Escapism in contemporary American fiction

By | August 24, 2022

We’re celebrating the publication of Escape, Escapism, Escapology: American Novels of the Early Twenty-First Century, in which John Limon traces the central theme of 21st-century United States fiction: the desire to escape at a time of inescapable globalization. This is an extract from the first chapter, Notes from Neverland about escapism in contemporary American fiction.

Two friends had gone to Hollywood with hopes of writing screenplays. They were attracted to the glamour of Hollywood, but they also had standards, and they hoped to write films that would not make them ashamed. It did not go well for them, at least at first; they were unemployed or misemployed. There seemed to be few prospects for a life of creativity with an aesthetic conscience. Meeting at a restaurant for lunch, the two writers looked on as Robert Evans was seated at a table across the room. One of the writers commented to his friend, “This is as good as it gets.”

From the Introduction of Escape, Escapism, Escapology: American Novels of the Early Twenty-First Century

The first inkling of an escapism project came to me while reading Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, comparing it as I read to Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. What had stumped me about Chabon’s book was its almost scholastic interlacing of escapology, escapism, and escape: a one-time escapologist (Kavalier, former apprentice in Houdini’s line of entertainment) escapes Nazi-occupied Prague to America, where he cocreates a comic book hero called The Escapist. I was defeated by the epic scope of a narrative that was unified, obscurely to my mind, by mutually exclusive concepts. Escape is one way of dealing with real dangers, escapism is a failure to deal with real dangers, and escapology invents techniques to deal with artificial dangers.

What set off my escapism project was a sense of something similarly perplexing in Díaz’s Oscar Wao. Díaz’s novel, like Chabon’s, concerns an escape from a totalitarian state—in Díaz’s case, Trujillo’s Dominican Republic, still informed by Trujillo long after his assassination. Once again, the escape is in some relation to escapism: Oscar Wao is not only a devotee of comic books such as Kavalier might illustrate; he is also a cognoscente of fantasy and sci-fi genre literature, as well as fantasy and sci-fi video games and films. Above all, he is a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien, whose saga The Lord of the Rings, centered on the hobbit Frodo, is in intimate relation to the picaro-hagiography of Oscar Wao—but what intimate relation? Tolkien’s book has no influence on Díaz’s naturalism, politics, tonal flamboyance, or wit.

Escape is one way of dealing with real dangers, escapism is a failure to deal with real dangers, and escapology invents techniques to deal with artificial dangers.

Chabon and Díaz are masterful writers, and the two books in question may be their masterpieces. It wouldn’t be absurd to begin assembling a sub-canon of novels from the last quarter century with these two books. In a “BBC Culture” poll of 2015, twelve novels were named best of the twenty-first century. Kavalier & Clay finished sixth; Oscar Wao finished first (Ciabattari, n.p.). We might add several more novels to the sub-canon, taxonomized not only by their acclaim but also by the extravagance of their titles: Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

After their hyperbole, here is the second thing to notice about these titles: in all cases, they are misleading. I am not chiding these works, which are, in part, about the misdirection of their titles. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay mimics the hyping of The Escapist superhero radio program; by the end of the novel, the two cousins are antiheroically amazed in blind pathways of sexuality and love. The wondrousness of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao ups the ante on the happiness of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” with the paradoxical consequence that we may read more irony into the novel’s title than is, finally, appropriate. Eggers himself challenges the uniqueness of the heartbreak of his semi-fictional memoir (he acknowledges that other siblings have been orphaned) and its genius (he admits that some passages of the book are skippable). In Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, much is purposely dim. One begins by guessing that the phrase Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close will refer to the intensity of the sensuous experience of 9/11, but it turns out to be easy to overlook what local imaginary post-9/11 phenomenon it does refer to.

Cover of Escape, Escapism, and Escapology, explore one of hte central themes contemporary american fiction, the desire to escape at a time of inescapable globalization

Many of Roy’s titles play sly games with hyperbole. The God of Small Things miniaturizes and then qualifies the apotheosis of its title character. The Algebra of Infinite Justice, the title of a collection of essays, is a parody, which only reveals itself to readers when they are reminded that the first official name for the US Global War on Terror was “Operation Infinite Justice” (renamed “Operation Enduring Freedom”). If you anticipate that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness will be a dystopian fiction in which a government agency provides opiates for the masses, on the model of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth or Peace, you will be surprised that there is a nongovernmental administering of happiness in the book, which the book itself, at its most optimistic, hopes to take as a model. Nevertheless, the novel is unsure that even threadbare happiness is a possibility for its characters.

All of these works suggest a subgenre, a telltale stirring in a corner of the world of ambitious contemporary fiction, and the thing to explain is not merely the self-conscious hyperbole or the self-conscious bathos, but their unlikely coexistence. These novels are about an entanglement of innocence and experience. Their disappointment is built into their display. They are inflated and deflationary. If it is possible to preserve the double-edgedness of “This is as good as it gets,” leaving it to its positive colloquial deadness (things can never improve on this) but reviving it simultaneously with negative literalist energy (things will never improve), it will capture my most essential thesis about the contemporary blurring of escape, escapology, and escapism in contemporary American fiction.

Cover of Escape, Escapism, Escapology by John Limon

John Limon is John Hawley Roberts Professor of English at Williams College, USA. He is the author of The Place of Fiction in the Time of Science (1990), Writing After War (1994), Stand-Up Comedy in Theory (2000), and Death’s Following (2012).

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