- After Utopia: The Rise of Critical Space in Twentieth-Century American Fiction
Nicholas Spencer takes an interesting approach to twentieth-century American fiction in After Utopia. He seeks to turn "away from the monolithic terminology of modernism and postmodernism" (2) that, in the wake of Fredric Jameson, has informed so many critical studies of American literature. In this turning away from the modern/postmodern divide, Spencer organizes his study around the concept of "critical space." That is, Spencer provides a genealogy of the ways that twentieth-century American fiction has reacted to "trace the aftermath of utopianism's spatial commitment" (11). The book's chapters proceed chronologically, starting with Upton Sinclair and Jack London, moving on to John Dos Passos and Josephine Herbst, through the mid-century novels of Mary McCarthy and Paul Goodman, to Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis, and ending with Joan Didion and Don DeLillo. A mere look at this list of authors shows that Spencer's avoidance of a modern/postmodern framework pays dividends. I cannot think of many books that pay serious scholarly attention to a group of authors as wide-ranging as those under consideration here.
Spencer's genealogy maps out the development of literary responses to nineteenth-century utopian narratives. In this configuration, the naturalistic fiction of London and Sinclair views history as a struggle "of dialectical transformation" (220). As literature moves further away from utopian ideals, it further complicates its understanding of history and ultimately rejects dialectical understandings of social space. Dos Passos and Herbst offer a more complicated view of history informed by "principles of cultural hegemony and mediation" (221). Mid-century authors such as McCarthy and Goodman shift their attention away from historical transformation toward the complexity of social spaces, as they introduce dialectics of social and political space. Pynchon and Gaddis then narrate the failure of [End Page 194] dialectics to understand critical space, and Didion and DeLillo then abandon "spatial dialectics" (224). Broadly understood, then, Spencer traces a movement from a Marxist understanding of history to a post-Marxist engagement with critical space.
This genealogical tracing provides a compelling frame for After Utopia, but Spencer makes no claim that his "temporal narrative" should replace any other monolithic narratives. Rather, he offers his book "as one significant strand of genealogical transformation in American fiction" while noting that he does not "doubt the validity of other fictional genealogies" (9). In fact, the complex critical spaces of After Utopia complicate its temporal narrative in fruitful ways, and the book should be looked at from a number of angles, not just from the temporal perspective.
Within the larger chronological mapping of the book, Spencer forges many interesting connections within and between each of the book's chapters. As just one example, he notes a strong connection in the ways that Didion's "references to the ranch evoke rural California in utopian terms and echo sentiments expressed by authors such as Jack London and Upton Sinclair" (188). In additional to these trans-historical connections, Spencer makes many other intriguing pairings. Each chapter of the book pairs two novelists with one or two theorists, so that, for example, Dos Passos and Herbst are read in conjunction with Antonio Gramsci, while McCarthy and Goodman are read alongside Hannah Arendt and Henri Lefebrve. Great care has gone into these pairings. Spencer never forces a literary work into an inappropriate critical frame; most obviously, Spencer reads literary authors alongside their contemporaneous critics. With this simple strategy, Spencer shows that critical and literary writing of the twentieth century are both strongly interested in issues of spatiality; perhaps more importantly, he shows how criticism and literature can be of mutual influence to each other. Spencer convincingly argues that his genealogy of fiction's movement from Marxist theories of history to post-Marxist understandings of critical space is mirrored by a similar movement from the early-twentieth-century "dialectical materialism of the later Engels, George Plekhanov, and Karl Kautsky" (13) to the rejection of any form of dialectics in Paul Virilio and Gilles...