Tram Nguyen is an Associate Professor of English and the Director of the Writing Center at CUNY Hostos. Her scholarly research brokers connections between modernism, feminism, and philosophies of ethics and subjectivity. Most recently her article “From SlutWalks to SuicideGirls: Feminist Resistance in the Third Wave and Postfeminist Eras” was reprinted in Readings in Ethics: Moral Wisdom Past and Present (Broadview Press, 2021); her article “Feminist Memorializations in Marge Piercy and Rafael Carter” was issued by Gender Forum in 2022.
“Metamodernist Women: Millet, Erdrich, and Ozeki”
The critical machinery of modernism has generated a sense of aesthetic debt that feels inescapable. The work done by global modernist studies has reshaped and expanded critical understanding of modernism’s ingenuity and centrality. In a similar repudiation, metamodernism allows critical readings of contemporary works as modernis(t)h but also beyond modernism’s urbanism concerns. My argument is that metamodernist works by Lydia Millet, Louise Erdrich, and Ruth Ozeki tender stunning aesthetic derailments that exemplify the human and ecological catastrophes gathering storm in our contemporary moment. These works to my mind raise questions about modernist non-referentiality, interiorization, and estrangement that have excluded the “green imperialism” undergirding the eighteenth century onward. Lydia Millet’s Magnificence, the final novel in her Los Angeles trilogy, repudiates the coalescing aesthetics of modernist rupture, irony, fragmentation, and epiphanic culmination through a re-inscription of the journey into “the heart of darkness.” Millet’s protagonist ironicizes the Conradian focalization on human consciousness and instead highlights the culpability and shocks of the environmental encounters. Unlike mainstream modernism’s sense that environment and consciousness are categorizable and coherent, i.e. Woolf’s sense that “national character and culture are influenced by weather” (Maggio), Millet, along with Erdrich and Ozeki, render contemporary consciousness as deeply perturbed and paralyzed by the sublimity of natural laws. Louise Erdrich’s Home of the Future Living God, for example, represents a world at the edge of collapse because of a reversal of evolution, with the natural world developing pre-historic traits, a sign that reproductive laws for the environment and humans are unravelling. Likewise, Ruth Ozeki’s Tales for the Time Being and The Book of Form and Emptiness similarly build on this uncanny temporality to capture the ecological and human tribulations that have been (un)expectedly coming, in a Derridian future a l’avenir. This temporal distortion, as a modernist practice, is reinscribed by Erdrich and Ozeki as metonymic of climate and evolutionary disruptions. Their concerns should be read in light of critical work to unearth the “the edifice of bioknowledge” erected by those who wielded the power of discourse from the eighteenth century onward (Županov and Xavier 512). In reading Millet, Erdrich, and Ozeki as metamodernist, this paper seeks to highlight the temporal as well as aesthetic elongation of contemporary writing and its renovation of modernist priorities.