Common features in contemporary American novels

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

22 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Authors and their characters – sharing a common destiny?

3. Searching for identity and acceptance

4. Love and marriage

5. Deconstruction of chronology. Real historical events in fictional stories

6. Conclusion)

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

During the semester we dealt with quite a few contemporary American novels. The enormous variety of the texts makes an impression of fascinating pluralism and diversity. It is hard to make conclusions in general, but I felt that there are some common points which most of the novels share.

The three novels I am going to compare are the ones I liked the most during the course. These are: “The Time of our Singing” by Richard Powers, “Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri and “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides.

The authors, sharing the common cultural space, share also similar experiences and face similar problems. Coming from quite different backgrounds they might have more in common than it could seem at a first glance.

Many modern writers tend to choose the genre of family saga with a complicated narrative structure which unfolds itself against the background of real historical events. They describe stories of a few generations. Some of the problems their characters deal with are the search of identity in the modern world, conflict of generations and the need for acceptance. The time span of each story is enormous. The main characters have complex identities. They are children or grandchildren of immigrants.

There is a tension between generations: Ruth Strom “disowns” her father and refuses to have anything in common with him, never sees him again, does not even know he is dead. Cal runs away from his parents and never sees his father alive again. Only after his father is dead, does Gogol try to read the book he got from him. Callie, Gogol and the Strom children are aware and ashamed of their fathers’ foreign accents.

The authors write from a point of view different from their own, male authors writing about female experiences and vice versa, white and Christian about black and Jewish.

It also seems that the border between “immigrant” or “ethnic” and “mainstream” or “white” literature is disappearing.

In my paper I would like to try to find out if the similarities between the novels are a mere coincidence or maybe they signify a development characteristic for modern American literature.

2. Authors and their characters – sharing a common destiny?

When analysing the writer’s life and their work of fiction, one finds obvious parallels in settings, ethnical background, experiences etc. How autobiographical are contemporary novels? Did personal experience influence the choice of topics? In order to find out it is necessary to have a glimpse at the writers’ lives.

Jeffrey Eugenides who is himself a descendant of a Greek immigrant describes in his novel “Middlesex” Greek immigrants to the United States and their descendants.

Eugenides was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1960 (same year as Calliope Helen Stephanides) and grew up there. In his interview by BOMB magazine with Jonathan Safran Foer, Eugenides recalls that his parents wanted a girl, they even had a girl’s name picked out - Michelle. Instead they got the third boy.

The setting of Detroit is used for both of his novels, Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. Before finishing his degree from Brown University, he worked in various fields, including driving a cab in downtown Detroit and working with Mother Theresa in Calcutta, India. He received his MA in English and creative writing from Stanford. Parts of his first novel, „Virgin Suicides” were written while travelling down the Nile in Egypt.

It took almost 10 years to write his second novel, „Middlesex“. In order to be accurate about the historical events described in the novel, Eugenides spent a lot of time doing research in historical museums and libraries.

In the same interview by BOMB magazine he talks about visual models he had in mind while writing: one of them was the interior of a Greek church: “Glided interiors covered with icons, dark grottoes with candles and big face of Christ looking down- like narrator- both omniscient and not.”

Another image was Diego Rivera’s mural in Detroit Institute of Arts, depicting the automotive industry. He wanted Middlesex to be like them – both teeming and serene.

As a male writer, he is writing partly from a “female” point of view. It posed a great challenge. In his interview with Dave Welch of Powells Eugenides confesses: “I wanted the book to be first-person. In many ways, the point of the book is that we’re all an “I” before we’re a he or a she, so I needed an “I”. I wanted the “I” because I didn’t want the terrible situation where the character is she, then you turn the page and she becomes he- or even the more dreaded s/he.” Like his character, he lives in Berlin with his wife and daughter. His wife, who is a photographer, has Japanese parentage, just like his narrator’s girlfriend.


Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London to Bengali parents and grew up in Rhode Island, USA. Most of her work is written about Bengali immigrants to the United States and the nuances of their lives. Currently, she lives with her Guatemalan-American husband and son Octavio and writes in Brooklyn, New York. Her given name is Nilanjana Sudeshna. An anectode published in USA Today mentions that her teacher in school found it long and just stuck to her nick name Jhumpa. She has adapted this incident in her book The Namesake. (

Lahiri has travelled extensively to India. She grew up feeling strong ties to her parents' homeland as well as the United States and England, which created in her a sense of homelessness and an inability to feel accepted. She explains this as an inheritance of her parents' ties to India, "It's hard to have parents who consider another place "home"- even after living abroad for 30 years, India is home for them. We were always looking back so I never felt fully at home here. There's nobody in this whole country that we're related to. India was different-our extended family offered real connections." Yet her familial ties to India were not enough to make India "home" for Lahiri, "I didn't grow up there, I wasn't a part of things. We visited often but we didn't have a home. We were clutching at a world that was never fully with us" (Interview with Vibhuti Patel in Newsweek International, 9-20-99).

Her main character in the “Namesake” is male and she is writing from the “male” point of view, although the novel has a third-person narrator.

It is not usual for a writer, who is himself neither Black nor Jewish, to enter the precarious field of interracial relations from the point of view of an “insider”. Maybe taking a look at his biography could give us a hint why he chose such a difficult area.

Richard Powers was born in 1957 in Evanston, Illinois. In the mid-1960’s his family moved to a Jewish populated Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood. Powers recalls:” I always had a sense that we weren’t quite native”. The feeling deepened when his father moved to Bangkok before Richard’s eleventh birthday. Love of music and voracious reading are the factors which made it possible to survive the dramatic relocations he went through as a child. He studied vocal music, cello, guitar, clarinet and saxophone. As a teenager, he explored careers in paleontology, oceanography, and archaeology before ultimately choosing physics. In his formal studies Powers is pulled between science and the arts. In 1975 he enrolled as a physics major at the University of Illinois. In his literary studies Powers was drawn to the intricate narrative structurings of the first-generation European modernists (particularly Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann and James Joyce.) In 1980 he moved to Boston and started working as a computer programmer and freelance data processor. Within forty eight hours he quit his job and started writing his first novel, “Three Farmers on Their Way to Dance”. An author of 8 novels, he teaches a graduate seminar in multimedia authoring and an undergraduate course in the mechanics of narrative. (


Excerpt out of 22 pages


Common features in contemporary American novels
University of Frankfurt (Main)
Contemporary american novels
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
498 KB
Common, American, Contemporary
Quote paper
Alina Polyak (Author), 2005, Common features in contemporary American novels, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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