- Contemporary Fictions of Multiculturalism: Diversity and the Millennial London Novel by Michael Perfect
Michael Perfect’s first book begins by examining the event that has arguably done more than any other in recent history to give England and its inhabitants a sense of national identity: the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012. At once a celebration and a critique of the island’s chronicles from antiquity to the present day, the performance perpetuated a mythic understanding of Britain, even if it did [End Page 364] so tongue-in-cheek. For Perfect, the crucial moment of this staging was the portrayal of the docking of the Empire Windrush in 1948, often thought of as ushering in the era of a multicultural London. To this fabled origin of its diversity, Perfect unequivocally responds, “let us be absolutely clear: London has never been ‘monocultural’” (3). Yet he stresses that the converse of this declaration—that London has always been multicultural—is not true either. While he is careful to acknowledge the limits of the way he defines multiculturalism, he nevertheless suggests as a working definition “a form of communal diversity brought about by migration from former British colonies” (5). Contemporary Fictions of Multiculturalism takes this interpretation of its key term to analyze novels (primarily those published after 2000) that represent the migrant experience in England’s capital city. Its scope favors breadth over depth as it crams seven chapters into a relatively slim volume. The wide reach, however, enables Perfect to show that the approaches to representing multiculturalism are as heterogeneous as the subject itself.
He argues that the novels that have most productively depicted the relations between ethnicities within London have done so by granting visibility and voice to cultural alterity while simultaneously challenging naive beliefs of inclusion. One of the markers of whether the novel succeeds in Perfect’s estimation—and the one to which he continually makes reference—is its public reception, both in terms of its treatment by reviewers and its commercial sales. Yet the degree to which this reasoning is persuasive varies from chapter to chapter. The first two, for example—some of the strongest in the book—contend that critics have mislabeled Hanif Kureishi and Andrea Levy as “ethnic” (10) or “representative” (28) writers, and as a consequence, readings of their novels have focused solely on ethnicity even when it is only tangential. “Down this road,” warns Perfect, “lies essentialism, reductionism and literary ghettoisation” (10). Perfect views Kureishi as more concerned with abandoning instead of representing any stable identity for the migrant individual or for the collective society, and he similarly considers Levy’s novel Small Island (2004) a rejection of any sense of a unified whole among disparate groups of people with its formal enactment of Edward Said’s concept of reading contrapuntally. With multiple characters serving as narrators, the reader is left to pick out any underlying connections between them. Employing one of Said’s terms, though, when any number of characterizations of perspectivism could have been used, makes Perfect’s relocation of Levy from the “black British” canon to the “postcolonial” one seem arbitrary (53).
When Perfect ties in the commercial success of novels into his analysis, his argument becomes less convincing. Each chapter opens [End Page 365] with a standard rundown of the novel’s publishing history, and these routine beginnings quickly start to read like copies of each other, betraying the critical rigor elsewhere in the book. Further, relying on sales numbers as a starting point for his discussion of each novel overlooks the haphazard factors that go into making one novel sell over another, which cannot all be reduced to public taste. Perfect makes this point in his chapter on Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani (2006) where he argues that poor marketing resulted in it slipping past the public with little notice and makes a compelling case for it deserving a reevaluation. Yet this is an exception to his otherwise insufficiently nuanced account of the demands of the literary marketplace for narratives that engage with the vexed...