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  • Space and Style in Contemporary British Fiction
  • Lucienne Loh (bio)
David James, Contemporary British Fiction and the Artistry of Space: Style, Landscape, Perception. London and New York: Continuum, 2008. vii + 195 pp. $120.00.

To read in one place is to imagine another. In fiction, settings and landscapes frequently offer verisimilitude but also necessarily create anew even the most familiar of geographies and histories. These specificities preoccupied a range of critics invested in "the spatial turn" of the late 1980s, and since then, philosophical and social theorizations of space have remained central to contemporary thought. U.S.-based cultural geographers and sociologists—notably Mike Davis, David Harvey, Fredric Jameson, and Edward Soja—largely heralded and headed this turn to space. Functioning at the confluence of psychology, perception, and place, this interdisciplinary movement not only energized progressive politics in Anglo-American academia, but also maintained Marxist-inflected forms of intellectual resistance against the inimical eddies of late capitalism. Across the Atlantic, European critics from the mid twentieth century onwards such as Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau, Walter Benjamin, and Gaston Bachelard galvanized critical interest in spatiality through various phenomenological strategies for undermining social institutions and structures of power. These critics' collective theorizations about space were crucial in melding the practices [End Page 883] of everyday life with ideas of social justice, commitment, and ethics within contemporary studies.

Mapping many of these concerns onto readers' responses to literary aesthetics remains, however, relatively neglected in literary studies, and particularly within genre studies. Indeed, plot and character development continue to occupy critical attention in narratology. J. Hillis Miller rightly argues in Topographies that "the notion that landscape provides the grounding for novels has hardly given rise to a distinct mode of the criticism of fiction, as has the criticism of character, interpersonal relations, narrators, or narrative sequence."1 And while Andrew Thacker notes that, since the early 1990s, questions of space and geography have become recognized as legitimate and important areas of study in literary and cultural critique, how cultural geography bears upon stylistic analysis of narrative form and how this may, in turn, inform a reevaluation of empirical conditions and the built environment remain marginalized sites of enquiry.2 David James's signal contribution in Contemporary British Fiction and the Artistry of Space: Style, Landscape, Perception is to clear a path with a critical and incisive vocabulary that laudably addresses these lacunae.

Seeking to establish the formal and rhetorical roles of space in redefining our very assumptions about literary interpretation itself, James focuses his analysis on the affective pleasures that Viktor Shklovsky argued underlie the fundamental experience of reading literature. Literature, according to Shklovsky, should aim to estrange and disrupt modes of ordinary linguistic discourse, defamiliarizing the world of everyday perception and recharging the reader's capacity for fresh sensation. James, moreover, pushes the boundaries of formalist literary criticism by exploring the nexus between form and ideology via the relationship between stylizations of space and sensory responses to spatial symbolism. But he also establishes an important theoretical voice within a discourse largely dominated by American and [End Page 884] continental European postmodern critics. Indeed, the book's sensitivity to writers' depictions of the quiddity of contemporary British life within the nation's spaces—whether pastoral landscapes or multicultural metropolitan London—is among several of its achievements. British readers, in particular, will be drawn to commentary about the nuances of textual landscapes whose genius loci they may well find familiar, while non-British readers will appreciate James's thoughtful consideration of the impact on writers of key social and political movements the nation has witnessed—from postwar austerity to the irrevocable political legacy bequeathed by Margaret Thatcher, and from the mass immigration that accompanied imperial decline to Tony Blair's New Labour government.

The book is divided into five chapters, framed by an introduction and a short epilogue. In the introduction, "The Spatial Imaginary of Contemporary British Fiction," James begins his study with the claim that "[E]very novel has to be set somewhere." As the introduction unfolds, James poses several engaging questions and concerns that complicate this seemingly simple assertion: How might a novelist secure a reader's sympathy through setting a scene...


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