- Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century by Caren Irr
Over the last few decades, the term “geopolitical” has gained increased currency as a growing amount of human endeavor has spilt over the borders of the local and the national, operating in a space that is, variously, international, transcultural, and, most broadly, globalized. Inevitably, a great deal of contemporary fiction occupies, and indeed helps to configure, this realm of transgressed borders. For Caren Irr, the twenty-first-century geopolitical novel “presents detailed descriptions of ordinary, dedicated people wrestling with the problems of the new millennium” and, in the process, reveals “some key features of contemporary political experience” (3).
It is noteworthy that this definition does not explicitly cite a key feature of the geopolitical that constitutes geopolitics as a sub-disciplinary field within political science, which has pursued this line of inquiry for a very long time. For example, the research published in the journal Geopolitics, founded in 1998, investigates “the intersection of geography and global politics from various disciplinary and methodological perspectives, and from vantage points embedded in diverse locations.” This “intersection” clearly points to something that exceeds the national in important ways and that involves relations of one sort or another between bordered realms. Many of the novels that Irr explores in Toward the Geopolitical Novel do indeed cross national jurisdictional lines, but some actually do not do so in the way posited, sensibly enough, by political scientists.
As Irr develops in considerable detail in her introduction, definitions matter a good deal here. Part of Columbia University Press’s “Literature Now” Series, Toward the Geopolitical Novel seeks to define its subject as an “emerging” genre and, beyond this, to examine five “genre clusters” within it, along with various types in each: the migrant novel, peace corps fiction, national allegories, the revolution novel, and expatriate fiction (9, 10). The book is, then, a taxonomy of taxonomies operating within a domain [End Page 517] that Irr calls “U.S. fiction.” As construed here, the latter is a new and by no means unproblematic construct centered on the reception of literary works that aims to subvert the conventional designation of “American fiction,” which is based on a production model wherein the producer/author of an “American” literary work is one who was born in the United States or who then has immigrated to it. So, conventionally, certainly, Jonathan Safran Foer and Dave Eggers write American fiction, but so too do Ha Jin and Gary Shteyngart.
For Irr, “U.S. fiction” is a much broader category than we typically envision. It includes all of those Anglophonic works that have been read by American readers, or at least by the (small group of) literary cognoscenti that review for major print and digital media or who adjudicate major American literary prizes. So, through a methodical and painstaking survey, Irr arrives at a “broad sample of international novels addressed to an American audience” (10). Over 125 novels come to constitute her canon of “U.S. fiction,” and which she engages in her discussion of the five noted “genre clusters.” Consequently, inevitably, we have works—admittedly highly regarded ones—that are deemed to be “U.S. fiction” that are neither produced by Americans nor that deal with American subject matter whatever: for example, historical novels like James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love (2005), set in early twentieth-century Siberia; Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age (2007), about Bangladesh’s War of Independence in the early seventies; Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009), set in England in the early Reformation period; and so on. Although based on a reception model, Irr does not fulsomely engage this approach in either her genre theorizing or her critical readings. One wonders if something like Stanley Fish’s old notion of “interpretive communities” might have provided a serviceable theoretical point of departure. One does not always get a sense of how the critical interpretations of Irr, and those of others that she cites...