- “Comparative Literary History”
The scope of David James’s new study, Modernist Futures, begins with a poignant question of interest to those scholars invested in both literary history and criticism: “What does it really mean to consider that any given movement may also have a replenished moment, a phase of re-emergence—in another time, for another culture—through which its promise obtains renewed pertinence?” (1). To begin this inquiry, James suggests redefining the terminal point of literary modernism. James does not view the postwar period or the rise of postmodern experimentation as the last boundary of modernism. Instead, James demonstrates how contemporary novelists, through their complex relationship to modernism and literary inheritance, have become the successors of modernism, suggesting that the project of modernism is not yet finished, thereby offering his readers an example of what “long modernism” may look like (418).1 His contribution thus addresses the charge set forth by Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz in “The New Modernist Studies”—that is, to map the “expansive tendency” of modernism as it moves outward in “temporal, spatial, and vertical directions” in creating its canon (737).2 Whereas Mao and Walkowitz’s own survey of this expansion problematically neglects the temporal, the work done by James recuperates this elision; [End Page 691] Modernist Futures clearly articulates how literary historians and scholars in both New Modernist studies and contemporary literature can advance their own critical practices by examining the parallels between modernism and contemporary fiction. The comparative nature of this study suggests a rethinking of literary history as James considers how and why “fiction today partakes of an interaction between innovation and inheritance that is entirely consonant with what modernists themselves were doing more than a century ago, an interaction that enables writers to work with their lineage in the process of attempting new experiments with form” (2). James names these authors as the successors of modernism: Philip Roth, Milan Kundera, Michael Ondaatje, J. M. Coetzee, Ian McEwan, and Toni Morrison.
To justify this selection, James introduces a concept called “the ethics of reading” through which he seeks to “pinpoint writers whose reinvestment in modernism has enabled them to rethink the very role that rhetorical reflexivity might play in narratives that provoke our ethical engagement” (18). How these novelists stylistically and thematically engage with topics of sexual violence, racial injustice, and political oppression becomes one vehicle that James uses to articulate the responsibility that the novel and its readers have to the world at large, and thus unites these chosen authors. Rather than turning toward the postmodern era’s overreliance on irony, parody, or nonlinear page design to create self-reflection, these contemporary novelists “reinvigorate the novel’s capacity to engage with changing socio-political environments” by returning to modern-ist forms of self-interrogation (99). The following claim, made in reference to McEwan, illustrates this ethics of reading: “He not only raises ethical questions diegetically, by pursuing the consequences of characters’ moral errors of judgment, but also on a hermeneutic level, as he invites readers at once to contemplate their own expectations of fiction itself as a moral medium and to speculate about the nature of authorial accountability” (144). Of course, this critical maneuver only enhances what also unites these authors, which is their own critical work on modernism, thus complicating notions of literary heritage. While it may be anathema to suggest that the contemporary novelist can be also classified as modernist, since that very movement established itself through its own rupture from tradition and its revolution of literary forms and style, James fashions a link between the two by demonstrating the complexity of a notion such as inheritance, leaving open the question of whether modernist inheritance is embraced consistently and knowingly by the contemporary novelist. [End Page 692]
In a critical work that investigates innovation, it is refreshing to see James putting into practice such a model. Never is this more transparent than in his chapter “‘The perfect state for a novel:’ Michael Ondaatje’s Cubist Imagination.” By investigating cubism...