John Zilcosky's Uncanny Encounters is a compelling book in many respects and a frustrating one in other respects. While there have been several texts documenting the conceptual genesis of the uncanny—research on the theme has almost become oversaturated—none have quite taken the approach offered by Zilcosky. Indeed, his thesis is quite original. The central idea is that the uncanny is less a confrontation with the alterity of difference and more an encounter with a strange familiarity. The difference is subtle but critical. The subtitle of his book is thus an ambitious if not ambiguous one. To speak in terms of the end of alterity—indeed to speak in terms of forecasting an end more broadly—is a risk that some readers may find overstated. Ultimately, the book's ambitious scope also contributes to its flaws.
Zilcosky's introduction to the theme of his book comes by way of a formative experience of studying maps as a child (3). The historical development of mapping the earth leads, as he suggests in a series of striking observations, toward a different imaginative understanding both of the earth and of European identity more broadly. With the gradual ordering of the earth's terrain, less and less of the world becomes discoverable in its genuine foreignness (if we may use this expression as a placeholder). Zilcosky's Introduction offers an overview of how this mapping of the world serves as a precursor to the psychoanalytical idea of the uncanny. Speaking of an "anxious quest for alterity," Zilcosky cites Stefan Zweig: "the wanderer always searches for the other, the foreign, and does not want to rediscover Europe in India" (12). This book, then, is precisely about unexpected and often anxiety-inducing encounters with similarity where the traveller expects to find, by way of a contrast, "inscrutable strangers" (14). Such encounters often generate a violent reaction toward sameness. Anxiety leads to loathing, insofar as the encounter is framed as a meeting of an already-claimed land.
Divided into four chapters, Zilcosky's book explores the multifaceted ways in which anxiety and violence meet on the threshold of imagination and knowledge through figures such as Robert Musil, Thomas Mann, and Hermann Hesse, accompanied by a conceptual focus on Sigmund Freud and his precursors. I was surprised by the absence of Georges Rodenbach's novel Bruges-la-Morte (1892) given that it probes very precisely the uneven rapport between similarity and difference, each situated on the hinge of the uncanny. For that matter, J. K. Huysmans's reflections, in À rebours (1884), on the benefit of evoking exotic places from the confines of one's home also seem relevant. Zilcosky's book forms part of a canon of works on the uncanny described by Nicholas Royle in his The Uncanny (2003) and Anneleen Masschelein in her The Unconcept (2012). At stake in Zilcosky's work are not only questions about the conceptual place of the uncanny, but also issues surrounding nationalism, identity, the lure of the exotic, and the violence of modernity, all surrounded by the claim that "things are not as strange as they appear" (32). In a sense, then, this book seeks to unmask the uncanny as an affect already encoded with a latent sense of familiarity ostensibly overlooked.
Zilcosky's book begins by chronicling the Luxembourg-born German-language novelist Norbert Jacques's Hot Land: A Journey to Brazil (1911) as an exemplar of discovering the familiar in what is supposed to be an unfamiliar region. In the midst of exotic-sounding towns, "a group of German men" are to be found (32). Zilcosky regards such encounters as emblematic of his reading of the uncanny in that first, strangeness itself is disrupted by familiarity and, second, the encounter provokes rage. Zilcosky's reading of these tales seeks to identify a fear of similarity in relation to a fear of difference. This is a motif that appears time and again in the book; [End Page 419] the details of each interpretation we do not have...