Christine Brooke-Rose and Contemporary Fiction by Sarah Birch is the first full-length study of Brooke-Rose’s fiction. Author of thirteen novels, an autobiography, and five books of literary criticism, Brooke-Rose is a British writer and critic who lives in Provence and is retired from the University of Paris VIII (St. Denis). Her early experimental novels—for instance, Out, Such, and Between—had their impetus in her literary criticism, in structuralism and semiotics. In the last decade she has been taken up by feminist scholars because of her witty irreverence to things patriarchal: language, myth, politics, the academy, and the masculine-defined feminine. Also essays she published in the late eighties, such as “Illiterations,” which complain about the canon as “male preserve” have made her seem more feminist-friendly than her earlier criticism. Her novel, Amalgamemnon, especially, is the subject of some lively feminist criticism. Even the title, suggesting that contemporary patriarchs are versions (amalgams), of the wife-betraying and daughter-sacrificing patriarch, Agamemnon, gives the reader a sense of the acerbity of her wit. English professors particularly should pay attention to her most recent novel, Textermination, about a convention not unlike the MLA that is a send-up of the culture wars about books to be included in English classes. The novel’s characters are, literally, characters—from other novels, that is. In one scene, Emma Bovary meets Emma Woodhouse.
Birch’s study does a very good job of being a first study of the author. Her book is divided into two parts: part one covers the novels and part two, which is shorter, attempts to put Brooke-Rose both in the novelistic tradition and place her in the contemporary fiction scene. Since Brooke-Rose’s early realistic novels are out of print, scholars will find Birch’s descriptions of them essential. In addition, the book has a full chronology and a good primary and secondary bibliography.
In offering her exegesis of her fiction, Birch emphasizes the relationship between Brooke-Rose’s multilingualism (she grew up speaking French, English, and German) and what Birch views as common to all of Brooke-Rose’s fiction: “the prismatic effect of viewing one field of knowledge, one language, one culture through the discursive lens of another, and the idea of crossing between cultural domains. . . .” Birch’s [End Page 893] discussion is thorough, naming the literary theorists and the philosophers to whom Brooke-Rose has been alert and exploring how their writing helps to illuminate the fictional texts.
Birch’s approach is developmental. She presents a narrative of Brooke-Rose’s novelistic progress: from the early, realistic novels that nevertheless attended to philology and philosophy to the most recent fictional texts in which science fiction and experimentalism are joined to expose the nasty cracks in the discourses of technology and culture. For Birch, the persistent elements in Brooke-Rose’s oeuvre are the “poetic technique of metaphor, feminism, and technology.” Birch’s account is particularly adept at presenting elusive elements of the basic narrative. Since readers are often carried away by the metaphors, punning, allusions, and clever linguistic turns in the Brooke-Rose novel, they sometimes miss where the plot goes and thus miss a great deal. In Such, for instance, a person called “Something,” who has climbed out of a coffin into a world of orbits encounters a person called “Someone.” Although Brooke-Rose plays with the contiguities between astrophysics and life on Earth in the novel, it is also about the constitution of subjectivity through language, which is Brooke-Rose’s great theme and which Birch’s analysis helps to foreground.
Part two of the study, which tries to “place” Brooke-Rose in the literary landscape, is less impressive. Although Birch usefully rehearses the French context of Brooke-Rose’s work, do we need summaries of the interviews she has given through the years? As for Brooke-Rose’s “place,” anyone awake to the experimental literary scene in the last few decades knows where Brooke-Rose stands among her contemporaries. The most important facts and insights of part two...