- Misfit Forms: Paths Not Taken by the British Novelby Lorri G. Nandrea
Reflecting on Peter Brooks's assertion that "all narrative may be in essence obituary," Lorri G. Nandrea remarks that typical obituaries are less like "a fully developed novel [than] a novel's plot summary" before lamenting the frequency with which students prefer online plot summaries to the work of reading: "One tries to persuade students that by leaving out the work—by bypassing the experienceof reading … they have missed everything important. But what, exactly, have they missed?" (27).
This question is at the heart of Misfit Forms: Paths Not Taken by the British Novel, a simultaneously dense and sprawling work that seeks out forms not privileged by literature's slaughterhouse. What Nandrea argues we've missed in the history of the British novel includes "typographical emphasis, sensibility's affective dynamics, cumulative plotting, and passive wonder's pleasurable perception of the particular" (185). Drawing largely on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Nandrea calls for a return to style as a category of critical analysis. According to Nandrea, style provides a kind of critical binocular lens, allowing us to read for the everyday details that would be cut from the plot summary or the obituary while at the same time helping to recognize individual misfit forms as part of a series of "singularities" in their "dynamic repetition" (14).
Nandrea makes a compelling case for the return to style and her focus on the novel, writing that: "literary style is best understood as a performative dimension of textuality … Style can only be apprehended via its differences—hence, in relation to other singularities—and recognized via its returns. Thus the act of recognizing style is a relational endeavor that requires duration: something the novel, by virtue of its length, is especially well-suited to" (29). Misfit Formscharts an ambitious path from typographical variations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and their imbrication with modes of sentimentality, sensibility, and sympathy, to "re-emergences" of sensibility in The Life of Tristram Shandy(1759–67), A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy(1768), and Jane Eyre(1847) and from the contrasting structures of "periodic" (teleological) and "cumulative" (conjunctive or sequential) plots in Robinson Crusoe(1719) and Mary Barton(1848) to the eighteenth-century opposition between "curiosity" (an active desire to know) and "wonder" (a passive attraction to the marvelous), the resonance of which Nandrea traces in Frankenstein(1818) and The Mayor of Casterbridge(1886), before finding a finin Modernism and Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room(1922) and The Waves(1931) (4, 5, 6). Nandrea's strength here is also her weakness—she risks losing her reader in [End Page 347]the particularities of discourses and periods—but, by toggling between unusual textual pairings in each chapter and eschewing strict periodicity (though the book is organized chronologically), she is able to perform readings that trace unusual similarities between unfamiliar constellations of novels.
Of special interest to readers of the Victorian novel will be the theorization of "cumulative plotting" (5). Nandrea rightly asserts that the shadow of teleological plots that retroactively create unity through closure has too often eclipsed the recognition or study of variant forms of plotting. In place of the desire to know that keeps a reader in suspense, Nandrea posits "interest" as the driving force behind cumulative plots which, she claims, associate reading with the pleasure of processrather than that of desire sated (5). Turning her attention to what has often been described as a formally flawed novel, Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, Nandrea argues that we can understand the rift between the novel's first and second halves—the early scenes of working-class life and the later courtship and murder plots—as a conflict not only of plots but also of classes. The bourgeois culture preoccupied with progress takes interest in periodic plots over their cumulative counterparts because for it, as for capitalism, the end should redeem the means. Yet for the working...