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  • Not a Nation, So Much as a World
  • Robert T. Tally Jr. (bio)
Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century
Caren Irr
Columbia University Press
280 Pages; Print. $30.00

At a memorable moment in Herman Melville’s 1849 novel, Redburn, the protagonist gazes in awe at the remarkable multiplicity of nations represented among the ships of the Liverpool harbor, which leads him to reflect upon the multiracial and multinational character of the United States’ population. Redburn concludes, “We are not a nation, so much as a world.” Redburn is thinking especially of immigration and the cosmopolitan character of his native land, but Melville makes clear in that book and elsewhere that the culture of that place cannot be national, but must be imagined as global, and that American literature could only succeed as a “world” literature.

This scene occurred to me frequently as I read Caren Irr’s excellent new study, Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century, which argues that the predominant themes of literary fiction in the last 15 years have been at once global and political. This is a bold, ambitious project, as Irr attempts to characterize the main currents of twenty-first century fiction by looking at more than 125 total novels, using an innovative generic approach to these texts. Irr demonstrates how such authors as Junot Díaz, Gary Shteyngart, Dave Eggers, Susan Choi, and many others have produced work that radically revises national or regional identities, generating fiction that is both more cosmopolitan than its predecessors in the twentieth century and more likely to serve as social criticism in an era of globalization. (The concept of globalization, expressly named only a few times in this study, is something of an absent cause or, to use a Sartrean-Jamesonian phrase, an “untranscendable horizon” for the geopolitical novel as Irr imagines it.) In looking at such a large corpus, Irr is able to construct a complex, yet convincing argument about the role and function of literary fiction in the United States over the past 15 years. By tracing the development of several distinctive genres in recent US fiction, Irr conjures forth the image of a new form, with “a coherent spatial, social, narrative, and ethico-political orientation that differs significantly from its twentieth-century predecessors.”

Toward the Geopolitical Novel represents a major achievement, and it will undoubtedly become required reading for scholars of twenty-first century American literature, as well as those interested in genre, narrative, and social theory in relation to literary studies.

While acknowledging the rich variety of twenty-first-century fiction, which obviously includes far more work than a single study could possibly address, Irr organizes the corpus for her study by identifying novels that dealt explicitly with international subjects in one way or another. In determining what counts as “US fiction,” she does not limit herself to works by citizens or natives of the United States, although most of the novelists covered are; rather, Irr examines works which endeavor to address a North American audience, works often featuring American characters or having some recognizably American frame of reference. Frequently, the texts Irr discusses serve to undermine, criticize, or call into question aspects of the American national narrative precisely in their engagement with a multinational or global political system. “The new geopolitical fiction revises and ironizes the national tradition by recasting it in a more international context.”

Irr divides the texts under consideration into five distinctive genres, devoting a chapter to each; hence, the “geopolitical novel” of the book’s title will emerge from the analysis of these five different, yet related, genres, which have flourished in the last two decades. Irr names these genres the migrant novel, the Peace Corps thriller, the national allegory, the revolutionary novel, and the expatriate satire. Each has its own characteristics and effects, but all five genres recast major themes of American literature according to a particularly global or international concern. The “toward” in Irr’s title should not be overlooked, for the geopolitical novel is not so much a genre of twenty-first...


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