How to Read a Moment
The American Novel and the Crisis of the Present
Imprint: Northwestern University Press
“Time is a thing that grows scarcer every day,” observes one of Don DeLillo’s characters. “The future is gone,” The Baffler argues. “Where’s my hoverboard!?” a meme demands. Contemporary capitalism, a system that insists that everything happen at once, creates problems for social thought and narrative alike. After all, how does one tell the time of instantaneity? In this moment of on-demand service and instant trading, it has become difficult to imagine the future.
The novel emerged as the art form of a rapidly changing modern world, a way of telling time in its progress. Nilges argues that this historical mission is renewed today through works that understand contemporaneity as a form of time shaping that props up our material world and cultural imagination. But the contemporary American novel does not simply associate our present with a crisis of futurity. Through analyses of works by authors such as DeLillo, Jennifer Egan, Charles Yu, and Colson Whitehead, Nilges illustrates that the novel presents ways to make sense of the temporality that controls our purportedly fully contemporary world. In so doing, the novel recovers a sense of possibility and hope, forwarding a dazzling argument for its own importance today.
Introduction: The Time Is Now
1. The Novel After Tomorrow’s Crash
2. How to Read the Present
3. The Tenses of Race: The Privilege of Contemporaneity and the Unequal Distribution of Presence
4. Periodizing the Contemporary: Literary History After Postmodernism
“. . . makes a genuine contribution to criticism of the contemporary novel, skillfully reading a set of major writers from DeLillo and Whitehead to Lerner, Gibson, and others.” —Caren Irr, author of Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century
"Mathias Nilges refuses to afford us the luxury of assuming that fiction is incapable of grasping the nonsynchronicity and unequal development of contemporaneity. By defying the cynicism of reading the present merely as the guarantor of future ruin, his book reacquaints us with the contours of literary hope in the face of crisis, making an indispensable case for understanding how the novel today continues to imagine temporal alternatives to our capitalist moment." —David James, author of Discrepant Solace: Contemporary Literature and the Work of Consolation
“In a burning world, who has time for novels? Nilges’ argument that a failure of imagination lies at the root of the planet’s lost future affirms the residual imaginative form of the novel as a spur to challenge the closure of the temporal present. Expansively researched, brilliantly periodizing, and richly observed, these supple readings show how creative fictions critically theorize temporality and history, revealing the manifold possibilities persisting amid permanent crisis. How to Read a Moment is a crucial book for our moment indeed.” —Anna Kornbluh, author of The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space
“This book identifies the Zeitroman, or ‘time-novel,’ as both a timeless form, in that its history is that of the novel itself, and a contemporary form, insofar as it challenges the proposition that space has now, in fiction as in life, eclipsed temporality. Nilges draws on an unusually capacious selection of American novels spanning the post-1945 period to argue that, rather than spatialization, the ‘contemporaneity’ of competing, complementary, or unrelated temporalities distinguishes the ‘contemporary’ from previous moments in the history of the novel. The takeaway for readers is at once acutely vexing and wonderfully refreshing: a renovated notion of ‘postmodernism’ that did not end so much in the late 1980s as become a reality in its own right, an already mediated reality from which novels have harvested multiple ways of framing the present.” —Nancy Armstrong, coauthor of Novels in the Time of Democratic Writing: The American Example
“Nilges does not echo the common refrain that the Zeit in which we live has exhausted itself and ‘the future may have ended.’ Instead he argues that the contemporary American time novel imagines new conceptions of time altogether and in doing so pushes us beyond the limits of crisis-driven nihilism.” —Sarah Wasserman, Textual Practice
“As suggested by the title’s emphasis on the activity of reading, How to Read a Moment mounts a robust and valuable defense not just of the novel but of reading and, thus, of the profession that has reading at its core, literary studies. … Nilges’s theoretically rich analyses of the time novel will surely serve as a model for the books to come on the topic.” —Diletta De Cristofaro, American Literary History