- Contemporary Fictions of Multiculturalism: Diversity and the Millennial London Novel by Michael Perfect
Michael Perfect’s Contemporary Fictions of Multiculturalism begins with an engaging analysis of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Perfect’s careful reading of the event showcases many of the strengths of his study of the millennial London novel. As the ceremony’s huge cast of players traversed the grounds at the newly built Olympic Stadium, Danny Boyle’s spectacle recalled the Isles’ pastoral history in a flurry of round dances and grandstanding oratory, only to strip the reveries away with sudden and emphatic force. Perfect writes, “as smokestacks [rose] dramatically from the ground, … Boyle’s ceremony seems to suggest, London must have seemed like the capital of hell. How, it wondered, did the city go from being the capital of hell, to the capital of a modern, multicultural nation?” (2). Keeping this particular question in mind, Perfect’s introduction delivers an informed and nuanced review of the social and literary legacies of the Windrush Generation. Perfect’s brisk transition from the 2012 London Olympics to the first days of large-scale immigration into the United Kingdom is mediated by the historical coincidence that London last hosted the games in 1948, the year the Empire Windrush first docked in Tilbury, an event that marked the beginning of Britain’s postwar immigration boom.
The book’s opening vignette is aptly chosen. Like Boyle’s ceremony, Perfect’s monograph offers a critical yet broadly affirmative reading of the contemporary moment. We can be fairly sure that a considerable distance separates the “capital of hell” from the capital of this “modern, multicultural nation” (2). Or can we? In Perfect’s reading of the millennial London novel there is always a little room for doubt. Indeed, his argument rarely fixes on a hard and fast political position, preferring, instead, to showcase the diversity of perspectives on millennial London that British writers have offered. Contemporary Fictions of Multiculturalism is fundamentally concerned with the characteristic particularities of each writer’s vision. According to Perfect, schematic readings of writers such as Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy, and Hanif Kureishi have tended to mistakenly conflate their distinctive and conflicting accounts of contemporary London. This tendency is, in part, a product of ascribing undue significance to “authorial ethnicity” (200). This widely practiced mode of appraisal ostensibly leads readers to interpret authors as representatives of minority experience, judging their works’ “authenticity” accordingly (201). Perfect’s account “attempts to resist” this [End Page 187] approach (200). He also argues that the trope of the immigrant as “powerless victim” has bedevilled contemporary London’s literary field (200). Works such as Brian Chikwava’s Harare North have largely failed to find an audience because readers remain stubbornly attached to postcolonial clichés and averse to narratives that complicate or critique the established tropes.
In one of the book’s strongest chapters, Perfect returns to Smith’s millennial blockbuster, White Teeth, arguing that the novel has been misleadingly compared to Rushdie’s superficially similar “big, multigenerational” metropolitan novels (77). In contrast to the complex indeterminacies and contingencies explored in Rushdie’s fiction, White Teeth is “a very calculated attempt to celebrate a very particular brand of multiculturalism; one that it seeks to familiarise” (79). This particular brand of multiculturalism turns out to be “one in which, specifically, a confluence of white Britishness … with Britain’s non-white, postcolonial immigrant communities … affords a vision of a new millennium in which tensions between those groups might begin to be consigned to the past” (95). It is, indeed, hard to imagine Rushdie engaging in such an affirmative form of political forecasting.
As Perfect draws to his conclusion, he notes that the optimistic multiculturalism that had sustained White Teeth’s outlook has grown a little thinner on the ground in recent decades. Doubtful that such novels belong entirely to the past, however, Perfect still finds it “encouraging that, in recent years, a number of novelists have sought to question the degree to which London’s ethnic...