- Fin de Millénaire French Fiction: The Aesthetics of Crisis
In Fin de Millénaire French Fiction: The Aesthetics of Crisis, Ruth Cruickshank tracked down elusive objects of literary and intellectual history (ends, endings, turns, closures, crises, declines). In doing so, she attempts to retrieve the symbolic and cultural investment in tropes of crisis that lead us to important but neglected issues of literary agency and social criticism after the Nouveau Roman.
To conduct her study, Cruickshank selected four contemporary French novelists, representative of what literary history considers members of a post-formalist generation: Jean Echenoz (born in 1947), Michel Houellebecq (born in 1956), Christine Angot (born in 1959) and Marie Redonnet (born in 1948). The first chapter provides an introduction to the intellectual history that foregrounds the book’s argument about narratives of crises (personal crisis, national crisis, environmental crisis, crisis of critical thinking, identity crisis, and so forth) and these authors’ attempts to overcome the crisis of narration after the Nouveau Roman: “The analyses challenge the notion that the dominant discourse in turn-of-the-millenium France is that of a perceived postmodern perpetual crisis variously described in terms of the suspicion of totalizing narratives, relativism, the demise of the ethical, and the subsuming of the cultural into the conditions of production” (5). Chapter 1 outlines the intellectual developments of what will be the conceptual and thematic threads (symbolic and sexual violence, postmodernism, consumer culture, media studies, cultural critique, national identity, feminism and post-feminist discourse) discussed in the four subsequent chapters. These chapters read almost like independent monographs focusing on the various [End Page 372] tactical moves that define the politics of literature as always on the verge of its own mass mediatic and consumerist entrapments. It is in relation to this double-edged coherence that characterizes the social, cultural, and media insights of fin de millénaire fictions that the developments on the scandals surrounding Houellebecq and Angot, as well as developments on the current state of French literary institutions, comes into play within the textual analyses. To make explicit the disruptive, or otherwise conservative, potentials of this literary affaires, Cruickshank maps out the social and symbolic fields where the discourse of resistance and critical interventions are enabled or precluded. What is particularly appealing in this book is the author’s ability to capture the constant oscillation between the critical interventions articulated by literary writings and the participation of writers in current rhetorics of commodification, be it the commodification of sexual violence, literary discourse, or trauma. Taking a step back, it is worth noticing that this concurs with similar concerns pertaining to the commodification of margins and the marketing of the exotic, which have been voiced by postcolonial scholars. Cruickshank succeeds in making visible the tension of contemporary intellectual history and literary history through the lens of the literary text itself, as it reflects on these issues. And the primary text of fiction is there, extensively cited and topically commented, giving rise to subtle accounts on how intertextuality and language games undergird Echenoz’s literary intervention, for instance, in debates about consumerism, media and visual culture, neo-liberalism, and sexual and identity politics.
Exemplifying the wide-ranging perspective of the book on the discourse of crisis, the conclusion brings together contrastive readings around a series of key points, such as the question of closure and the stakes of the distrust toward Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis in Angot and Houellebecq. The implicit rapprochement between fictions of crisis, what has been described as the current crisis of psychoanalysis, and the status of fiction within the discourse of psychoanalysis, is interesting but remains unexploited. From where I stand regarding the methodological choices made here, Fin de Millénaire French Fiction ends on the threshold of what could have been a self-reflexive engagement with the notion of contemporaneity as a literary, critical, and cultural object of inquiry. The generous amount of quotations from primary sources and the relative fragmentation of the competing subthematic lines spanning such diverse and complex critical issues as feminism, postmodernism, late-capitalism...