Shaking, Breaking, Remaking
: Anxiety in Contemporary American Literature, 1990-Present

  • Alex Morden Osborne

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


This thesis investigates anxiety in contemporary American literature from 1990-present. Through analysis of the work of Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, David Foster Wallace, and Junot Díaz, I develop a theory of literary anxiety that is attentive to the ways in which anxiety’s presence in texts disrupts established narratives, unpicks both characters’ and authors’ senses of identity, and fuels contemporary constructions of temporality in which the future is uncertain or even entirely denied.

The thesis’ opening chapter considers anxiety in Paul Auster’s and Siri Hustvedt’s illness narratives, reflecting on the position of liminality these narratives occupy between fiction and non-fiction. Chapter Two analyses short stories by David Foster Wallace and Junot Díaz in order to demonstrate the form’s particular suitability for the representation of anxiety, as well as the ways in which this anxiety interacts with form. Chapter Three thinks about anxiety and masculinity in the context of the #MeToo movement and allegations of sexual harassment made against Junot Díaz in 2018. Lastly, Chapter Four investigates the links between anxiety, trauma, and temporality in Wallace’s and Husvedt’s writing.

With attention to the slippery, contentious, and multiple conceptualisations of anxiety, which range from apparently quotidian or ‘natural’ states of anxiety through to clinical diagnoses of anxiety disorders, I examine patterns in anxiety’s representation in American literature, as well as in the sources of this anxiety. While remaining grounded in literary analysis, I employ a range of methodologies drawing from studies of phenomenology, accelerationism, and queer theory, among others, with a view to approaching anxiety from as many angles as possible. This allows for a fuller understanding of anxiety as a whole, as I believe such an understanding, contingent as it is on insights into the unsettling and precarious nature of our current existence under neoliberal capitalism, relies on an interdisciplinary approach.
Date of Award21 Jan 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SponsorsSouth, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership
SupervisorAndrew M Blades (Supervisor), Ulrika Maude (Supervisor) & Laura Salisbury (Supervisor)

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