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Reviewed by:
  • The Novel After Theory by Judith Ryan
  • C. Namwali Serpell
Judith Ryan.The Novel After Theory. Columbia UP, 2011. 272 pages.

The Novel After Theory, an illuminating, beautifully written book, stages an important shift towards historicizing the relations between fiction writers and those theorists Judith Ryan loosely groups as “the French thinkers who initiated post-structuralism” (2). Ryan’s focus on these theorists—to the exclusion of the Frankfurt school, queer theory, and postcolonial studies—is not arbitrary, but historical: “after all, most of the thinkers knew and interacted with one another, and many of them contributed to the same journal, Tel Quel, founded in 1960” (2). Ryan’s most compelling intellectual contribution is her book’s deft, often fascinating, depiction of the institutional and individual histories that intersect at the crossroads of “poststructuralist thought and the fictions that respond to it” (2). A speculative exploration of a hitherto [End Page 1256] neglected field—Ryan contends that this genre is neither campus fiction nor postmodernism nor literature of ideas, exactly—The Novel After Theory is at its best when it maintains a historical focus, which allows us to view theory with the clarity of hindsight, to see it reflectively rather than reflexively.

Ryan’s writing is refreshingly lucid, especially given its subject matter. If, as she notes, theory has often been accused of being “obscure, turgid, or prolix,” her own style is the exemplary antithesis, apart from a few verbatim repetitions (16). The book is full of gorgeously phrased revelations and close readings: “the death of the author gives rise to the birth of the imposter, we might say” (42); “Where Stendhal had compared the realist novel with ‘a mirror carried along a roadway,’ Camille Laurens introduces the rearview mirror of an automobile” (98); “It is striking, then, that one of the institutions to which Foucault did not devote a separate book is the university” (129); “the ways in which these theorists understand human relations are more than a mere wrinkle in the fabric of our time” (209). To organize thoughts like these, the book divides “theory” into three large categories, each of which serves as an umbrella for two or three chapters. At first, the titles of the chapters are patterned according to important essays in each field: Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” and Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play” as theories of textuality; Jacques Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage” and Julia Kristeva’s “Women’s Time” as psychological theories. But the third section’s chapter titles diverge from this tactic: “Systems of Constraint” (mostly about Michel Foucault), “Simulacra and Simulation” (Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 book pluralizes the second word in the title), and “Lines of Flight” (why not name the chapter after Deleuze and Guattari’s 1983 essay “Rhizome”?).

This slight inconsistency in the book’s organization is not especially bothersome, but it raises questions about Ryan’s principle of selection. While her descriptions of the major features of various theoreticians clarify without oversimplifying, Ryan occasionally leaves out pivotal features of their work: Deleuze and Guattari’s “becoming-animal”; Kristeva’s work on abjection; Derrida’s analysis of the performative in “Signature, Event, Context.” This question of selection ramifies when it comes to the literary fictions she analyzes. The book contains just the right mix of obvious pairings (Don DeLillo’s White Noise with Baudrillard) and counterintuitive ones (J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron with Lacan). Yet the admirable geographic and stylistic range of these fictions is offset by the reuse of the same texts in multiple chapters under different analyses. Without a strict principle of inclusion or exclusion, these many examples imply infinite ones; the repetition of the same examples begs the question. The advantage to the sprawling quality is that it gestures to the various ways these fictions respond to theory; missed opportunities—like applying “becoming-animal” to the chicken meme in Infinite Jest—come to seem like future occasions. In the chapter “Lines of Flight,” Ryan wryly comments on the digressive form of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn: “A scholarly monograph organized in this way would almost certainly meet with rejection” (201). But Deleuze and Guattari...


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