English and American Literature
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Chair and Committee
Accident in fiction is always inevitable. When a character in a novel suffers a car accident, for example, the accident is the effect of the author's intentions, and therefore it is not accidental. The words and images that constitute the meanings and events of the text do not change. The accidents in the narrative always happen the same way, reading after rereading. Drawing from this observation, the question that Narrative at Risk attempts to answer is, in its simplest iteration: how can narrative accurately represent accident when its textual representation is not subject to the effects of accident? I ask this of a number of American cultural objects that were produced over the last fifty years, from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the present. Narrative at Risk interrogates representations of accident primarily in novels and films--but also in television, roleplaying games, comic strips, and videogames--in order to examine how contemporary American culture ascribes meaning to the accidental. I read a wide array of accidents--from mechanical failures to failed suicides, depictions of biological evolution to games of chance--as providing a broad but nonetheless coherent understanding of how American society has conceived of accident in relation to individuals, communities, and the species as a whole. Narrative at Risk, in treating media such as film, television, and videogames alongside literature, broadens our understanding of how accident developed as a danger over the past fifty years, as well as how various media influenced and shaped one another through borrowed reading practices.
In the introduction, I focus on the crystallization of the mass media that brought traumatic events into American homes again and again, specifically, the moment of President John F. Kennedy's assassination and the epistemological and ontological crises this event and its media coverage initiated. The first chapter reads the role of this mediation and the crises of the 1960s as they jointly inform representations of accidental mechanical failure. Through readings of four texts, I theorize a politics of accident, taking as my initial subject what Ronald Reagan called his most formative moment: his role as a train accident victim in King's Row: 1941), and his discussion of this role in his 1965 memoir Where's the Rest of Me? I delineate how Reagan's obsession with narrating accident later shaped a politics of the accident in texts such as David Cronenberg's film Crash: 1996), Don DeLillo's novel White Noise: 1985), Colson Whitehead's novel The Intuitionist: 1999), and Rockstar Game's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas: 2004).
The subsequent chapter shifts from the first's broad historical range to texts composed and published at the end of the Cold War: Paul Auster's novel Leviathan: 1992); Jeffrey Eugenides's novel The Virgin Suicides: 1993); and "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man": 1996) an episode of the television show The X-Files: 1993-2002). I read the failure of suicide attempts in these texts as accidents that express the limits of intentionality, which bring to the fore the nation's inability to conceive of a future beyond the ideological bounds of the conflict with the Soviet Union that provided meaning during the Cold War.
The third chapter recontextualizes the final years of the Cold War. Here I read Richard Kenney's poem, "A Colloquy of Ancient Men" from his collection, The Invention of the Zero: 1993), alongside two novels: Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park: 1990) and Richard Powers's The Gold Bug Variations: 1991). Rather than depicting the futurelessness of the United States, these texts look to deep history on the scale of evolutionary time. They depict evolution as a series of random, accidental changes that take place in the history of a species' development; in doing so, they together trace the Cold War fear of thermonuclear annihilation shifting to an anxiety of genetic manipulation.
The fourth chapter turns to the 1970s to investigate the early years of the culture wars. I begin by reading how chance disrupts the narrative of Kathy Acker's novel Blood and Guts in High School: 1984), then consider the religious right's hyperbolic condemnation of chance in TSR's roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons: 1974). I then scrutinize games of chance in three other texts: Michael Cimino's film The Deer Hunter: 1978); Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow: 1973); and Sam Lipsyte's short story "The Dungeon Master": 2010). These three cases demonstrate how chance undermines the paranoid fantasy that there are external forces authoring the world. Finally, Narrative at Risk concludes with an exploration of accident in the present through a discussion of two television shows--Breaking Bad: 2008-2013) and The Americans: 2013-)--and Steve Erickson's 2012 novel These Dreams of You. Imagining accidents as the fault of the government, these texts collectively suggest American culture's continued reliance upon teleological thinking and conspiracy theory.
Iler, Dustin R., "Narrative at Risk: Accident and Teleology in American Culture, 1963-2013" (2013). All Theses and Dissertations (ETDs). 1139.