Ironically, a preoccupation with historic catastrophe actually ends up depriving the novel of the kind of historical consciousness it was best suited to capture. The effect is particularly clear in the “maximalist” school of recent fiction, which strives, as McGurl puts it, to link “the individual experience of authors and characters to the kinds of things one finds in history textbooks”: “war, slavery, the social displacements of immigration, or any other large-scale trauma”; historical traumas, McGurl explains, confer on the novel “an aura of ‘seriousness’ even when, as in Pynchon or Vonnegut, the work is comic. Personal experience so framed is not merely personal experience,” a fact that “no amount of postmodern skepticism … is allowed to undermine.” The implication is that “personal experience” is insufficient grounds for a novel, unless it is entangled in a “large-scale trauma”—or, worse yet, that an uncompelling (or absent) story line can be redeemed by a setting full of disasters.
This is the kind of literary practice James Wood so persuasively condemned under the rubric of “hysterical realism” (“Toby’s mad left-wing aunt was curiously struck dumb when Mrs. Thatcher was elected prime minister”). Diachronicity is cheaply telegraphed by synchronic cues, and history is replaced by big-name historical events, often glimpsed from some “eccentric” perspective: a slideshow-like process, as mechanical as inserting Forrest Gump beside Kennedy at the White House. As Wood points out, the maximalist fetishization of history is actually antihistoric: the maximalist novel “carries within itself, in its calm profusion of characters and plots, its flawless carpet of fine prose on page after page, a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added.”