restricted access The State of the Novel: Britain and Beyond (review)
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Reviewed by
Dominic Head. The State of the Novel: Britain and Beyond. London: Wiley, 2008. vi + 175 pp.

In Don DeLillo's 1991 novel Mao II, the vocation of the novelist is famously said to be endangered by the rise of terrorism, fiction itself soon to be replaced with acts of terror. Of course, subsequent global developments, in particular the terrorist attacks of 9/11, seem to lend DeLillo's prophecy greater plausibility. And over the ten years following that fateful event the violent cycle of terror and counter-terror continued to be very much with us. What of the novel? Has it been displaced in our culture? Yes, in some ways; but this is a much more difficult question to answer, one permitting multiple explanations and eliciting multiple causes. I approach Dominic Head's illuminating study, The State of the Novel: Britain and Beyond, with something like the spirit of inquiry prompted by DeLillo's provocative analogy. With the passing of another decade of major historical transformations like the beginning of the Thatcher era in 1979 and the end of the Cold War in 1989, a serious revaluation of culture is in order. Viewed from this perspective, Head's book consists of a series of unflinching confrontations with a variety of topics, including terrorism, cosmopolitanism, the post-consensus thesis of the renaissance of the British novel, literary prize culture, and postmodernism. Through twists and turns determined by the issue at hand he offers a remarkable survey: wide-ranging over diverse national and cultural traditions, carefully observed, and balanced in its judgments. The result is indeed an account of the "state," or prevailing contemporary conditions, of the English-language novel under which the novelist labors, though "state" as it appears in the title also refers to statehood, for throughout Head keeps an eye fixed on the political contexts that shape ongoing debates.

Head's repeated method is to see a current controversy from a number of angles, with each angle grounded in his reading of a different novel. In turn, his strongest chapters suggest how each reading may reveal another aspect of a situation at once social and literary. This hardly amounts to a simple task, and at times one detects the strain involved in bringing off the effect. Nevertheless, his critical intervention suggests a fluid alternation within a given problematic, from an overview of the vast spectrum of debate to his particular conviction—by the end of which he stakes out an often original and challenging position. In two chapters devoted to terror, its aftermath, and attendant matters of religious fundamentalism and liberal humanist ideology, he writes with evident authority on a dizzying selection of authors: S. I. Martin, Philip Roth, John Updike, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, DeLillo, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Mohsin [End Page 173] Hamid among contemporaries, and for historical context there are framing comments on Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, and V. S. Naipaul. The range, as listed, might lead the reader to expect a superficial analysis, but the insights offered throughout Head's study remain inseparable from specific engagements with the novels. The "central dilemma," for instance, "that haunts the post-9/11 novel," may be generally understood as that of either the representation of trauma or of the terrorist's consciousness (126). Still, individual variations on the latter theme from novelist to novelist make all the difference. For Updike, in his much-maligned novel Terrorist (which is recuperated here, in part), his "gift for arresting descriptions of diurnal reality" comprises the means, however incomplete, by which he attempts "to make the terrorist mind less alien, without being able to penetrate it" (119). Similarly, for McEwan in Saturday, it is a question of aspiring "to encompass and understand" that mind (126). In this sense the "idealistic humanism" of McEwan's novel marks both its reach and limit (125). Likewise, in a chapter on multiculturalism, Monica Ali's Brick Lane, an acclaimed and controversial novel set in the East London Bangladeshi community, appears to encounter some of the recurring dynamics of cross-cultural identity that frequently characterize the postcolonial novel, but its particular representational stratagems are not at all common and regarded as unique to...


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