An unspeakable threat: Terrorism and the post-war American novel

Christine E Armacost, Fordham University


Since the inception of what has come to be known as the “9/11 novel,” critics have lamented the clumsy and often inadequate representation of terrorism in the novel. It has been common practice to account for the “unnarration” of terrorism in such novels as the novelist’s shortcoming, a failure of the imagination, or a result of being too close to the traumatic experience. My dissertation argues, instead, that the discourse of terrorism since the mid-1970s has been constructed in opposition to modernist values and ideologies that also inform the novel as a literary form. As a threat to such values as individualism, bourgeois morality, democracy, and progress, terrorism must be marginalized in the novel in order to consolidate the form’s essential ideology. The marginalization of terrorism is achieved in the novels in this study through cognitive and linguistic impairments such as stuttering, dyslexia, muteness, and selective amnesia. By tracing such impairments in novels that have been categorized in the criticism as novels about terrorism from the 1970s through the first decade of the 21st century, I show how the widely disseminated discourse of terrorism is reflected rather than countered in contemporary American literature. By utilizing theories of the novel, historical analyses of terrorism discourse, as well as disability studies, I argue that the form of the novel forestalls the narrativity of terrorism. In the absence of a way to represent such terrorism, the novels in this study, works by James McElroy, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jess Walter, return to traditional novelistic plots—the quest, the pastoral, or the bildungsroman, all of which reproduce the core ideology of the form. This study challenges assumptions that the novel is a capacious and ever evolving form to show instead that its formal limitations determine what types of stories ultimately get told.

Subject Area

American history|American literature

Recommended Citation

Armacost, Christine E, "An unspeakable threat: Terrorism and the post-war American novel" (2015). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10090283.