- The Value of the Novel by Peter Boxall
Peter Boxall’s invigorating new book aims to articulate anew the work the novel does in a world marked by the pressure points of virtual reality and environmental calamity. He begins by charting historical transformations in the definition and assessment of cultural value that have determined the novel’s worth. The prevailing attitude toward the humanities in the early twentieth century as the preeminent source of moral value, he demonstrates, gave way to the late twentieth-century insistence, fueled by the proliferation of literary theory, on the “freedom of the critical imagination from ideological prescription” (1). Boxall locates competing forces of valuation in our contemporary moment: the ethical turn in literary studies, the governmental injunction on the humanities to account for themselves in a market-driven world, and the Internet, a forum in which criticism has become a public, devalued activity. This evolving historical account motivates Boxall’s study, which, in its focus on the novel’s enduring centrality, resembles recent wide-ranging works that consider narrative alongside theories of affect, cognitive mind, and ethics. The flexible concept of value, however, allows Boxall to transcend specific theoretical commitments and craft an impassioned manifesto for the ethical, philosophical, and political necessity of the novel.
The book is divided into two sections: “Art” and “Matter.” Part I looks at the concept of voice within the novel and the history of realism, and part II looks at the novel’s engagement with the material world in its representation of bodies in space, in time, and as operated on by law. This organization allows Boxall to range widely and expertly in his methodology and historical focus. Driving the complex argument is his claim that conventional literary historical delineations mask the relatively stable genealogy of the novel, or its distinctive oscillation between existence and non-existence. To combat this critical tendency, Boxall traces continuities among early versions of fiction, realism, modernism, and postmodernism. In examining the novel’s “voice,” for example, Boxall turns to Dickens and Beckett, two writers who represent the height of realism’s popularity and mastery, and the endpoint of its viability in late modernism, respectively. David Copperfield demonstrates the instability and fictionality of the voice or “presence” (33), while Beckett’s trilogy and other prose works, far from fully evacuative, assert the primacy of the voice to subjectivity. Despite these efforts to erode historical boundaries, Boxall is careful to engage with the cultural specificity of the novels he reads, such as Defoe’s construction of modern individualism in the face of capitalism and imperialism, and More’s dissatisfaction with the political corruption of sixteenth-century Europe in Utopia. And yet a major [End Page 384] element of his argument consists in showing that the novel engages, as no other form can, with the specific problems of discourse and matter that shape our world today, namely the information age and the ecological crisis.
Through fascinating readings of formal experiments with temporality in Wells, Proust, and Woolf, Boxall shows the novel’s political and ethical responses to momentous changes in our understanding of space and time, predominantly as they took place at the turn of the twentieth century. Boxall’s reading of Mrs. Dalloway in particular is excellent, as he maps out the various temporal modes in the novel: personal time; public or imperial time, represented by Big Ben and the proponents of “proportion”; and an intense and vital “queer time” (109) that resists the hegemony of the former two categories. DeLillo’s The Body Artist returns Boxall’s discussion of time to our current ecological crisis and alternative novelistic temporalities, suggesting that there is a “movement in world literature…that seeks to break the relationship between narrative and the human” (114). While Boxall’s interpretations of individual novels buttress his larger claims beautifully, sometimes the singularity of the novel form fades from view, as this turn toward the non-human might well be approached through poetry and literary animal studies more generally.
The Value of the Novel is nevertheless a richly...