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In Modernism and Market Fantasy Carey James Mickalites investigates what he calls modernism’s “designs” on capitalist markets and their cultural manifestations, arguing that “modernism reconfigures capitalist mythologies along the fault lines of their internal contradictions in an effort to blast an increasingly reified market society into a new historical consciousness of itself” (2). Examining works by Conrad, Ford, Joyce, Lewis, Woolf, and Rhys, Mickalites generates some convincing readings of the ways in which these authors’ texts engage what he calls “market fantasy,” or the “force of the emotive and irrational that lies at the heart of modernist fictions of the market” (2–3). The book argues that modernist texts emphasize and work through such “fantasy” and in so doing collectively insist on a properly historical vision of economic life that critiques various iterations of early twentieth-century capitalism.
Each of the five chapters takes up a slightly different manifestation of capitalist economics: finance and speculation in Conrad and Ford; economies of labor and wealth in Joyce’s Dubliners; commercial mass media in Lewis’s Time and Western Man and Joyce’s Ulysses; the culture of the mass market in various pieces of Woolf’s fiction; and consumer markets in Rhys’s 1939 novel Good Morning, Midnight. Mickalites’s most compelling and well-executed readings include those of Ford’s ambivalence about financial speculation and the last gasp of feudal economies in The Good Soldier, of Joyce’s narrative manifestation of the Irish capital’s depressed colonial economy in Dubliners, and of what the author calls Jean Rhys’s “melancholic” consumption (172).
The author indeed makes or implies provocative connections across the book’s range of texts and foci. In particular, part I of the book establishes the relative financial imaginaries of Conradian and Fordian impressionism that emerge from the imperial metropole against Joyce’s naturalism of the depressed colonial outpost of Dublin. Though Mickalites doesn’t elaborate, the play between impressionism and naturalism that is established in these consecutive chapters demonstrates how Joyce’s “arrested” narratives figure colonial economic stagnation against metropolitan fantasies of endless accrual (82). And in part II, Mickalites briefly draws a connection between the consumerist fantasies of Ulysses’s Gerty McDowell and those of Rhys’s heroine Sasha Jensen. By pointing out that the latter is devoid of the “fashionable irony” (172) rendered by Joyce, Mickalites [End Page 872] not only exposes what he calls the “limits of modernism’s culture of market fantasy” (170), but also gestures toward a lineage of colonial economic critique from high to late modernist texts and writers.
But while Mickalites’s range suggests conversations among texts that evidence a pervasive modernist concern with the supposedly irrational features of a capitalist market, it is this very scope that makes the book’s overall intervention hard to grasp. Each chapter’s concern with a different manifestation of that market—financial, mass-cultural, consumerist, and spectacular—causes the reader to work to maintain a consistent critical thread because although such market-based constructs are certainly part of a more general capitalist economic paradigm, each has a precise historical dynamic. The author offers a shared irrationality as an underlying structural dynamic, though, which is suggestive of links between modernism’s economic history and today’s neoliberal and financialized economic orthodoxies. Similarly, while Mickalites accomplishes his readings with great dexterity, he draws on a range of theoretical and methodological frames (from Adorno, Marx, and Simmel to Freud and Baudrillard, among others) such that his individually sophisticated readings seem to take precedence over a consistent analytical approach.
For all its diverse attentions and methods, the book’s major thread is that of a literary response to the market—whether actual or conceptual—in itself. A market economy is not of course unique to Britain in the early twentieth century, and the historicization of the individual chapters doesn’t consistently stake out the historical particularity of these writers’ interventions—though in some places, as with the culture of financial speculation surrounding Conrad and Ford, it does. In a way, the convergence...