Wiring the Post45 Together: Review of Rachele Dini’s “All-Electric” Narratives: Time-Saving Appliances and Domesticity in American Literature, 1945-2020
“All-Electric” Narratives: Time-Saving Appliances and Domesticity in American Literature, 1945-2020. Rachele Dini. Bloomsbury Academic, November 2021.
The Post45—an academic term, with some baggage, for the study of American literature after 1945—has always struggled to find a cohering logic for itself as a field. “Modernity” has never been able to hold the field together, given its overdetermined relationship to Modernism and also the presence of ever-proliferating post-s: postmodernism, post-postmodernism, etc. Claiming that the field coheres around “technology” is a great way to start a fight with a medievalist, who will remind you, correctly, that writing is a technology, and the “post-war” designation becomes increasingly laughable as America continues to fight “forever” wars. Rachele Dini’s “All-Electric” Narratives: Time-Saving Appliances and Domesticity in American Literature, 1945-2020 presents, and proves the viability of, a new cohering site for the Post45: the appliance.
Following and growing out of her 2016 book Consumerism, Waste, and Re-use in Twentieth-century Fiction: Legacies of the Avant-Garde, “All-Electric” Narratives pays close attention to time-saving appliances, a deliberate deviation from labor-saving appliances, and the ways these devices are represented in literature, advertising, television, and articles across the Post45. The project is expansive in both scope (“All-Electric” Narratives really does cover 1945 to 2020) and method (using frameworks and research from literary studies, feminism and gender studies, sociology, advertising history, domestic space studies, and energy studies), and provides a detailed, never-boring history of appliances and the people and forces who made them, alongside interpretations of their appearances in cultural production.
Why appliances? As Dini shows us, they’re there, in both well-studied canonical works and more pulpy productions, even if critics have largely ignored them. Not only are there lots of appliances in fiction across the Post45, but Dini’s readings prove that the appliances are meaningful—not background filler to establish reality, but signifiers that allow authors and readers to construct meaning about the (partially) electrified, (somewhat) connected nation in addition to the things we more commonly associate with domestic appliances: the meanings of home, of housework, and of labor alongside issues of gender, class, and race.
The text avoids the potential pitfalls of such an ambitious scope by being a) long but fascinating enough to get a reader through 300 pages of jam-packed reading and b) laser-focused on its arguments. It avoids the temptation to show us every interesting advertisement, dips in and out of texts and oeuvres speedily to read only the appliance scenes and the absolutely necessary supporting information, and while some may find this to be a weakness, never gets bogged down in an unnecessary lit review. For example, the science fiction chapter (“Ever Think About Being Attacked by a […] Vacuum Cleaner”: Time-Saving Appliances in Sci-Fi, 1950-78”) gets right to work, without any mention of Darko Suvin; an attempt to define the genre; a justification of the decision to use “Sci-Fi” over “sf,” “sff,” “Science Fiction,” (or have mercy, “SyFy”); or the usual throat clearing we find in most criticism of science fiction, but especially criticism of science fiction surrounded by realism. I like the speed and the clarity. I know others might not, not just those in science-fiction studies, but also those in any of the subfields Dini centers a chapter on. I leave the chapter firmly convinced that I should be paying better attention to appliances in science fiction, not just for the authors and texts she uses, but in any science fiction. Dini doesn’t need to re-theorize science fiction to make that point, nor does she need to rehash the debates of science-fiction studies to gain entry to the conversation; the very compelling and well-chosen close readings are more than sufficient.
The greatest strength of the work is the way it commits to details as a corrective to nostalgic generalization, an approach to intersectionality made possible by specificity. Early in the book, we’re told that in 1941, 52 percent of American households (63 percent of middle-class households, 40 percent of working-class households) had electric refrigerators instead of iceboxes, but in 1940, only 16 percent of Black Americans and 7 percent of Latinos owned a refrigerator. That difference matters, as Dini later points out, when we read the word “icebox” in a poem. These details are the foundation of both the record of specific inequities and close readings, where Dini deploys them to incredible effect (e.g., she is able to identify the refrigerator in Paule Marshall’s 1959 Brown Girl, Brownstones as the 1927 GE Monitor Top just from its description, adding the crucial information to her reading that Silla’s second-hand refrigerator is at least a decade old). Even with ostensibly only one chapter explicitly dedicated to the racial dimension of time-saving appliances, as found in a selection of works by Black authors, an awareness of the racial dimensions of labor permeates the text. Dini reads both appliances and depictions of appliances with constant attention to who benefits, who produces, and under what conditions.
Even as “the time-saving appliance” provides a site for the Post45, the specificity of individual appliances reminds us that it is a fractured one, which is perhaps the reason it works. The material conditions of uneven access to electrification and the appliances electrification powered, as a result of structural racism, class stratification, and planned obsolescence, mean that any reading of fiction in the Post45 centered on specific appliances necessarily resists nostalgia’s and ad campaigns’ imposition of linear narrative and unity. We see the effects of this in “All-Electric” Narratives’s chapter structure: while arranged loosely chronologically, starting with the Beats and ending with Postmillennial fiction, the chapters in between overlap each other, structured as they are around subfields, authors, and political moments.
For readers who do not care about the Post45’s coherence as a field, which, to be honest, will be most readers, “All-Electric” Narratives provides both a useful history of the American appliance and a wide range of close readings to support scholarship and teaching in any of the subfields it covers. While it may stand somewhat alone, for now, in literary studies, Dini’s generous citation network and call to action will hopefully encourage literary scholars and cultural critics to do this kind of work, thinking alongside the people who study and theorize appliances: sociologists and the people who use them every day.
Nichole Nomura is a PhD candidate in the Stanford University Department of English and a graduate of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education (M.A). She studies how science fiction teaches and is taught, using methods from the digital humanities, literary criticism, and education.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch after ARB listed this title as available for review. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Adam McLain. The reviewer and editors had no previous acquaintance. The author of this book, Rachele Dini, had previously written for ARB and has since offered to join the editorial collective, but had no editorial presence through this review’s commissioning and editing process; a review copy was arranged by ARB from Bloomsbury Academic.