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English 250K

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At the conclusion of "Is America Falling Apart?" Anthony Burgess writes, "The guides, as always, lie among the writers and artists....they can at least clarify (the nature of contemporary America) and show how it relates to the human condition in general. Literature, that most directly human of the arts, often reacts magnificently to an ambiance of unease of apparent breakdown."

This course will present some of the most prominent American novelists today with the aim of charting some of the diverse fictional responses to a culture in a state of transition. Students will also examine pertinent secondary sources that deal with this period.




9/17--Walker Percy, The Moviegoer ("A Primer of Existentialism")

 9/24--Paul West, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg

 10/1--Thomas Berger, Little Big Man

 10/8--Molly Gloss, Wild Life

 10/15--Philip Roth, The Counter-Life

 10/22--Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

 10/29--Lolita II

 11/5--Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

 11/12--The Crying of Lot 49 II PRECIS DUE **

 11/19--Don DeLillo, Whitenoise


 12/3--Percival Everett, Erasure

 12/10--FINAL DUE



The final course grade will be based on:

 2 essays

 60% final grade

 1 essay final exam (blue book required)

 25% final grade

 1 precis of a critical work

 15% final grade

 class participation & improvement

 swing factors

*To miss any of the assignments above will result in an automatic failure of the course. NO EXCEPTIONS.


SEMINAR PAPERS--for each novel there will be a 2-3 essays (5-6 pages in length; absolutely no longer) submitted on the same topic. These essays will form the basis of class discussion. Writers must keep in mind that their assignment, in every case, is to present a reasoned, well-documented, analytical, argumentative response to the topic assigned. In other words, the essays are not simply plot summaries but may indeed include some limited summary in order to make their cases. Keep in mind that your audience is one that has read the novel but that needs persuading of your point of view. These assignments are not necessarily exercises in literary research, though a knowledge of extant scholarship on your subject will, of course, be helpful in articulating an individual point of view. If you do use the words or ideas of someone else, be sure to document accurately according to the recent MLA style of citation reference. As stated above, papers will be submitted a week before they will be discussed. Writers must submit the original copy to me and anonymous photo copies for each student in the class a week in advance of the discussion of that work. Print on only one side of each page for original.

SEMINAR RESPONDENTS--just as there will be two essays under consideration for each meeting, there will be 2-3 volunteers to lead discussion for that meeting. The respondents should consider the essays submitted, respond to issues and ideas presented there, raise any pertinent questions, as well as discuss or pose questions regarding other relevant issues suggested by or even ignored by the essays. The essays offer a place to begin but they are by no means all that will be discussed. Respondents must type up and distribute a copy of their questions on the night of discussion.

CRITICAL PRECIS--on a first-come-first-served basis, students will select a critical text from a distributed list. Students must read the work and then summarize its main ideas, contents, critical position, bibliographic information, etc. in two pages only. The point of this assignment is to briefly describe the work for someone who is probably unfamiliar with it. Submit the original and copies for each member of the class. Thus each student will have a brief, carefully annotated bibliography of secondary sources for further reading or research. Writers must submit the original copy to me and anonymous photo copies for each student in the class.

PLAGIARISM--Plagiarism is the false assumption of authorship, and, as the MLA Handbook notes, it constitutes the "use of another person's ideas, information, or expressions without acknowledging that person's work. . . Passing off another person's ideas, information, or expressions as your own to get a better grade or gain some other advantage constitutes fraud." Simply put, if you didn't think of it, didn't say it, or didn't write it, you must give full attribution in the form of proper citation. I will not tolerate plagiarism, whether intentional or unintentional, and I will fail anyone I catch cheating and report that student to the Dean of Students. For information on the university's policy concerning plagiarism and academic honesty, see http://www.csus.edu/umanual/student/UMA00150.htm.


PERCY: Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer talks repeatedly about a search; what is this search, and is he successful in conducting it? Further analyze how movie-going fits with this search. [Due 9/16]

WEST: Analyze the narrative point of view in The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg. Explain not only who the narrator is but how this particular method of narration shapes other features of the novel--its characterization, organization, and central themes. In other words be sure to argue for its indispensibility in shaping the fiction before us. [Due 9/18]

BERGER: Look closely at the "Foreword" and "Editor's Epilogue" to Little Big Man. What is the function of these sections, do they add anything to the narrative or affect in significant ways how one rads the novel. In framing your response, consider carefully who Ralph Fielding Snell is, what his role in this narrative may be, how he affects our reading of the work. In other words, looks at him closely and determine his role in the narrative. [Due 9/25]

GLOSS: Mary Gloss's Wild Life might uncharitably be labeled a hodge-podge, assembled as bits and pieces that never finally cohere. Analyze this fragmented (or seemingly fragmented) assemblage and account for such a structure. What significance might there be in such an arrangement; what might the novel be suggesting by calling such obvious attention to its own form? [Due 10/2]

ROTH: Explain the meaning of the novel's title, The Counterlife, and analyze this in relation to the novel's unique structural features. [Due 10/9]

NABOKOV I: Repeatedly in Lolita Humbert Humbert addresses the audience directly. Why does he do this; why is he so persistent about breaking the artifice of the narrative to offer these many direct addresses? [Due 10/16]

NABOKOV II: In his afterword, "On a Book Entitled Lolita," Nabokov states, "For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm." Explain what he means by this and how it relates to this novel. [Due 10/23]

PYNCHON I: In The Crying of Lot 49, who is Pierce Inverariety and how and why is he important? What does he represent, if anything, and what is his legacy? [Due 10/30]

PYNCHON II: The Crying of Lot 49 abounds in religious imagery, with references to "the Word," revelations, miracles, etc. What is the point of this imagery, how does it fit in the novel, and what does it suggest? [Due 11/6]

DELILLO: Analyze and explain the meaning and significance of the novel's title. [Due 11/13]

EVERETT: Analyze and explain the maning and significance of this novel's title. [Due 11/20]


"The Literature of Exhaustion," John Barth (PDF version)

1.) Who, in a general sense, is the artist in Barth's opinion; how does he define this figure?

2.) What is Barth's central thesis; what is his point in writing this essay?

3.) What is the point of all the references to Jorge Luis Borges?

4.) On p. 73, Barth writes, "For one to attempt to add overtly to the sum of "original" literature by even so much as a conventional short story, not to mention a novel, would be too presumptuous, too naive; literature has been done long since"?
What is he suggesting and do you agree?

5.) Earlier on p. 73 he writes, "When the characters in a work of fiction become readers or authors of the fiction they're in, we're reminded of the fictitious aspect of our existence. . . ."
What's his point here?

"In Defense of Purple Prose," Paul West (PDF version)

1.) What is purple prose as he describes it?

2.) In all this West is assuming something about the human imagination; what is he saying about the imagination?

3.) West is not only defining something in this essay; he is also presenting an argument. What is his argument?

4.) So if this minimalism is so terrible and purple can certainly overdo matters, what does West advocate?

"The Literature of Replenishment," John Barth (PDF version)

1.) What is Barth's purpose in this essay?

2.) Does Barth also have an argument here; if so, what is it?

3.) What, then, does he advocate, if anything?

4.) What is postmoderism, as Barth describes it?

"Mapping the New Reality," Sven Birkerts (PDF version)

1.) What is the thesis of this essay; what is Birkerts attempting to argue?
2.) What is the point of his discussion of minimalism and Updike's Rabbit at Rest?
3.) What is the point of the discussion of the 2 groups of writers--the paranoids and the intellectuals? What is he attempting to suggest by dividing writers into these 2 categories?

"Strange Displacements of the Ordinary," Alan Wilde (PDF version)

1.) What is Wilde's thesis or central poiont? What is he arguing about or for?
2.) What is the point of discussing parable; what is he getting at here?
3.) What is suspensivenes, a term Wilde has coined? What does it refer to?
4.) What, then, is midfiction; how does Wilde describe it?


The Moviegoer

1.) The Moviegoer: Explain the theories of rotation and repetition which Binx discusses at various points.

2.) Explain the importance of Lonnie, Binx's half-brother, who dies at the novel's close.

3.) What is the point of Binx's decision to study medicine?

The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg

1.) Does the novel have any structure other than recounting events that happened (or may have happened) during World War II with the German war machine? One paper suggests that the novel's title may hint at another way of approaching or seeing this story.

2.) Stauffenberg often questions himself about his importance, mission, and sense of self; what is the point of these frequent ruminations?

3.) Historical fiction has about it the scent of someting and decidedly commercial, the stuff of minor writers whose imaginations are poorly stocked and who can't decide whether they are historians or novelists? How well does West meet the demands of history and fiction?

4.) What is the point of the novel's narrative point of view?

Little Big Man

1.) Who is Jack Crabb, literally and figuratively?

2.) It is obvious that the novel is a Western, but what kind of Western is this? Consider the conventions of the Western form (relying on novels first or films you are familiar with) and apply those to the novel.

3.) There are repeated comparisons between the white and Native American cultures. What is revealed through these?

4.) Look closely at Custer; why so much attention given to this figure, what do you suppose is the point?

5.) Take an overview of the novel--what is it saying, how is it important, analyze it as a document of postmodern American literature.

Wild Life

1.) Examine the role writing plays in the protagonist, Charlotte Drummond's, identity.

2.) Discuss the novel's postmodern features.

3.) Is there any connection between Drummond's literary pursuits and her concerns with women?

4.) Explain the novel's title.

The Counterlife

1.) Roth is not only telling a story (or a series of stories) but exploring a theory of fiction through the actual writing of this fiction. What is that theory he is advancing?

2.) What is the purpose of the "Judea" and "Aloft" sections and their focus on Judaism? What is Roth exploring and/or suggesting here?

3.) What is going on in the last section, "Christendom"?

4.) Roth has commented, "Fiction has an obligation to be about those things that we're too ashamed to talk about with those we trust the most. . . . I think fiction--at least my kind of fiction--is about that." Analyze the relevance of this comment for The Counterlife.


Nabokov I

1.) What is the point of the many references to Annabel Lee and to various writers throughout the course of the narrative?

2.) Explain the significance of the many foreign phrases and sentences.

3.) What is the point of the many scenes of Hum and Lo on the road?

Nabokov II

1.) What happens to Humbert over the course of time; does he develop or change?

2.) Notwithstanding Nabokov's remark about "aesthetic bliss," the novel's style is curious, often florid and overwritten. What is going on here?

3.) What is Nabokov getting at in this novel; what points or themes is he developing?


1.) "Beloved reads largely like a melodrama lashed with the structural conceits of the miniseries." Do you agree; what evidence is there to support an alternate argument?

2.) The same reviewer writes, "Yet to render slavery with aesthetic authority demands not only talent, but the courage to face the ambiguities of the human soul, which transcend race." Do you feel Morrison has done that; explain?

3.) What is the nature of slavery portrayed here? Indeed, there are atrocities performed at the hands of whites, but is there something more subtle being developed as well?

4.) Examine the novel's curious structure, its fractured method of narration. What is the purpose?

The Crying of Lot 49

Pynchon I

1.) What is the point of the Rapunzel and tapestry images? Look esp. at the description of Remedios Varo's painting, "Bordando el Mando Terrestre" ("Embroiderers of the Terrestrial Blanket"), and Oedipa's reaction to it. Why does she respond as she does?

2.) What is the Second Law of Thermodynamics and what is its significance for the novel?

3.) What is entropy; how does it figure in the novel?

4.) What is the significance of Maxwell's Demon, which John Nefastis has perfected?

Pynchon II

1.) What is the Tristero system?

2.) Why all the strange character names; do they have any significance?

3.) Is there any point to this novel; is Pynchon simply trying to induce reader hysteria or are there ideas of any weight here?

White Noise

1.) What is the point of all the imagery with static, lasars, waves, pulses, etc.?

2.) What is the point of the death angst that Jack and Babette suffer from?

3.) Explain the ambiguous discussion about faith between Jack and the nun/nurse in the hospital near the novel's end?

4.) Does the novel fit with some of the existential themes we have discussed this semester. If so, which ones and how?

250K, Fall 2004
Ben, Michelle
Mary, Joanna, Kellyn

Sonya, Jessika, Lillie
Chris, Sonya, Jane

Ben, Shawn
Alex, Shaun, Allisha

Michelle, Joanna
Jessika, Ryan, Jane
Lillie, Jane, Kellyn
Andrew, Lillie

Andrew, Alex, Chris
Mary, Sonya
Mary, Chris, Allisha
Michelle, Jessika, Lillie
Jessika, Shaun, Kellyn
Shaun, Kellyn, Alex
Ben, Andrew
Ben, Andrew, Ryan
Sonya, Ryan, Joanna
11/19 Allisha, Joanna, Chris
Allisha, Alex, Michelle


Mary, Jane, Ryan


List of Readings up to 1995

Modern Library 100 Best Novels

Esquire's 80 Books Every Man Should Read

Another Reading List

Traditional Canonical List


PDF copy of syllabus available here.

PDF copy of Precis list here

PDF copy of study questions available here.

Postmodernism Essay

If you do not have Adobe Acrobat Reader for PDF files, download here.

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