Novel deceptions: historical illusionism in contemporary American fiction
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This study investigates the subject of illusionism in contemporary American fiction. A recurrent yet under-examined theme, the history of stage magic in the U.S. suggests how an earlier age domesticated the seeming sorcery of market capitalism, credit, limitless self-(re)making, and ethnic vanishing. Such conditions provide antecedents and analogues for the writing of fiction in a world of digitalized knowledge, work, identity, and financialization. Self-reflexively illusionist fiction today represents itself ambivalently as magical entertainment. Is its function to mesmerize audiences or alert them to ideological sleight-of-hand? If the enchantments of literary art screen the machinations of power, how do novelists preserve fiction's capacity to inspire wonder, affective experience, and ethical commitment? Chapter One argues that Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian presents illusionism as integral to imperialism and commodification, as well as to its own artistry. McCarthy indicates the instrumentalization of aesthetics under late capitalism yet seeks through moments of enchantment to transcend it. Chapter Two shows that in Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster and In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien, fiction’s "magic" lies in transcending social differences and inspiring empathy, but that the historical residue of racism in American illusionism obstructs the effort to imagine otherness. Both novels reframe the worth of fiction as therapeutic. Chapter Three argues that the figure of Harry Houdini embodies literature's status as primarily entertainment, inspiring wonder rather than critique. Michael Chabon's Kavalier & Clay celebrates escapistry, but seeks through Houdini to restore a utopian dimension to entertainment.