- Weary Sons of Conrad: White Fiction against the Grain of Africa’s Dark Heart
The "weary sons" of Brenda Cooper's title are while males writing in the aftermath of European colonialism. What makes them weary (or wary, as Cooper puns) is their awareness of the pitfalls of Africanist discourse and the imperialist legacy, and their struggles to undo or escape from that historical burden—that is, to write self-consciously about Africa. This is then a particular subset of postmodernism, and the texts Cooper works with are, like their Conradian precursor, tense with spatial and temporal complications, by turns satirical, ironic, parodic, and despairing. In working through what is less a tradition than a common problematic, a struggle with and against a repressive archive, Cooper brings a skeptical yet generous eye to bear. She challenges the dual temptations of hasty dismissal and convenient amnesia, making her book an important contribution to the project of Peter Lang's series on "Travel Writing across the Disciplines."
The writers Cooper takes up range from prominent figures like John Irving, Paul Theroux, and T. C. Boyle to lesser-known authors like Alan Hollinghurst and Adam Thorpe; her strategy is to set their fictions against the powerful tropes of Africanist discourse, including treatments of history, exploration, nature, primatology (Tarzan and Jane Goodall) and sexuality, both to make visible the heritage they are contesting and to measure the success of their inventions. Cooper's method is close reading. She pays scrupulous attention to character, setting, and tone, while also showing a keen ear for intertextual echoes and allusions. Since the texts she treats are often massive and convoluted, her focus on detail sometimes bogs the reader down and hides the thread of a larger argument. More seriously, it risks losing the tonal complexity of an extended narrative, as attention to one incident or passage isolates it from ironic juxtaposition or unraveling. Several of Cooper's texts defy summary (that is: their effects depend on a continual tension between manner and matter), and while she works hard to address this difficulty, it occasionally makes for awkward reading.
At its best, Cooper's book sheds welcome light on an important fictional "contact zone," as Mary Louise Pratt calls it. It also inevitably raises questions about how Cooper delimits her topic: why single out white male writers for special treatment? The argument would have greater clarity had Cooper set her authors off against some others: women, for instance (Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible springs to mind, or some of Alice Walker's African fictions). Some consideration of popular or journalistic versions of Africa—even for Conrad, "heart of darkness" was already something of a popular cliché—would have raised questions about the distinctiveness of self-consciously "literary" treatments. Although Cooper regularly refers to the "dangers" and "risks" of certain representations, she rarely spells out the dangers evoked or acknowledges that risk may be a necessary component of imaginative treatment, and [End Page 134] thus well worth running. Nevertheless, this ambitious and intelligent book should inspire further study of a set of provocative contemporary fictions.