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Reviewed by:
  • Seven Modes of Uncertainty by C. Namwali Serpell
  • Naomi Mandel
Serpell, C. Namwali. Seven Modes of Uncertainty. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. 408pp. $49.95 hardcover.

Set in the wake of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a relentlessly disturbing work with, as its author famously put it, “no moral in tow,” C. Namwali Serpell’s ambitious and engaging study articulates a reading practice attuned to the experience of being unsettled or disturbed by a literary text. “Literary uncertainty” is Serpell’s term for this experience: the term combines aesthetics (in its original sense of perception by the senses), affect (which Serpell treats as an in-between site, the interplay between body and mind, subject and object), and ethics, the investigation into how moral principles manifest and operate. Uncertainty enables a unique kind of literary ethics, “reducible neither to moral theme, authorial worldview, nor character action; it inheres rather in the rhythms of formal relation we undergo as we read over time” (28).

How can literary uncertainty be captured, conveyed? Seven Modes of Uncertainty sets forth three narrative structures in which literary uncertainty adheres: mutual exclusion; multiplicity; repetition. These structures are exemplified in nine textual examples from contemporary Anglophone fiction that manifest versions or combinations of uncertainty’s seven modes. Despite the chart on page 303, these terms, structures, modes, and texts are not easy to keep straight. But that is the point. Uncertainty is uneasy, elusive, and perpetually shifting, informed by accretion and rhythm, a dynamic mode rather than a static type.

The first narrative structure, mutual exclusion, is concerned with “an opposition between two explanations or sets of events, one tagged as real or true, the other as illusory or false” (41). This duality manifests in two modes of uncertainty: oscillation (Serpell’s reading of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 attends to imagery of oscilloscopes and projections) and enfolding, a perpetual rereading that folds the original impression back into its revision (the imagery and structure of Ian McEwan’s Atonement). In contrast to these modes that are predicated on movement and depth and assume an active reader whose interpretations are perpetually elicited and thwarted, the third narrative structure, repetition, interrupts, halts, and flattens reality, troubling the boundaries of the reading self. Serpell elicits from Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho a mode of vacuity, and from Tom McCarthy’s Remainder a mode of synchronicity. These “blank, shocking texts” (219) unself or empty the reader; they evacuate her of epistemic certainty and refuse her satisfaction, an experience both unsettling and disturbingly pleasurable.

At the heart of Seven Modes of Uncertainty is the second narrative structure, multiplicity, that provides the frame for examining adjacency in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in which perspectives and stories coexist without hierarchy or resolution, and accounting, a mode that Serpell elicits from three eponymous texts, each titled Seven Types of Ambiguity: William Empson’s work of criticism, Shirley Jackson’s short story, and Elliot Perlman’s novel. Serpell shares with Empson not only the inspiration of the title but a commitment to conflict and a tendency to taxonomize. In each of these texts and in their aggregation, values, meaning, and interpretations multiply and collide, producing the “agonistic, participatory reading experience” (1) that Seven Modes of Uncertainty describes.

The point of this experience is “to change the way we look at ethics, infusing it with time, contradiction, disturbance, darkness” (39). Ethical philosophy, Serpell effectively demonstrates, is limited by its reification of Otherness. Attributing ethics to the subject’s mere encounter with an Other relieves the reader from more productive, [End Page 279] though troubling, unease. To reify the unspeakable, register trauma, or condemn violence is to leave undone the disturbing and unsettling work of parsing these affects. Serpell, in contrast, encourages us to dwell in what uncertain literature affords: not the consolation of certainty, fixity, or stability (too often “ethics” is subsumed to doing, or being, right), but “the positive and the troubling modes—the risks and the threats” (302) that human beings assume when they enter into any relationship, not least with literature.

Despite the harrowing quality of some of the texts discussed, this is a fun book to read. Serpell...


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pp. 279-280
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