.
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.
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.
The Virgin Suicides (1993)
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.
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.
Patchwork Girl (1995)
The Melancholy of Anatomy (2002)
It’s like feminists finally got past reclaiming their bodies from Freud and just decided to be really weird and perverse.
Motherless Brooklyn (1999)
Fortress of Solitude (2003)
Another prize-winning author who resurrected old archetypes like the detective and the superhero with grand results.
The Ice Storm (1994)
Purple America (1996)
He brought a hard-won grace to chilling stories of dysfunction and addiction.
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.
Fight Club (1996)
We know he’s a crock of shit, but his downtrodden macho voice has been adopted by fauxhawked bros across the country.
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.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996)
Already his antic satires are being widely imitated.
W. G. Sebald
The Emigrants (1996)
The Rings of Saturn (1998)
His work runs the trauma of WWII through the sieve of personal memory.
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?