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Death Threat Letters: Allegories of American Authorship in the Age of Terrorism
McKay, Jonathan Ross
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This dissertation examines novels that use terrorism to allegorize the threatened position of the literary author in contemporary culture. Allegory is a term that has been differently understood over time, but which has consistently been used by writers to articulate and construct their roles as authors. In the novels I look at, the terrorist challenge to authorship results in multiple deployments of allegory, each differently illustrating the way that allegory is used and authorship constructed in the contemporary American novel. Don DeLillo’s Mao II (1991), first puts terrorists and authors in an oppositional pairing. The terrorist’s ability to traffic in spectacle is presented as indicative of the author’s fading importance in contemporary culture and it is one way that terrorism allegorizes threats to authorship. In Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock (1993), the allegorical pairing is between the text of the novel and outside texts – newspaper reports, legal cases, etc. – that the novel references and adapts in order to bolster its own narrative authority. Richard Powers’s Plowing the Dark (1999) pairs the story of an imprisoned hostage, craving a single book, with employees of a tech firm who are creating interactive, virtual reality artworks. Focusing on the reader’s experience, Powers’s novel posits a form of authorship that the reader can take into consideration, but which does not seek to control the experience of the text. Finally, I look at two of Paul Auster’s twenty-first century novels, Travels in the Scriptorium (2007) and Man in the Dark (2008), to suggest that the relationship between representations of authors and terrorists changed after 9/11. Auster’s author-figures forward an ethics of authorship whereby novels can use narrative to buffer readers against the portrayal of violent acts in a culture that is suffused with traumatizing imagery.