- Modernist Futures: Innovation and Inheritance in the Contemporary Novel by David James
David James, a Queen Mary, University of London lecturer, is the editor of Legacies of Modernism and a frequent writer for such venues as Modernism/modernity, Journal of Modern Literature, and Textual Practice. In his most recent book, he has an impressive vision for the future and relevancy of modernism. Without disregarding the genre’s forebears, James examines the literary works of contemporary authors for their remaking and reconstruction of this once revolutionary genre. In five aptly titled chapters on Milan Kundera and Philip Roth’s “inherited path,” “Michael Ondaatje’s Cubist imagination,” “J. M. Coetzee’s politics of minimalism,” Ian McEwan as a “reluctant impressionist,” and “Toni Morrison and the ethics of virtuosity” (vii), James explores how various authors honor modernist techniques while elevating the future of this genre style within the context of their own innovative literature.
James brilliantly discusses how these writers maintain modernist commitments yet transcend the structured lines of any genre’s boundaries. Subsequent to placating “new formal, ethical and political objectives,” there are writers who transgress postmodernism; instead, the writers James explores draw inspiration from the inheritance of modernism (1). In conjunction with the modernist lineage and the experiment with form, James reveals an interrelationship “between innovation and inheritance” (2) in their works. Furthermore, the concept that modernism has nothing new to offer unsettles James. He rejects theories from scholars such as Raymond Williams who argues in The Politics of Modernism that modernism is passé (2–3). James implores his audience to dismiss declarations that modernism has been exhausted as a form of literary expression (3). Consequently, when Williams criticizes modernism in “sociocultural rather than in stylistic or compositional terms” (2), James instead envisions the future of modernism in the context of “craft and critique” (3). In subsequent chapters, James reminds the reader that writers such as Ondaatje and Morrison manage to integrate sociopolitical issues with modernistic syntactical techniques and unique brushstrokes of brilliance.
Perhaps the most impactful section of this book is devoted to Morrison. James debunks the traditional mode of thought rendering Morrison as no more than a descendant of modernism. Critics in the past have often asserted that her characterization of humanity and her syntactical eloquence should be attributed to forebears such as [End Page 864] William Faulkner and James Joyce (163). However, James highlights Morrison’s use of symbolism in the classic Song of Solomon to demonstrate that Morrison is an innovator not an imitator. A watermark for the character of Ruth becomes one symbol that stands for twenty (162). Meanwhile, Morrison interweaves descriptive analogies such as a “keeper of the lighthouse and the prisoner” (162) into Ruth’s interaction with the multifaceted, watermark symbol. James discusses how “Morrison repeats and elaborates that image, her paratactic phrases simulating in their construction the very sentiment they disclose—the sentiment that repetition can be reassuring, as the routine of Ruth’s glance to the watermark surely is” (162–63). In other words, Morrison juxtaposes images in artful ways that are simply and uniquely Morrison. Propositions by such critics as Harold Bloom claiming that Morrison is imitative and degenerative are narrow interpretations of her influence on modernism and as “vacuous as they are offensive” (163). James suggests that “To her, these intersections of form and conviction, craft and critique, are constitutive of the ‘best art’, since ‘you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time’” (165). Consequently, an author does not have to choose between form, craft, politics, and aesthetics. Rather intersections exist that are both traditionally and uniquely modern.
Although Modernist Futures offers an exhaustive examination of traditional aspects of modernism and the authors who are invigorating forces within the genre, the least effective section centers on “Coetzee’s politics of minimalism.” For a scholar such as James who composes syntactically perfect sentences, eloquence is never lacking in any segment. Therefore, the lessened interest in this chapter may be appropriately placed not on the author’s ability, but on...