pdf Download PDF

Reviewed by
Robert Duggan. The Grotesque in Contemporary British Fiction. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2013. 276pp.

Positioning itself in opposition to earlier readings of the grotesque that have sought to locate the grotesque’s viewpoint contextually or to tie it to a specific model of aesthetic practice, Duggan’s book sees contemporary British writing—in the work of Angela Carter, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, Will Self, and Toby Litt—as reflecting a wider network of “family resemblances” that “find a parent in the tradition of the grotesque” (1). Thus, unlike past studies of the grotesque by Frances Barasch (1971) or Mary Russo (1995), which attempt to delineate specifically modern or postmodern grotesque aesthetics, Duggan identifies instead a range of creative innovations connected to the grotesque that nevertheless appreciate these writers’ thematic and stylistic connections. Correspondingly, his analysis pursues a genealogical cartography informed by grotesque criticism and experiment, which maps unrecognized discursive and formal ties between past and present.

The introduction offers a helpful rubric for this project, rejecting the familiar reading of the grotesque in terms of authorial biography—“the personal habits and idiosyncrasy of the writer” (3)—in favor of an approach that both recognizes contextual location and attempts to look beyond it to a longer history of grotesque invention. Thus, rather than read these fictions’ grotesque as describing a mimetic “response to current social and historical circumstances” (3) or as “an abstract, ahistorical, loosely descriptive term” (4), the book sees contemporary literature as taking part in a larger European artistic tradition, whose strategies, tropes, and images reflect diverse non-normative creative priorities encapsulated under the grotesque.

Chapter 1 elaborates this further by exploring various prominent critical approaches to the grotesque, including that of Vitruvius, Horace, and John Ruskin, in terms of a “fusion of incompatible elements in visual art” (15), diagnosed by these critics as evidence of debasement, intoxication, or illness on the part of the grotesque artist. This contrasts, Duggan explains, with the perhaps better-known grotesque explored by Mikhail Bakhtin, which rather than focusing attention on classical artistry and “fantastic ornamentation” (15) in relation to a Roman or fifteenth-century Venetian grottesche tradition, invokes the human body itself as the basis for “grotesque realism,” presenting the medieval carnival’s celebration of “the terrestrial, anatomical and biological aspects of life” (20) that reflects a democratizing aesthetic grounded in popular culture. While this latter theorization more recently has fallen subject to ideological critique—accused by Geoffrey Galt Harpham of pandering to what Duggan summarizes as [End Page 171] a “metaphysics of nostalgia” (28)—Duggan nevertheless manages to salvage it from critical dismissal, offering Peter Stallybrass and Allon White’s The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986) as a well-chosen and convincing means of situating Bahktin’s populism in relation to historical processes, in particular the bourgeois regulation of working-class bodies in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theater (28–29). In this way, Duggan’s analysis succeeds in holding onto Bahktin’s radical vision while nevertheless qualifying this in relation to cultural materialist considerations.

The other significant contribution of chapter 1 concerns its insightful overview of critical debate surrounding the problematic relationship between realism and the grotesque in relation to the novel. Thus, as Duggan explains, “What I want to draw on here is the way these comments [regarding grotesque artistry] construct the aesthetic mode of realism as ‘the truth’, while works which participate in the grotesque are outside this area and, because they do not conform to the economy of realism, take their place among ‘insubstantial’ works” (39). As the authority of the novel increases, Duggan argues, so too does this critical prejudice against the grotesque, an attitude reflected even in recent writing on contemporary British fiction. Duggan’s attention to this ongoing bias functions to underpin his critical message, as he celebrates these writers’ grotesque excess, aberrance, and instability in positive terms.

This argument is clearly supported in subsequent chapters through a close textual analysis of contemporary grotesque aesthetics, focused on two or three works for each author, combined with an informed interrogation of past secondary criticism. Thus, for example, Duggan notes in chapter 2 how Carter’s fiction falls prey to accusations of playful inconsequence (56), which, he argues, fail to appreciate her serious intention in works such as The Bloody Chamber (1979), Nights at the Circus (1984), and Wise Children (1991) in engaging with the grotesque as a means of pursuing cultural and political critique. Here, his consideration of both earlier and later works by Carter, alongside a focus on the grotesque’s contribution to her critique of patriarchy and consumer capitalism, aptly captures the author’s ongoing carnivalesque amalgamation of politics and fancy.

Likewise, chapter 3’s evaluation of pornography in Amis’s writing, especially Money (1984) and London Fields (1989), incorporates a Baudrillardian analysis of commodity culture combined with an exploration of Amis’s Menippean satire as a persuasive framework for exploring his fascination with the grotesque body. Here again Duggan emphasizes considerations of excess and stylistic overelaboration familiar to readings of Amis, while also underlining Amis’s reliance on grotesque aesthetics as a means of conveying his transgressive [End Page 172] political and ideological position. Thus, Duggan makes evident the grotesque’s enduring relevance as a form of cultural critique for Amis, especially in relation to consumer capitalism and the commodified body.

Chapter 4 continues this analysis by reaffirming the genealogical divide within the contemporary grotesque, juxtaposing McEwan’s and Amis’s fictions as representing distinct yet overlapping grotesque traditions. Thus, while Amis qualifies as a writer of “hyperbolic prose,” Duggan argues, connected to a baroque tradition concerned with “the body as subject to decay” (121), McEwan, by contrast, epitomizes an alternative Gothic grotesque “characterised by an intense and narrow focus,” anxious to interrogate the very “foundations on which metaphysics, ideology and subjectivity are built” (122). In this way, Duggan suggests, McEwan’s preoccupation with biological and psychological origins should be read as reflecting a Gothic grotesque understanding of the human subject and self. As Duggan puts it, McEwan understands “this regressed human not as a baleful evolutionary throwback” but instead as “a representative of that part of our own being that our adult, rational selves need to acknowledge and incorporate” (143). Through this dialogic reading of McEwan, Duggan contrasts pre and postclassical grotesque models, seeing these as indicative of a complex, multisided engagement with the grotesque body across contemporary fiction.

Likewise, Duggan’s discussions of Banks, Self, and Litt in chapters 5, 6, and 7 offer significant extensions of this genealogical division, positioning Banks alongside McEwan as an example of the Gothic grotesque’s combination of literary economy with corporeal excess, while Self and Litt represent instances of a more excessive and hyperbolic baroque tradition pioneered in the contemporary by Carter and Amis. All three of these later chapters continue to engage thoughtfully with past critical debates, making clear the grotesque’s ongoing importance as a contemporary literary aesthetic. Likewise, Duggan’s careful textual analyses more than justify his concentration on grotesque critical discourse, underlining this tradition’s inescapable value as a means of negotiating transgressive responses to contemporary culture and politics. [End Page 173]

Emily Horton
Brunel University