- A Body of Individuals: The Paradox of Community in Contemporary Fiction
What is the nature of community? How can it both be a single body and encompass a plurality of beings? In A Body of Individuals, Sue-Im Lee examines the way the works of Toni Morrison, Karen Tei Yamashita, Richard Powers, Lydia Davis, Lynne Tillman, and David Markson have treated the inherent complexity of community.
Lee carefully chooses the evidence through which she argues for “the ambivalent communities of contemporary fiction” (21). In the texts she brings under the umbrella of her study, she aims to illuminate tension between various “idealized” and “dissenting” understandings of community. As she lays it out in the introduction, the discourse of idealized community is one of aspiration to benevolent kinship: “Community becomes as natural, as primary, as normal, and as essential as family, kinship, neighborhood, village, or friendship” (6). The model of dissenting community, on the other hand, challenges and critiques this benevolence, emphasizing “the fissures that render the single body community impossible” (14). Dissenting community theory points to the totalitarianism or oppression that can lie beneath the surface of “natural,” “sisterhood,” or “kinship” logics. Again and again, Lee claims that her literary examples demonstrate ambivalence when it comes to these two models: her authors “are pulled by two contrasting answers to the paradox of community” and “express a multivocality in their manifestation of the literary ‘we’” (21). Lee takes us along a spectrum of literary ambivalence, from chapter 1 finding “the strongest endorsement of idealized community” (23) in Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Paradise, to chapter 5 finding in David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress a novel that understands community “in the most expansive manner—as a fact of coexistence” (25). Between this start and finish, Lee unfolds chapters on the romantic universalist model of global community in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange; on the defiant humanism within the nevertheless posthumanist science fiction of Richard Powers; and the goal of communion in the landscapes of uncertainty in Lynne Tillman’s Motion Sickness and Lydia Davis’s short stories.
Some of the book’s most persuasive moments occur when Lee sets aside her agenda as a community theorist. In the final chapter on Wittgenstein’s Mistress, for [End Page 116] example, the argument is laid bare that “[m]ost simply, Kate’s language use wavers between a state of absolute omnipotence and absolute powerlessness” (143). When Lee wraps up the chapter on Lydia Davis and Lynn Tillman, she powerfully recapitulates the questions that cut through the two writers’ fiction: “What did she mean by that? Does he mean it? Why did he do that? Why did I say that? In the ambivalent community of Davis and Tillman, the quest to know becomes a motion in stasis” (140). In such expository passages, Lee proves herself supremely capable of distilling the paradox that defines her line of inquiry.
Other voices sometimes threaten to overburden Lee’s primary sources and her own readings of them. In the discussion of Jazz and Paradise, for example, Lee claims: “A potent appeal of Morrison’s teleology of community lies in its ability to…invite postmodernist theoretical critique of community articulated by Nancy, Young, Laclau, and Lyotard, while ultimately affirming the language and value system of idealized community” (31). Or: “It would be a mistake to characterize the City of Jazz as a direct literary rendition of a Habermasian public sphere” (33). In chapter 4: “Herein lies the difference between Tillman’s and Lacan’s treatment of epistemological transparency” (138). In these and other passages, one senses that Lee is measuring fiction writers against Nancy, Young, Laclau, Lyotard, Habermas, or Lacan, rather than drawing out literary works on their own—and her own—terms, taking the fiction itself as the source of representations that only subsequently complicate, expand, and engage with what theorists have discussed elsewhere.
Is the potent appeal of Jazz that it invokes Nancy and Lyotard? Are we at risk of taking it as Habermasian...