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  • Imagining London: Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational Metropolis
  • Joseph McLaughlin
John Clement Ball. Imagining London: Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational Metropolis. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2004. viii + 295 pp.

The jacket for John Clement Ball's Imagining London depicts a fragmented photograph of a Big Ben that is falling apart and tumbling down. We view the pieces of the London icon through a transparent grid, one that suggests the reflective surface of the sort of skyscraper more likely to be found in New York than Westminster. Having begun [End Page 238] to read this book in June 2005, the depiction of this symbol of British nationalism hauntingly invoked the specter of September 11. Sitting down to write now in late summer, I cannot help but think of explosions underground and their capacity to jolt the (trans)national psyche. In a post-July 7 world, there is not much room to argue with the compelling thesis of a book about postcolonial fiction in the transnational metropolis "in which the immediacy of the local here and now blurs regularly into the vast, hazy remoteness of the global there and the historical then" (4). Ball demonstrates, through judicious readings of authors who comprise the Canadian, West Indian, and South Asian diasporas, that "in recent history London's transnational decentredness has become its most visibly constitutive feature" (5). And yet, this reconceptualization of London, is something that needs to be imagined historically as well as spatially. Indeed, at the center of the jacket's fragmented image of Big Ben, we see multiple, overlapping pieces of a clock-face, shards of time that underscore Ball's insistence that the representation of the transnational metropolis requires not only a new imaginative geography but also new ways of thinking historically. If Conrad's inept anarchists failed in their attempt to strike a blow against the abstractions of pure science and time in The Secret Agent a century ago, Ball's book reveals how today the moment of monolithic histories is a thing of the past. Thus, Imagining London's focus, fictional narratives and their formal properties, become exemplary objects for studying overlapping histories and geographies and representations of the urban landscape that both reflect and constitute it.

However, it is worth noting, before I leave the cover image behind, that Ball's explication of transnational London is not simply focused on a destructive, apocalyptic, pessimistic image of a national capital in ruins. While this reader was compelled by the recent historical past to read the image as disintegrative, it is after all a static image. Logically, it is equally possible to view the artist's Big Ben poised at a moment of re-integration. Indeed, the story Ball assembles from writers such as Kate Pullinger, Sam Selvon, Salman Rushdie, and Zadie Smith is one that constructs a new vision of the center in a postcolonial world. Ball's reading is also fully informed by insights from postmodern geography and transnational urbanism, most notably the work of Doreen Massey and Michael Peter Smith. This theoretical context reveals how the metropolis exists, and always has existed, in dynamically fluid relations with the rest of the world. Rather than viewing London as a center that cannot hold, Ball uses fiction and theory to urge a vision of "London not as a discrete, stand-alone place but as a site intimately linked to and filtered through images of (former) colonial landscapes" (29). London is best imagined [End Page 239] as a node in a system, a location in and through which identity is routed, a space of flows, a place that is neither destination nor origin but in-between. In this dialectical vision, bodies of water that separate and connect become much more significant geographical features than the abstraction of borders. A geography focused on the fluid emphasizes the porousness and permeability of London. We should see it as no accident then that Ball's longest chapter focuses on Caribbean fiction: "Through the recurring motifs of microcosmic worlds, oceans, twilight, houses, perception, and of the real or imagined journeys that seem to collapse the boundaries of time and space, West Indian novelists present London as an increasingly borderless...


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pp. 238-242
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