My dissertation, titled "Transnational Crime Fictions and Argentina's Criminal State," proposes a new understanding of the dictatorship novels of Ricardo Piglia, Juan José Saer, and Manuel Puig grounded in their shared appropriation from popular crime fiction. Across the 1940's, 50's, and 60's, a wide range of popular crime fiction was translated, written, theorized, printed and reprinted in Argentina, and these popular genres grew steadily in readership, visibility, and cultural legitimacy. These genres were largely dismissed as insipid forms of mass-culture entertainment by contemporary criticism, however, and their relevance has been downplayed by literary history to this day. My study of the novels of these influential authors restores this context in order to highlight their appropriations from these undervalued narrative traditions, in which they found incipient forms of social critique and unique modes of representing history and the social order. In three genre-focused studies, the dissertation maps out vernacular sources for these authors' formal experiments, linking a generational fixation on "active reading" to a contemporary reconsideration of sensationalism and melodrama; the problematics of historiography to the tenuous boundary between crime fiction and crime journalism; and, finally, the polemic psychoanalysis of violence to the unpleasures of the lurid psychological thriller.
Beyond reconsidering one generation of Argentine literary history and its relationship to popular culture, this work also functions more generally as a case study in how avant-garde literature poaches forms from popular culture in order to access the imagination of "the masses". The dissertation begins with a brief pre-history of crime fiction in the work of Jorge Luis Borges and the generation immediately before that of Puig, Piglia, and Saer. Borges put one form of crime fiction at the heart of his epochal project for a speculative and "irreverent" modernism in the 1940's, yet emphatically rejected any other direct contact with mass culture. When the next generation challenged Borges' taboo on melodrama, they did so by shifting their focus from the least melodramatic forms of crime fiction to the most melodramatic ones. Thus, I focus on the forms of social critique particular to these melodramatic crime narratives, such as the spectularized martyrology of Puig's Boquitas pintadas, the small-town naturalism of Saer's Cicatrices, and the gendered sentiments of Piglia's early short fiction. These works are read against melodramatic intertexts that were being reprinted and reconsidered in that period: James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce, William Faulkner's Light in August, and Roberto Arlt's Los siete locos, respectively.
Honing in on that boundary between fiction and journalism, the dissertation then plots out various conceptions of the author in true-crime fiction, creative non-fiction, and the more overtly polemic testimonio tradition against the backdrop of the Cold War. This entails a detailed consideration of the legacy of bridge-figure Rodolfo Walsh, whose populist works of crime-fiction and reportage redrew the boundaries between the literary and the popular spheres. I read Piglia's nostalgic and ironically testimonial Plata quemada (1999) as a working through of Walsh's legacy, updating his Cold War ethics of writerly veracity to the age of television and to the postdictatorial problematics of memory. Similarly, I read Puig's Beso de la mujer araña (1976), his Maldición eternal a quien lea estas páginas (1980), and Saer's Glosa (1986) as three distinct explorations of the readerly psychology of sensationalism and of the limits of testimonio. In these works, confession is considered as an inadequate mechanism for the memory work demanded of literature by post-dictatorial society.
Finally, the dissertation attempts to provide a tentative theory and genealogy of the three psychological dictatorship thrillers written by Puig, Piglia and Saer, constitutively marked by readerly affects of paranoia, doubt, and menace. Drawing from Piglia's evolving definitions of "paranoid fiction" and its generically diverse sources, I frame these thrillers as affective-manipulative hybrid texts responding to the historiographical impasse of totalitarianism. Starting with Puig's prescient psychoanalytic thriller, The Buenos Aires Affair (1969), I look to Hitchcock's Freudianism and the vernacular of the thriller as sources for a tradition, beginning with Puig, of psychopathologizing Argentine fascism. I consider Piglia's Respiración artificial (1980) not only as a novelistic critique of psychological and linguistic transparency, but also as modernist form of thriller following Puig's lead. Saer's novelistic representation of life under the menace of totalitarian violence, Nadie nada nunca (1980), is an equally hybrid of diverse cultural narratives structured by a rhetoric of aporia, combining high philosophy, psychoanalysis, and the most base pop-culture fantasies as equally inadequate approaches to the psychopathology of the criminal State. These polemical experiments in the limits of narrative representation are the culmination of a generational project of historiographical and novelistic experiment, the scope, scale, and importance of which fails to come into view without a restoration of the cultural context of their production and an expansion of the purview of literary studies.