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241 Reviews Working Fictions: A Genealogy of the Victorian Novel by Carolyn Lesjak; pp. 270. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. $79.95 cloth; $22.95 paper. Carolyn Lesjak’s Working Fictions is the best academic book I have read this year. Gracefully written and cogently argued, it is a page turner for the reader, like William Morris, interested in how labour functions “as the foundation of all social relations and hence the basis of an emancipatory politics” (143) and for the reader interested in how this function of labour works in theVictorian novel.As I was reading, I thought of Franco Moretti’s comment that “now, more than ever, pleasure and critique should not be divided” (x). While Moretti’s call to unite pleasure and critique is complex—as is Lesjak’s call to unite pleasure and labour—my response to reading Lesjak’s book was very simple: it was a pleasure.Although, of course, after Working Fictions, pleasure is no longer as simple as one might have thought.What happens, Lesjak asks, when the Victorian novel attempts to represent work? What pressure does such an endeavour put on the work of representation itself? And how is work in both of these senses related to pleasure? To be sure, the topic of work is not typically seen as the motor of narrative: it is not perceived to be especially compelling (except in novels, like industrial novels, explicitly devoted to its depiction). Working Fictions seeks to change that, to make work and labour not only pivotal to the novel but also wedded to pleasure in hitherto unacknowledged ways.This is a book written with spirit and conviction and wisdom. Lesjak focuses on the relationship between labour and pleasure in the nineteenth-century novel and its implications for both modernist novelistic developments and current critical practices. While she begins with a nod to Foucault by way of explaining the “genealogy” of her subtitle, this book remains firmly located within a tradition of Marxist, socialist, Frankfurt-school, and leftist critical thinking.This focus gives a seamlessness to the book that produces its own pleasures as well as, inevitably, making the reader wonder about directions not taken. At first glance, Working Fictions is oddly organized.The first section addresses the industrial novel, with a focus on Gaskell’s Mary Barton and Eliot’s Felix Holt, to recover connections between labour and pleasure that have been overlooked or obscured in earlier studies.The second section turns to two novels central to the realist tradition—Dickens’s Great Expectations and Eliot’s Daniel Deronda—to illustrate the ways in which labour goes underground, but remains powerful in its subterranean force, in realism.The third section turns to two utopian writers (William Morris is an obvious choice here, whereas Wilde is more surprising) to offer optimistic and buoyant—indeed utopian—responses to the labour/pleasure impasse. But it is precisely this idiosyncratic approach— combining industrial novels with realist novels with Bildungsromane with utopian victorian review • Volume 34 Number 2 242 novels—that constitutes one of the many strengths of Working Fictions, for it makes perfect sense in terms of Lesjak’s claims for the centrality of the labour/ pleasure nexus, in general,in both nineteenth-century fiction and today. Instead of confining her study to novels that thematize work, for example, Lesjak wants to trace the way that work works, to understand labour as “problematic rather than an object easily seen” (11). Lesjak asks: what happens if we attend to the organization of labour when we readVictorian novels?“What if,” she asks,“we recognize that labor is always hard to see in the novel…and that its visibility (or lack thereof) is an integral part of its composition? What if,” she asks, Rather than reproducing the elision of work and workers from the cultural sphere that the novel encourages…we were to follow labor in all its inscrutability in order to make visible its continued and often vexed presence, its unwillingness, as it were, to go away? (2–3) The answer to these questions is the story that Working Fictions tells. Lesjak is excellent at offering the big picture: the connections and dislocations between labour and pleasure in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 241-243
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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