“The Beautiful Move”
In quite different ways, the essays in this special issue address the claim, first voiced by Fredric Jameson in the 1980s, that literary space had somehow been taken over by the repetition of machinic time and instant communication at the cost of historical awareness. A cascade of landmark books and articles subsequently developed from the argument of his Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, inviting us to understand the present as an unchecked metastasis of the production of capital that has turned human actors into so many data points in a social order regulated on a 24-7 basis by the flow of information. How could those of us who focus on the novels now being written for a global readership be any less concerned with exactly how new communication technology greases the wheels for global capitalism's penetration into more areas of human life? In our preoccupation with “the now,” however, we neglect to ask whether the onset of such an aggressive spatializing regime is as sudden as we make it out to be. Were we to locate the onset of this now-pervasive element in the past, would the history of the novel yield a different story? If so, what does scholarship stand to gain in asking how novels have previously confined their thinking within a spatial form or rendered it unintelligible when it departs from the rules built into that form? Together, the essays in this issue address these questions.
It was on this basis that I selected these essays from a pool of submissions accepted for publication by the editorial board. The six essays cover a period from 1851, when Herman Melville's Moby-Dick appeared, to 2018, the publication date of Olivia Laing's Crudo: A Novel. Each pushes back against what was, even in antebellum America, a tendency to understand “the novel” as a spatial form. Instead of settling for some renewed model of the world as given, the essays in this special issue fasten onto a decisive “move” that erases some boundary in the social classification system so as to destabilize that system, momentarily admitting the possibility of an altogether different disposition of people in real and conceptual space. Such moves consequently distinguish themselves from those that enable the protagonist of the bildungsroman, in Franco Moretti's classic description, to ascend from one position to another within a given social classification system. By refreshing that system, this movement forecloses transformation of the conditions of possibility for imagining another system of social relations. By the same token, a move that decisively rejects the limits and possibilities of the novel's spatial form identifies the novel that makes that move as a “problem novel.”1 Should such a novel make it impossible for the critical reader to ignore this move, it will place that reader in opposition to the ethical and political norms of novel criticism and theory. Each of the essays in this special issue signals its decision to pursue this streak of contrarian thinking.
By contrarian thinking, first of all, I mean the novel's refusal to provide the reader with a perspective sufficiently compatible with the trajectory of the conflict or problem organizing the narrative from which to derive a timely moral from the story. The refusal to provide such a resting place, or closure, is instigated by another purpose compelling the novel to jump the guardrails within which it was generically bound to spell out the fate of its characters. Granted, our training predisposes even the critical reader to update whatever wisdom or insight a novel might begrudgingly offer. For this very reason, some of us are disposed to regard anything like conventional wisdom as a cover-up that conceals another order of problem, one that no resolution to the problem organizing the conflict within the novel can possibly wish away. Foundational theories of the novel have attributed this gap or dislocation within its spatial form to the novel's failed attempt to become an epic and somehow comprehend a totality that history condemns novels to render only in parts. Skeptical of the claim that the novel's ambitions were ever so grand as all that, I prefer to think of the “move” in question as Raymond Williams does. In explaining his notion of a “structure of feeling,” Williams contends that toward the edge of the world on which a novel focuses the reader's attention, one can occasionally sense something “else” or “more” within the novel that is fundamentally “outside” or “beyond” the limits of the conceptual categories that transform its historical content into an unfinished spatial form. At such moments, we feel the pressure of another way of thinking: What cannot be accessed within the formal limits of the novel is by definition neither a spatial expansion of what is “inside” the form of the novel nor an extension of that space over time. As Williams explains, this sense of something that makes itself felt at the limits of legibility is, by definition, something “else” and “more” than what could be expressed in so many words at the time the novel was written. Any language—and especially literary language—will accumulate an intertextual and indexical residue over time, which provides a source of residual meaning, in this case, within the novel. This semantic undertow can tug against the dominant usage for centuries, Williams contends, until something happens to congeal this uncoded “thought as feeling” into an unstated sense of foreboding that compromises the semantic drift of the novel as a whole.
In strikingly different ways, the essays in this issue identify such a crosscurrent, when they focus on novels that in lieu of a formal resolution create a larger and more basic conflict between the form in which the novel is written and the readership who expects the novel to wrap things up. In addition to Moby-Dick and Crudo: A Novel, these novels include Thomas Mofolo's Chaka (1925), James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939), Henry James's The Wings of the Dove (1902), J. M. Coetzee's Jesus trilogy (2013, 2016, and 2019), and Ali Smith's Autumn (2016). Each of these novels decisively refuses to meet generic expectations and does so in a way that nevertheless forces us to acknowledge, however reluctantly, its status as a novel. Inasmuch as an established convention for becoming a novel in the very act of refusing to become a novel is a logical impossibility, there can be no critical model other than the novels themselves for explaining the move that makes them formal outliers and problem novels. In deciding to organize essays that focus on novels that so identify themselves, I took my cue from Henry James's notion of “the beautiful move,” a formal concept that Michaela Bronstein brings to our attention in a stunning account of how just such a move turns the romantic intrigue of The Wings of the Dove into a question of what makes it impossible to imagine a future that is not more of the same. The operative word here is “move.”
If characters were people, we would feel compelled to characterize the move in question as rather ugly. But the novel invites us to think of that move as “beautiful” because it renders a Jamesian ensemble of characters free of the sentimental baggage of marriage and so that we can rethink romance in utilitarian terms. Perhaps more clearly than any other of James's notably enigmatic endings, the conclusion to The Wings of the Dove confirms F. O. Matthiessen's claim that James endowed his “characters with such vitality that they seem to take the plot in their own hands, or rather, to continue to live beyond its exigencies” (179). This turns out badly, of course, when the attempt to redistribute money and love among an idle European elite reduces both to their simple exchange value and ushers in a state of emotional entropy. In so resolving the conflict within his novel, however, James also expressed his antagonism toward a readership of whom few, he felt, would appreciate the beauty of his deflationary move. As a general rule, novels that insist on being read as “problem novels” will devise a memorably unprecedented means of defying the expectations readers bring to reading the novel. No matter our preferred critical apparatus, we expect it at once to provide the kind of problem-solving narrative we identify as a novel and to do something new that refreshes the meaning of that entire process. We expect a novel to update that form without stepping outside its limits and casting into doubt—here we are down to the nub of it—the possibility that whatever happens after the problem is resolved will be built on the foundation of that present. Let a novel overstep this limit, and it becomes a problem.
Jennifer Wenzel's account of the birth of the African novel contends that Thomas Mofolo's Chaka, the fourth in a sequence by Mofolo accounting for the fate of the Basotho people, was such a problem novel. The African novel could not have been otherwise and still emerge from a region where territory was perpetually contested and thus not yet national. The question that prompts her to make this claim is, Why Chaka? What allowed Chaka to become the most popular bestseller in the vernaculars of South Africa, as well as the first world novel written by a Black African? Where the first three of Mofolo's novels were, as Wenzel says, “shaped by convergences and collisions between Christian missionary activity and extant traditions of verbal expression and cosmological belief,” Chaka alone narrates the difaqane, known as the time of cannibals, “when [the Basotho] people ate each other, and stole or took by force what belonged to others” (Wenzel quoting Mofolo). If Chaka personifies the ferocious energy unleashed by the early nineteenth-century Zulu king Shaka, then what better protagonist to provide a flashpoint for the violence begun with the extermination policy carried out on the Basotho people by the expanding Zulu kingdom? The memory of this precolonial violence instilled a sense of dread in turn-of-the-century missionary-trained intellectuals that such violence could return in the future were the Basotho to be swallowed up in the Union of South Africa. Although the narrative of Chaka takes the form of a struggle for territory, then, at stake in who dominates the land and how and for whom it is used is the same thing at stake in Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of literary space. Bakhtin identifies each moment in cultural history with a distinctive “chronotope,” a particular fusion of spatial and temporal indicators that provides not only a collective understanding of the cultural environment, but also the “formally constitutive category [that] determines . . . the image of man in literature” (Bakhtin 85). The chronotope provides the foreground, that is, as well as the background, or setting, of human action.
It is here that Wenzel pivots to the novel's struggle to achieve recognition as a distinctively African novel, a struggle built into the form of Chaka and what marks it for all time as “a problem novel.” In order for a novel to become at once African and a novel, she contends, it must take the form of an unresolvable struggle “between disparate modes of being human.” Mofolo's “deep, persistent concern with a particularly Basotho version of the human” troubles the notion of what it means to be a good human being according to European missionaries, a normative ethic that literary criticism consistently brings to the act of reading. While there is no doubt on the part of Basotho or European readers that Chaka himself is a force of evil, there is every reason for both sides to challenge the European assumption that, as the negative image of man, the cannibal is the incarnation of evil itself and outside the limits of humankind. For the Basotho, on the other hand, “Man” is the social whole, which conflicts with the Western bourgeois notion of “the individual,” a concept that considers itself the measure of the “human.” Mofolo, as Wenzel reads him, designed his “problem novel” to confront readers with the historical fact that in a truly African novel several incompatible concepts of the human will have to inhabit the same literary space. In Mofolo's native language, motho is the word for “human being,” not “human” in and for oneself but through compassion and respect for the dignity of others. As the protagonist forsakes his sense of being “a people” in pursuit of territorial ambitions (botho), then, he has not taken on a new and fundamentally incompatible identity so much as dramatized a process whereby people become human or lose their humanity as they expand or contract their capacity for compassion.
Mofolo's fictional history of the Basotho people reads nothing like Bakhtin's account of the novel's emergence as a distinctively modern narrative form that dismembered and incorporated earlier literary chronotopes to become the hegemonic narrative form of a modernizing culture. Without relaxing her hold on Bakhtin's notion of the novel as a narrative form dedicated to swallowing up competing literary genres and discourses, Wenzel turns to Frantz Fanon's understanding of precolonial Africa, which she also characterizes as “a zone of instability” and uses as a “sketch of something like a chronotope of a national culture.” This form would be achieved, as Fanon says, not by returning to an authentic past, but as it engages the present struggle for liberation. Only the people can give shape to what he calls the “fluctuating movement” that shapes a new national culture. Even so generous a reading as Wenzel's of the Basotho concept of Man must find it impossible to explain Chaka, the cannibal of cannibals, as an emergent concept of national character.
But while the fact of the protagonist's monstrosity is hardly in doubt, explanations for that monstrosity are very much so: Was Chaka moved by internal forces of ambition or madness or by external forces of sorcery or drugs? Should we consider his crime a personal capitulation to temptation or a disavowal of the ethos of botho? Those who read the novel within a modern institutional framework are bound to see Chaka either as a Faustian narrative of self-damnation or as the author's twin bewitchings, as Fanon would say, by Western modernity and native tradition. This dual allegiance indeed describes the narrative conflict within this novel. In doing so, however, it provides no rationale for the novelist's refusal to draw a moral from this conflict. Still more perplexing, as Wenzel notes, is the quite extraordinary aesthetic appeal of the description that provides a background for that conflict and calls attention to its transformation from one of “beautiful people, beautiful cattle, beautiful landscapes” to a vast apocalyptic territory inhabited by “overstuffed vultures and hyenas [that] can't keep up with the carrion.” Is this landscape the residual expression of a form of social value that can't be stated in so many words in the English translation? Wenzel suggests that botho is more than that; it is an ethic of compassion that extends beyond all other human beings to their desecrated environment. The continuity of human image with its worldly environment is, in her view, Mofolo's argument with his cultural options, as Fanon spelled them out, and his argument with the form in which he wrote as well: a form that consumes even its own cultural environment in order to reduce its status to the background for the European image of man.
What Wenzel's reading of Chaka does to the image of man in relation to a rapidly modernizing sociocultural environment, David Spurr's reading of Finnegans Wake does to the thinking subject during the period when fascism was rising in Europe. Over the seventeen-year-period of Wake's composition, Joyce gave up his signature attempt to capture in literary prose the plurality from which language had permanently separated thought and, in writing Finnegans Wake, relied on the figure of “the fold” (le pli). He did so in a way, as Spurr demonstrates, that anticipates Gilles Deleuze's sustained investment in the baroque aesthetic as the aesthetic mode appropriate to a time when “the fluctuation of the norm replaces the permanence of law.” Under such conditions, Spurr explains, the idea of an object no longer depends on a relation between form and matter so much as on “a temporal modulation involving the continual variation of matter and the continual development of form” (Deleuze 26). By mobilizing any number of incompatible perspectives within an otherwise stable spatial form the baroque aesthetic provides Deleuze with a powerful means of visualizing those elements of human life that can't be reduced to the identities conferred by family, nation, sex, race, religion, and so forth.
To name and bestow positions within these institutional structures conceals this uncoded life within successive folds of subjectivation that position subjectivity in dissonant and fluctuating relation to itself so objectified. As it is “passed or ‘doubled’ by history,” the self continuously folds this experience into itself and “thereby [alters] ever so slightly its constitution.” Put another way, once subject to a named identity, the self continues to unfold potential selves in a succession of changes that can be marked while the force that compels those changes in response to its environment cannot. Like baroque art, the fluid, malleable, and self-destabilizing self tends to call attention to itself at times in history that call for such instability. Just as the contorted plane of neobaroque architecture seems at once to threaten and comply with the instability of the building as a whole, so does the unfolding of vernacular English destabilize the formal grammar of the sentence, to the paragraph, chapter, and book, disrupting the semantic currents of the novel as a whole. Reading Joyce retrospectively through Deleuze on “the fold,” Spurr makes sense of Joyce's last attempt to dismember the oedipal family as the creation of a literary language capable of narrating the preoedipal—hence precognitive—self, an admittedly difficult critical feat to summarize. Rather than try, I will point to an example of how this reading of Joyce's late prose differs from that of previous scholars. One such example should be enough to suggest how the figure of the fold transforms the English print vernacular into a literary language surpassing the Joycean epiphany in its ability to “captur[e] the real in its unsayability.” As it lays out what Spurr characterizes as “linguistic plurality,” this example also suggests what happens to a novel that releases the semantic connotations from the constraints of its generic form.
Where the portmanteau word familiar to readers of Alice in Wonderland consists of two words folded into one word, each of which can often be unpacked in more than one way, Wake displays a tendency to overstuff its suitcases to the point of semantic overload. The surplus of available connotations, Spurr contends, defeats any one interpretation by making one way of unfolding the chain of signifiers as good as any other. In his words, “signifiers are folded within one another in such a manner that any one of them could be developed [i.e., unfolded] in its own direction.” As in Lewis Carroll's wonderland, such willfulness on the part of the material sign continually unfolds and repacks the suitcase of possible connotations until anything like reality testing is out of the question, and the reader is left without a basis for differentiating narration from the action narrated. Simply put: “Foreground and background are all one,” and the work “is coterminous with the world rather than being a representation of it.” As a result, Joyce's overuse of portmanteaux clears the ground to begin the story of the individual's oedipal development with his or her entry into the world of language. By late career, Joyce became convinced that an account of how subjectivity encountered and subjected itself to the unstable constellation of signs called the oedipal family was necessarily antecedent to its understanding of its consequent positioning as an object within a larger social order, nation, or globe. When refigured as a folding process, Spurr contends, “human thought becomes an attempt to capture the being of language prior to its codification into the discourses of knowledge.”
The oversupply of portmanteaux provides Joyce with a means of doing away with essential difference between foreground and background, subject and object, so that the novel can begin anew with the encounter between human thought and the world of sensory phenomena. From this, it follows that echoes and parodies of the literary past will operate as synecdoches of the folded narrative as a whole. In a masterful reading of chapter 1.5—which consists of a letter of sketchy authorship in barely legible and frankly disgusting condition—Spurr shows how the encounter with writing provides a key turning point in the aimless and repetitive movement of the subject whose thinking is one and the same as the form of the novel as a whole. Performing what might otherwise seem to be a more or less conventional mise en abyme, this letter crams all forms of linguistic plurality into one very large, overstuffed suitcase. The written document consequently opens up in the manner of a fan within a prose form that traditionally marks the movement of the self as it recalls retrospectively how it discovered its rightful place within the given social order. To those who doubt that in his later works, Joyce could have had something like this multiple, fluid, and partial subject in mind, Spurr would remind them that Deleuze never considered figural thinking the least bit antagonistic to scientific rationality. His obsession with the figure of the fold and indebtedness to the baroque aesthetic underscores the role such thinking plays throughout his philosophical work. By inserting a model of the fold within his final novel, Joyce only does what Deleuze claims all great writers do; he “carves out within his language a foreign language which does not pre-exist,” one aimed at a future reader whom the conditions of his moment in history would not let the writer understand in so many words.
Michaela Bronstein identifies the artist's keen sense of temporal dislocation in relation to the present tense as “the paradox of utopian crime,” a figure of thought that reshaped the novel during the period that gave rise to “the art novel,” a good half century before Finnegans Wake. Rejecting the obligation to weigh in on the political issues of the day—a move that ultimately provided a medium for moralizing the status quo—the novelists we now classify as modernists decided it would be necessary to disappoint, even offend the present readership if they were to address a growing readership who preferred to see the future as anything but a continuation of the present moment. They preferred to see the political slate wiped clean. Out to show that the rise of the art novel began with the convergence of the marriage plot central to realism and a conspiratorial plot of revolutionary violence that captured public attention at the end of the nineteenth century, Bronstein makes a beautiful move of her own. She groups Henry James with Joseph Conrad and Oscar Wilde as novelistic counterparts of the fin-de-siècle anarchist. Her argument to this effect takes shape as she relocates the origins of the English art novel from the highbrow novels of George Eliot and Gustave Flaubert to the openly political fiction of Ivan Turgenev. The implications of her case for Turgenev's influence on “the Russian novels” of James, Conrad, and Wilde begin with novels that sport this foreign influence and inspire her political rethinking of James's problematic late novels. This larger claim for the Russian origins of English modernism ultimately rests on a rapid succession of readings that demonstrate that the modernist thinks like the terrorist.
These readings focus on their shared ambivalence toward the masses who seem bent on thinking in conventional terms, expressing canned emotions, and envisioning their present and future conditions as successive improvements on the past. This ambivalence gives rise to a decision that artists, like terrorists, must inevitably confront—namely, whether their ability to trade in the present for a different future rests on soliciting popular support or whether they will do more to usher in such a future by destroying the institutions of the present in which the readership is predisposed to invest its hopes for a better future. Insofar as the second alternative requires novelists to do violence to the conventions of their chosen art form rather than to some political institution, the art novel seems to detach itself from the political issues of the 1880s in a way that literary realism certainly does not. It is Bronstein's claim, however, that quite the contrary is true—provided we distinguish the political argument within a novel like, say, Eliot's Middlemarch, for the novel's argument with the formal limits the novel had to observe if it wanted to be embraced by a popular readership. She offers an extended reading of The Wings of the Dove to show how the plot is taken over by the artist surrogate Kate Croy, who rewrites that plot as if to simulate the style of the Jamesian sentence in which the gratification of the end justifies the extraordinarily difficult means of reaching it. The cold-bloodedness with which Kate engineers and executes this plot so ingeniously dismantles any prepackaged form of moral sentiments, Bronstein allows, that it is easier to read the novel as an allegory of an account of the Revolution in which the heroine of immense wealth is dragged kicking and screaming to the guillotine. In playing the terrorist who artfully dismantles the marriage plot, Kate dismantles the problem that middlebrow fiction strives to solve, namely, what the future will look like and how society can get there. Instead of the normative response this problem elicits, the art novel offers the elegance of a well-conceived plot that seizes on the inflexibility of the received morality to destabilize the political order that it polices. As Bronstein argues, the series of shocks that negate the plot are largely responsible for persuading readers not to invest their hopes for futures in the present social order as those shocks gradually “reveal the fragility of any social order.” “This is the radical potential of literary fiction,” she contends, “not to make us see the world differently, but to make us confront the measures it might take to change it.”
These first three essays speak as a group about the aesthetics of violence, which always triggers a soft but persistent alarm concerning the risk of glorifying a politics that replaces the law with violence and restages its reactionary moves as subversive and therefore potentially progressive. These essays accept the problem of reversibility built into the concept of subversion as the condition for arguing that literary language will not aestheticize politics if we recognize it as an altogether different way of thinking. When given the right conditions and novelists of a mind to do so, they argue, literary language will emerge from the background and challenge the adequacy of any ideologically constrained space that will not allow literary language to account for the suffering of the people (Chaka), the spaces between words (Finnegans Wake), and a future that is destined not to arrive (The Wings of the Dove). As the expression of a politics that cannot be imagined within the limits of a novel, at least not a novel in English, figures of thought respond to their historical chronotope and do to literary space what the crushed and exploded planes of a Frank Gehry building do to the classic structure of city buildings in the last four decades of the twentieth century. It is not difficult to see how an earlier strain of modernism should respond with similar violence to the looming threat of European authoritarianism, by offering readers a world without people, a language free of denotation and indexicality, and plots that fulfill the paradox of utopian crime. The next three essays take on novels that are no less problematic. These novels also provoke a problem they have no inclination to resolve in conventional terms, one for which there is no political solution in sight, no nugget of moral wisdom. Where the first three essays focus on novels that take extravagant literary measures to convince a readership that any future is preferable to reproducing the status quo, the next three essays raise a different but related point: Why should readers want to read novels that seem bent on frustrating the appetite for reading novels. Derek Attridge makes this point in a definitive reading of J. M. Coetzee's trilogy of Jesus novels, which he opens with the claim that the novelist raises the same questions he does in his other works of fiction, only here, he pares his use of literary language back to the bone. Outside the style of thought that characterizes David, a character who in a few respects calls to mind the Christian messiah, the literary language throughout the trilogy consists mainly of borrowings from the New Testament, references to such philosophers as Plato and Wittgenstein, and, oh yes, Don Quixote, the character, the novel, and the prototype of the picaresque narrative. Rivaling Robinson Crusoe as the first European novel, Miguel de Cervantes's narrative has been rewritten so many times in different regions and languages of the world that Jorge Luis Borges could rewrite the novel in the form of a short story that proposes to rewrite a novel as its own original as the means of transforming a prose narrative into a novel. “Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote” (Ficciones 1939) implies that all novelists imagine themselves, when writing a novel, rewriting either Quixote or Robinson Crusoe in the original. Over the course of his career, Coetzee self-consciously rewrote both.
What makes the Jesus novels especially perplexing in this regard, Attridge points out, is Coetzee's insistence on writing them in a literary language that is descriptively impoverished, even for him, and then entitling his novel as if it were an account of the life of Jesus. With this pair of moves, the novelist whets an appetite for allegory that his novel has no intention of gratifying. To the contrary, he restricts the use of figurative language largely to the self-expression of a few characters and never allows the world through which they travel to either validate or invalidate their perspectives. In doing so, Coetzee produces just as extreme an imbalance between the material and conceptual components of language to which I called attention in the first group of novels but tilts the imbalance in the oppositive direction. Even so overcharged a name as “Jesus” never becomes much more than a reference to the New Testament, and like other such references, cannot take on the capacity of metaphor that would unfold as an allegory for the story of the enigmatic orphan David. Rather than enter a densely connotative microenvironment that refuses to yield a cognitive map as we do in the late novels of Mofolo, Joyce, and James, Coetzee's reader enters a literary landscape that is already mapped. By way of a setting for the story of David, Attridge suggests, this literary landscape resembles one of those city-planning documents whose infrastructure implements a theory of political economy. Given a setting that consists of two such spaces plus the road in between them, it gives us no clue as to where and what the “next life” will be. Attridge provides what is easily the best explanation to date as to why Coetzee has created this setting for playing out the relationship between the Quixotic David—a protagonist who, but for the novels' titles, bears little resemblance to the Christian messiah—and his companion-interlocutor Simón.
Attridge calls attention to the overload of allegorical possibilities in the narrative infrastructure, respectively, of setting, plot, and character, each of which displays some analogical validity but ultimately provides no more consistent basis for reading the story of David as a retelling of the story of the messiah than for reading that story as an account of either an exemplary individual or an artist. Indeed, Attridge argues, there is more than enough reason not to read the novels as David's story at all. As the Quixote figure, David is consistently a figure of his own imagination who happens to be flesh and blood; and it takes a village to care for this singular human being who thinks and dances like no other. In that Simón is given to passionate expression within a socialist framework that calls for rational responses and suddenly becomes the man of practical reason in the more permissive liberal environment where the characters end up, Simón rather than David is the protagonist of the trilogy. Because the scarcity of figurative language erodes the possibilities for an allegorical reading, Attridge contends, Simón does better than the other characters in engaging responsibly with David. It is what Simón can neither understand nor share with the child that turns the story into an account of Simón's growing awareness of a different order of human thought that he feels obligated to counterbalance, protect, and cultivate in himself. Thus, Attridge concludes, “If the trilogy has an ethical charge it stems not from . . . allegory but from the stumbling efforts of an ordinary man to fulfill his obligations to an extraordinary other.”
Timothy Donahue persuades us to see Herman Melville as another novelist who wagered on a future readership to understand his classic loose-fish story as an ingenious rewriting of Cervantes's Don Quixote. Well before Coetzee, Donahue contends, Melville had relocated the interaction of the two main characters on a boundless and largely uncharted body of water, whose availability to global traffic continually dissolved the abstract categories that composed what was even then an imagined world system. Insofar as he personifies the racialized imperialistic perspective that Anibal Quijano and Immanuel Wallerstein have recently named “Americanity,” Ahab serves as the negative flip side of Don Quixote, a monstrously damaged narcissist in a distinguished line of such characters who suffer from what Lukàcs labeled “normative incompleteness.” Their profound sense of self-lack makes them protagonists as it compels them to pursue and reincorporate some lost object meaningful chiefly to them. In this respect, Ahab serves as Melville's sublime figure for the novel itself and why it can never grasp the world whole. The hunt for this whale of all whales accumulates bountiful bits and snippets of information about the world that would add up—even if they could all be added up—only to a collection of partial and incompatible experiences of the whole. To emerge as the only one left alive to tell the story of the drive for totality commandeered by Ahab and glimpsed in those moments where the novel seems poised to envision the modern world system, Ishmael has had to counter his attraction to such spatializing abstractions with attention to granular materiality. Melville tried out the Cervantine balancing act in a chapter of White-Jacket that offered an “encapsulated account of the affective swings that accompany life on a naval vessel,” but in writing Moby-Dick, Donahue contends, the novelist went himself one better.
Donahue returns to the Quixote to show precisely how Melville adapted Cervantes at once to resolve the problem of totality and to place it forever beyond the novel's power of representation. Reading Don Quixote through Moby-Dick and Moby-Dick through the lens of twentieth-century world-systems theory, he argues that Cervantes's characters were, for Melville, not opposing concepts so much as perspectives from varying distances on the same piece of geographical territory. When focalized through characters occupying different positions within the same literary space, it stands to reason that such perspectives could never be brought into focus together no matter how they were characterized. Here, as elsewhere in Melville, the world appears whole only from a perspective that occludes the disputed and shifting boundaries defining what are in fact different territories. The same principle holds true for the idealism of both Quixotes: thus, as Donahue points out, where Cervantes animates his Quixote with chivalric romance, Melville uses maritime histories and science writing to imagine the vast extraterritorial spaces available to economic and political conquest. More akin to Coetzee's Simón than Cervantes's Sancho Panza in moderating Ahab's perspective, Melville's Ishmael possesses certain conceptual skills that give him an advantage over the devisers of systems. As the storyteller, Ishmael has to remain mindful of both John Locke and Immanuel Kant. He keeps the narrative moving by tilting the narrative to the side of empirical knowledge if it tilts too far toward either abstraction or granularity. Moreover, he understands this shift in perspective as a scalar transformation that alternately expands and contracts the same literary space. This is another reason in a litany of such explanations, as Donahue points out, for Melville's inclusion of chapter 54, a virtually independent account of a mutiny on the whaler Town-Ho, which he recalls in a café in Lima some years after surviving the sinking of the Pequod. To the question this raises for critics of why—why a mise en abyme that inserts the before and after of Ishmael's story within the story of Ahab's fatal attempt to retrieve his missing leg—Donahue has set the stage for two answers. True to his ability to see a situation first with Locke and then Kant, Ishmael tells a story that raises the alternative of resisting monstrously damaged narcissism only to cancel it out (the mutineers are captured and crushed one by one). Second, Ishmael tells this story after the fact in a café in Lima, where the unfettered drive of the American ego to conquer the world is countered by an interlocutor, Don Pedro, who rejects the idea of travel, Donahue stresses, as “the mode through which the world's sensible features are perceived for a world-picture he associates with the spatiotemporal contours of Americanity.” Viewing the world from his position in Lima, Don Pedro contracts the world-picture that expresses North America's boundless ambition until that picture fits within a Spanish American perspective. The combined effect of these two effects of chapter 54 is to suggest that the ending of the tale is but the beginning of another episode—viewed askew, both oceans and novels are fundamentally unmappable in that they are constantly altering relations among great territories of land. The novel's inability to complete its drive to grasp totality is not a problem but a good thing. What this means for world-systems theory, Donahue concludes, is that its categories must be undergoing self-transformation according to rules we discover only after the fact.
Rather than bury narration under a surplus of description, the second group of essays seems bent on dragging figurative language into the domain of common sense. Here it either withers or simply disappears into the materiality of everyday language, the lingua franca of the novel. In debunking recent claims to the effect that the novel has ceded its place to new media, Samantha Purvis provides a way of explaining this phenomenon. Any number of recent critics, she notes, some indeed novelists themselves, see ours as the moment when the novel has lost its purchase on modern culture and thus the power to provide its own allegorical base as the story of world-making it is compelled to repeat. Purvis takes aim at the unexamined assumption that a novel's failure to keep pace with contemporary life condemns that novel, conversely, to tell the story of its own decline. To do so, she looks closely at two recent novelists who directly address such “fears about the novel's diminishing cultural power in the age of instant communication.”
Purvis reads Ali Smith's Autumn and Olivia Laing's Crudo: A Novel as attempts to address the problem of replicating “the feeling of an eternal instantaneity, and oversaturated now.” These novels are extreme examples of recent attempts to make novels do what digital and news media do better—namely, write to the moment—and for that reason, produce a reading experience that has “the feeling of instalments, dispatches,” or, I would add, the serials that we can now stream on demand. The reader hooked on this mediated experience does not worry about what it means because he or she can't wait to find out what happens next, the addictive effect of media that turn “what happens” into old news the minute that it happens. At stake in Purvis's understated examination of two quite recent novels, then, are the very issues that prompted me to consider these essays under the rubric of “problem novels.” The first such issue goes to what I have referred to throughout this introduction as the novel's capacity, indeed compulsion, to update itself. To retain its position, Purvis invites us to consider, do novels have to adapt to the new accelerated reality, which would seem to put them at a decided disadvantage in relation to new media as a means of representing the contemporary world? Those critics who answer this question in the affirmative, in her view, wrongly assume that “the internet offers a seductive and qualitatively different model of textuality . . . certain to supplant that of the novel.”
To undermine the stubborn assumption that we actually prefer to consume information on an up-to-the-minute basis, she reminds us that certain possibilities for reading considered specific to the internet were already familiar to readers by analogy to the printed book—page, scroll, bookmark, index, and so forth. Like Jonathan Crary, she considers the important change brought about by instant access to information a matter not of the experience of acceleration that has its prototype in the serialization of novels during the Victorian period. If the novel is outdated, this prototype suggests, it is outdated in the same sense that any information is outdated the minute it appears in a medium dedicated to making its value depend on the next episode. A novel became outdated, under these circumstances, as soon as it failed to distinguish itself from newspapers, advertisements, biography, and so forth whose shelf life expires almost immediately. The same holds true for information on the internet. Purvis proposes that the recognition by a novel that it cannot keep pace with events allows it to take a position outside the present moment where it can reflect on its slowness relative to the speed of new media. The sense of decline of the novel as the hegemonic form has been so much a part of the novel's aesthetic for nearly a century that it is a mistake to confuse that with the novel's actual decline in cultural influence. Crudo: A Novel is a case in point. Composed of Kathy Acker citations, tweets, current affairs, and autobiographical material, Crudo assembles these found materials quickly and apparently without a great deal of editing. The narrator's effort to simulate the experience of a permanent present effectively deprives the narrative of its ability to sort, weigh, and compare differences, thus with the distance required for making assessments. A related problem surfaces in Autumn, whose narrator discovers that present information moves into the past faster than she can possibly put it in writing. In their failed attempts to close the gap between one inscription and the next, Smith and Laing expose the impossibility that any form of mediation can replace time with a continuous space of information.
How do these novels turn these failures to their advantage? In failing to replicate the near immediacy of contemporary communication technology, they use the disappearing time gap between the bits of information a novel assembles as a problem-solving narrative to show what happens when we can no longer tell the difference between the diegetic and mimetic functions of its prose, between background noise and description, and thus between narration and narrated events. It is at this point—having shown not only how Smith's and Laing's attempts to write to the minute deliberately fall short of the mark but also how both novels demonstrate the cost of doing so—that Purvis digs in her theoretical heels and argues that novels succeed best where they seem most to fail at dominating other forms of mediation. To do so, she borrows the Derridean notion of “spacing” to update our concept of “writing” for the conditions under which it must now perform. Insofar as writing must “remain legible despite the absolute disappearance of every determined addressee,” she contends, the written sign carries within it the potential to break with its immediate context. Though part of a contextual chain, the sign is therefore mediated by a spacing that allows for “its extraction and grafting” as a quotation in another such chain. In that spacing enables a sign to make sense in other contexts, it is as essential to communication as “the mark” itself, for the spacing that indicates these connotative possibilities also ensures that “no writing, no matter how speedily produced and disseminated, conveys its meaning or content transparently and immediately.” On this basis, Purvis insists, “no matter how fast you publish something, . . . its contemporary references will always go out of date.” Her reading of Autumn and Crudo shows that what does get lost in the effort to feed an insatiable appetite for the constant presence of the present is the unexpressed but nonetheless shared feeling that colored the context in which the mark was originally forged.
The takeaway from the essays in this special issue is, for me, their insistence on rethinking the form of novelty built into the novel. By “novelty” I usually mean the novel's capacity to update itself by making the changes that allow it to continue working and making things happen despite the rapidly changing topography of a nation undergoing modernization. Rather than focus on the adaptive move by which novels remain recognizably novels even as they incorporate chunks of new information, however, the essays that follow draw our attention to novels that forego this move in order to throw themselves out of joint with their time and the context they share with a readership. The beauty of this contrarian move is that it fulfills the novel's generic obligation to adapt by incorporating some unforeseen bit of a new category of material, but it proves to be a poison pill that cannot be digested without so completely reorganizing the novel that it risks being mistaken for some other form. In that case a novel becomes a subgenre if not a genre unto itself. The result of such experimentation with the limits of form is to expose the context, or historical chronotope, that novelists share with their readers as something inferred from the novel's indexical language. Problem novels reverse the priorities of text and context to insist on the novel's ability to create its own context or foundation fiction. In some respects, these novels are not all that different from other novels that continue to be read once they are no longer contemporaneous, as they invariably express a general sense of resentment toward the formal limits that keep them from doing more than wish for a different outcome. The problem novel distinguishes itself as it draws a definitive line between itself and a form that willfully hobbles its inherent literariness. The problem novel does so by reclaiming the figural thinking that once allowed literary language to resonate with many voices expressing other views of the turn of narrative events, in this respect, breaking the contract between novel and reader that subordinates rhetoric to logic and confines literary language to the prosaic institutional framework of money and property. Of necessity, the problem novel wagers its success on a future reader willing to imagine a future predicated on an epistemic shift in those priorities.
My best guess is that the concept of the “problem novel” stems from early twentieth-century readings of Shakespeare's Jacobean comedies as “problem comedies,” for the very reason that they failed to conclude with the romantic endings of the comedies he wrote during the reign of Elizabeth I, endings that could be read retrospectively through the lens of bourgeois domesticity. I consider the modifier “problem” no more meaningful a generic indicator for certain modern novels than for Shakespeare's plays and believe this special issue will add some precision to the term.