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Reviewed by:
  • Novels, Maps, Modernity: The Spatial Imagination, 1850-2000
  • Alexander Ruch
Eric Bulson. Novels, Maps, Modernity: The Spatial Imagination, 1850–2000. New York: Routledge, 2007. xi + 176 pp.

Framed through the central concept of orientation (and its productive negation, disorientation), this slim but ambitious volume investigates [End Page 882] different ways that "readers, novelists, and critics . . . have used maps and guidebooks to make novelistic space intelligible from the mid nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth century" (2). More specifically, Eric Bulson argues for a historical narrative of chronotopic shifts in the novel from a realist use of maps to produce a sense of orientation to a modernist focus on "disorientation effects" to a post-modern turn that redirects the political and epistemological focus of modernist disorientation to ethical ends. To substantiate this broad literary-historical claim, he combines the material histories of the maps and guidebooks Melville, Joyce, and Pynchon used to produce their spatial representations with readings of the orienting and disorienting effects of such novelistic representations of space.

Given the size of the claims and the modest length of the book, it is hardly surprising that the execution is not always up to the ambition, which results in a major split within the book. The larger historical argument is left mainly to the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapter 5, while the central chapters (on Melville, Joyce, and Pynchon respectively) appear less as evidence for this historical shift than as a series of examples demonstrating the diversity of uses novelists have made of maps and guidebooks. This division is not only marked by different kinds of arguments (general claims about period distinctions versus local arguments about specific authors), but also by different approaches. In the more theoretical and literary-historical bookends, Bulson's focus is primarily on the effects of spatial representations on the reader, while the central chapters look instead at the scene of novelistic production. For this reason Novels, Maps, Modernity sometimes reads like a thematic collection of essays wrapped in an argument, and the richness of his readings of the importance of maps for specific novelists is not always recuperated into the service of his more general claims about the spatial imagination over the last 150 years.

Despite this basic split, both parts of the book have their own strengths. The first chapter, "On Getting Oriented," looks at the historical development of literary maps (a term ambiguous enough to cover maps locating various authors' homes or birthplaces as well as itineraries of literary characters) and guidebooks from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, effectively combining that history with more conceptual questions about what the popularity of such maps mean for our understanding of how readers orient themselves. Of particular interest is his claim that the disorientation brought about by urbanization helped fuel the popularity of literary maps like those of Hopkins and Read's 1923 Dickens Atlas, which allowed readers to locate literary landmarks (either in person or imaginatively) that had long since been demolished or repurposed (32–33). Placing these [End Page 883] maps alongside passages from Bleak House, Bulson shows how the maps reduce the "social reality of [Dickens's] realism" by focusing exclusively on street names and abstract spatial relations rather than the social facts behind them (38). The final chapter, "On Getting Lost," moves from Benjamin's remarks on the merits of "losing oneself" in a city to questions about the literary uses of disorientation in the twentieth century, asking why "the abundance . . . of topographical details in so many modernist novels [has] the effect of disorienting readers" (14). To answer this question, Bulson offers short but persuasive readings of the changing disorientation effects of street names in Madame Bovary, Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway, and Berlin Alexanderplatz before discussing productive disorientation in Debord's Situationist writings and Sebald's Austerlitz. This chapter, the widest ranging and strongest in the book, stands out for both the care of the readings and the suggestiveness of its problematic.

Bulson's talent for identifying interesting problems is also what makes the central chapters worthwhile despite their relative lack of integration into the framing argument. His chapter on Moby-Dick, for example, takes up as a...


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