restricted access Strange Gourmets: Sophistication, Theory, and the Novel (review)
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Reviewed by
Joseph Litvak. Strange Gourmets: Sophistication, Theory, and the Novel. Durham: Duke UP, 1997. xi + 181 pp.

In its relatively short 150 pages, Joseph Litvak’s new book, Strange Gourmets, presents the prospective consumer with a cornucopia of delectable ingredients: an exploration of how the understanding and representation—ultimately, the demonizing—of sophistication develops after the rise of the mass market in the nineteenth century; a series of impressively luxurious close readings—of Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Vanity Fair, and The Guermantes Way—that make a case for the novel being “more ‘Austenian’ than traditional literary history allows”; a final chapter that explores what cultural criticism has to learn about theoretical sophistication from Theodor Adorno and Roland Barthes; a defense of high theory against the guilt of the cultural critic who, perhaps succumbing to the very arguments of the anti-intellectual majority, disdains the sophistication of her own intellectuality in the face of an analysis of the “low” in culture; and much more.

To explain what recommends this book, however, is to move beyond its ingredients and to discuss the way it is prepared and served. Speaking of Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley, Litvak writes, “Even if we were programmatically to align our critical troublemaking with the queer spectacle enacted by Thackeray’s Fat Boy, we might soon find ourselves engaged in the competitive project of—to borrow a resonant phrase from the novel—‘out-Josephing Joseph.’” Later he continues, “Every drag queen, as we know, is a prima donna: to the extent that gay reading is ‘reading’ (in the Paris Is Burning sense of the term), its utopianism becomes complicated.” It is precisely this sort of “complication”—which is, in fact, a supreme theoretical sophistication—that at once recommends this book to anyone interested in consuming a good [End Page 1057] work (for it is filled with all sorts of delectable hors d’oeuvres); it also distinguishes this book from a less appetizing, if all the more common, queer theory competing simply in “out-Josephing Joseph” or, even more simply, in outing Joseph tout court (and that thus serves us nothing but ordure). Or rather, what distinguishes it is an acknowledgment that the sophistication of the critical hors d’oeuvre and the vulgarity of the “cryptical” ordure should remain conjoined in order to ensure the most intelligent as well as the most politically effective form of analytical work. (I say “cryptical ordure” as an allusion to Litvak’s occasional argument about critical methodology itself; he argues, that is, against what he terms the “crypted” melancholia of a heterosexual economy that always seeks closure and the “regulation and distribution of sufficient pleasure.” Litvak calls instead for the “postmelancholic gastronomy” of a Proustian “sophistication of naïveté” that revels in the most luxurious, extended, and stylistically sophisticated interpretations.)

Like the best work in queer theory—that of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Terry Castle, Judith Butler, D. A. Miller, Lee Edelman—Litvak’s text teaches us something about ourselves, about the ways we make sense of, and the times we should be incensed by, the world and ourselves. When discussing Marcel Proust, for example, Litvak does not “settle for stating what should be fairly obvious: that, throughout Proust’s novel, one discerns a whole range of closet effects.” Rather, he explores the extent to which the heterosexual and homosexual, and not just issues of sex but also those of class, are in fact intimately linked. He does not merely stop at the level of a “where’s Waldo” form of queer theory that incessantly and all too simply asks the question “where’s the queer here?” and thus—by turning analysis into nothing but a boring game—may very well play into the hands of mass society’s anti-intellectual detractors; the better work in queer theory explores the extent to which “everything ‘has to be’ about homosexuality, to the precise extent that nothing can be about homosexuality.” Even better, such work turns the very bad joke at the end of the movie, In and Out, into literal rather than token solidarity: “I am gay,” or, at least, I wish I were. And it is precisely this intelligent and...