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  • Extravagant Postcolonialism: Modernism and Modernity in Anglophone Fiction, 1958–1988 by Brian T. May
  • Deborah Lilley
Brian T. May. Extravagant Postcolonialism: Modernism and Modernity in Anglophone Fiction, 1958–1988. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2014. ix + 246 pp.

Brian T. May’s Extravagant Postcolonialism seeks to address the importance of the individual in postcolonial writing, aiming to open up new critical avenues in the field by remedying the lack of attention toward the topic to date and, in the process, uncovers new connections between postcolonialism and modernism. Examining a series of key “Anglocentric Anglophone” (1) novels by Chinua Achebe, J. M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Jean Rhys, and Salman Rushdie, the monograph focuses specifically on the period 1958–88, here termed “high postcolonialism” (4) and bookended by Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Ayatollah Khomeini’s Rushdie Fatwa. May presents a provocative rereading of the work of these writers in this period by identifying a particular strain of “postcolonial individualism” (10) that is realized through the inheritance and adaptation of modernist sensibilities. [End Page 553]

The study begins with a substantial introduction followed by five thematic chapters that each present detailed close readings of the novels under consideration. Working through questions of the individual, the ethical, and the modernist, the chapters build up a composite picture of the “extravagant postcolonialism” that May aims to highlight and explicate. The argument is continued in a final concluding chapter that draws out the humanistic implications of the version of postcolonialism put forward here. This dense construction is illustrative of the scope of the project and the depth at which the interrelations of the postcolonial and the modern are explored.

The opening section, then, offers an “exposition” (3) of the book’s thesis. May rather defensively takes pains to address criticisms of the work’s periodization and text selection, emphasizing the critical specificity of this inquiry and its identification of a particular subset of the “undeniably multiform” field of postcolonialism (5). The argument itself draws on Kwame Anthony Appiah and Edward Said to propose a version of postcolonialism rooted in “human will and agency” (14) that moves “beyond” the prevailing critical focus on the social and cultural “collective” (7). This version is shown to stem from the “eccentricity” with which the novelists in question present their protagonists and their experiences, a characteristic somewhat enigmatically described by the titular “extravagance” (3). By way of this extravagance, May argues, a postcolonial individualism emerges. Effectively turning toward the novels themselves, the chapter works through the ways that this individuality is constructed and understood, establishing productive connections between the personal and the postcolonial that are themselves tied to the modernist trope of epiphany. In doing so, the introduction makes a robust case for the intervention that this study presents. Most intriguing is the section on postcolonial affect, which engages with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s and Homi Bhabha’s work in the area to develop an insightful reading of nostalgia used as a means of opening up questions of justice and ethics in these novels.

The work on the individual and the epiphany continues in the first chapter’s examination of Naipaul’s Area of Darkness and Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The chapter argues that these novels “anticipated” (57) the turn toward postcolonial “commonality” (56) explored by critics including S. P. Mohanty, Sara Suleri, and Bhabha, finding the shared history of commonality embodied in the individualities that they depict. The epiphany is presented as crucial to the development of these characters, allowing May to locate a “memorialised modernity” (74) in the treatment of individuality in these novels that contributes toward the critical “intervening space” they find between the postcolonial legacies of the past and the promises of the future (75). [End Page 554]

Chapter 2 explores the role of the aesthetic in the depiction of postcolonial individuality and its connections to the modernist inheritances that the study identifies. Examining Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, May argues that the aesthetic not only contributes to the construction of the individual in these novels but also extends outward to inform the understanding of the social and cultural contexts they depict (99). This analysis engagingly...


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pp. 553-556
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