Publication Date

April 2016


Courtney Weiss Smith, Sally Bachner




English (United States)


This thesis considers depictions of natural and manufactured materialities in three works of contemporary American fiction, novels published between 1988 and 2009. I examine Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, and Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts for their varied investment in and attention to the material world. Though thoroughly distinct and radically different, each of these novels is deeply concerned with the active agency of matter conventionally deemed inert and passive. In these works, material objects and possessions hew and shape the subjectivities of their owners and users; natural forces powerfully affect and alter human life. Such lively things, however, become strangely unrepresentable, their active vitality resisting the language that holds them to the page. In the face of a vibrant material world, the language of words emerges starkly unable to relate the force of things lively and affecting. The novels I examine work to make sense of this problem of representation through formal experimentation, shifting and adapting the novelistic form to better relate the liveliness of things and to become more adequate to the activity of matter. My analysis is driven by the insights of the new materialisms, a loosely defined, recent and emerging trend throughout a vast array of critical and theoretical disciplines that endeavors to dwell on and make sense of the material world.



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