- 'Fin de millénaire' French Fiction: The Aesthetics of Crisis
'Crise' is arguably the most overused word in French intellectual parlance. Cruickshank recognizes this as she argues in 'Fin de millénaire' French Fiction that, while the postmodern assertion of perpetual crises is simplistic, it remains true that at the [End Page 509] turning from the twentieth to the twenty-first century 'France was experiencing an intersection of social, political, and economic crises' (p. 2). In this study Cruickshank hopes to achieve two rather ambitious goals: to show how literature engages with real issues, and to explore prose fiction's capacities as a form of cultural analysis. To achieve these ends she focuses on four contemporary novelists, Jean Echenoz, Michel Houellebecq, Christine Angot, and Marie Redonnet. Obviously, some will take issue with her choices, particularly that of Angot, but Cruickshank is seeking a broad spectrum, and her selection, while somewhat arbitrary, is more than defensible. To prepare for the discussion of these writers she begins with a brilliantly informed analysis of the 'long twentieth-century', concentrating on the last twenty years. She engages with the major topics of recent concern: the absence of the grand écrivain, the increased sensitivity towards violence against women, l'exception française, the rise and perhaps decline of feminism, and crisis manipulation by the media and trendy intellectuals. These pages display a combination of impressive research and remarkably clear synthesis. Her findings enable her to demonstrate that 'the defining features of the fin de millénaire French literary field are heterogeneity and competing crisis discourses' (p. 60), thus giving the lie to recent claims that France's literary and intellectual life has been enduring a period of prolonged hibernation. This section highlights Cruickshank's considerable gifts as a cultural historian. Her literary analyses, however, are of a somewhat different order. She treats her four novelists thoroughly, concentrating in each case on the works written around the the turn of the century; and there are excellent sections, notably on intertextuality in Echenoz. Yet these chapters also reveal a weakness in Cruickshank's approach: she sometimes confuses moralizing with analysis, and tasks the novelists for not doing what she thinks they ought to do. Thus Echenoz lacks an 'explicitly critical stance' in his works about the society of spectacle (p. 89); Houellebecq evidences 'unproblematized misogyny, homophobia, and racism' (p. 166); and Angot's prose is self-promotional (p. 212). The implicit assumption that artists are required to display, or strive to display, particular forms of ethical commitment — an area currently under discussion in academic circles — is disturbing, particularly when at least two of her subjects, Houellebecq and Angot, have established their reputations in part on the basis of political incorrectness. A common thread in Cruickshank's treatment is that these novelists fail to appreciate how they are co-opted by the cultural industry they deride; yet all writers are complicit to some degree in the society they may choose occasionally to criticize. This is as true of creative artists as it is of those who decide to comment on them. 'Fin de millénaire' French Fiction, albeit debatable at times, has much to recommend it.