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Reviewed by:
Judith Ryan. The Novel After Theory. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. vii + 260 pp.

Judith Ryan is concerned to draw our attention to the “type of novel that ‘knows about’ theory” (2), with “theory” here construed as encompassing the poststructuralist thought of maîtres de penser such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari. (As she notes, she does not seek to address other writings associated with this term, such as Frankfurt School, postcolonial, or queer theory). For Ryan’s purposes, we may identify this type of novel in some cases through its explicit references to matters of theory and in others through an author’s demonstrable interest in such matters, but we may also count as relevant writings those whose authors have absorbed theory through “the intellectual climate” (6) even if they personally could not tell what Tel Quel was to save their lives. Ryan’s study encompasses works by a wide range of writers, most of them quite well known. Margaret Atwood, J. M. Coetzee, Don DeLillo, Marguerite Duras, Umberto Eco, Thomas Pynchon, W. G. Sebald, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Helen Darville, Michael Krüger, John Banville, Graham Swift, Marilynne Robinson, Kristeva (as novelist), Camille Laurens, Christa Wolf, Monika Maron, Wolfgang Hilbig, Umberto Eco, Samuel Delany, Christoph Ransmayr, and David Foster Wallace are those [End Page 852] most central to her work, although others, such as David Lodge, also come in for repeated mention. She is especially concerned to draw out “the moral implications of theory” (20) as she pursues her major argument that “some of the most significant and subtle negotiations with theory have taken place in novels” (205).

Following an introduction that explains her purposes while summarizing the current understanding of the term “theory”—and how it came to take on this meaning in the United States, in contrast to the situation in France, Germany, and elsewhere—The Novel After Theory is divided into three sections. Devoted to issues of textuality, the first focuses primarily on Barthes and Derrida, while the second attends to Lacan and Kristeva, representing psychology, and the third to Foucault, Baudrillard, and Deleuze and Guattari, as figures particularly concerned with society. Throughout, Ryan is obviously concerned to treat theory seriously, but without involving herself in any “theory wars,” and respectfully, but without narrowness or obscurity. “Remarkable” is about the most contentious word that she allows into her lexicon, and except for words she cites or labors to elucidate, this book has not the least speck of “theoretical jargon” in it. It seems clearly to have been written, in fact, in such a way as to appeal to a general audience, as opposed to one supposed to be primarily academic and already familiar enough with theory to know of its rise in the 1960s and 1970s and of its oft-proclaimed death over the past three decades.

The wide-ranging, engaging, and thoroughly accessible book that results from this approach will prove to have different highlights, I expect, for different readers. Mine would include, for example, Ryan’s fascinating discussion of the foofaraw around the Australian novelist Darville’s posing as the Ukrainian immigrant author of the novel The Hand that Signed the Paper (1994). Quite striking, too, are her discussions of Sebald and her exposition of Coetzee’s writings—perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Sebald and Coetzee appear to be two of her favorites among the writers addressed here, with the novels of both being described as “remarkable” (150, 155). Ryan is particularly deft, too, in her characterization of Duras’s The Lover (1984), and I was pleased to learn something about writers such as Georg Klein, Erika Fuchs, and the aforementioned Darville, of whom I was unaware.

Of course, there is also a price to be paid for the approach Ryan takes here. The wide-ranging nature of The Novel After Theory means that it consists of a series of brief readings of fiction that describe analogies, in vocabularies, topics, structures, or themes, between the works assigned to this genre and certain works of theory. As Ryan acknowledges, the result is a deliberately limited kind of reading...


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