- Everywhere at Once and Nowhere Specific:The Generic Sites of the Contemporary Global Novel
What would it mean to think of the site specificity of contemporary fiction? To what extent have today's novelists engaged with the movements of site specificity that have flourished in the visual and performing arts in recent decades? What are the sites of contemporary novels that are increasingly produced for a global literary marketplace, and how specific are they? These questions pose a number of difficulties, which I'll consider in the following order. First, as many practitioners and scholars have noted, the term "site specificity" is itself not very specific, referring to a range of artistic practices and a shifting understanding of the term "site."1 Second, these modes of site specificity do not map easily onto literary production. Third, as literature is often devoted to constructing representations of sites, rather than being determined formally by its physical location in space, the relationship between site-specific practice and the representation of real and imaginary sites needs to be considered. I argue that the medium of the novel does not lend itself readily to the [End Page 627] "experiential" mode of site-specific practice and that novels more commonly endeavor to represent sites, with varying levels of specificity and generality—often representing "type sites" that are not specific but emblematic of a kind.
After considering these three complications of thinking site specificity in fiction, I consider David Mitchell's Number9Dream (2001) and Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 (2009-2010; trans. 2011) as paradigmatic examples of the contemporary global novel, by which I mean novels produced and circulated internationally by the large-scale publishing conglomerates that dominate today's global literary marketplace. Number9Dream and 1Q84 demonstrate that the sites represented in the work of some of the most prominent and far-reaching contemporary novelists are not specific but generic. Undoubtedly, many contemporary writers continue to write in realist or regional modes that aim to construct representations of particular places as they "really" are. (Again, representations of place, as I discuss below, are not site-specific in any of the prevalent understandings of the term; a painting of a Western landscape or of a Parisian boulevard is not site-specific art.) But Mitchell and Murakami situate their characters in sites that have become recognizable types and in storylines that are overtly and self-consciously rooted in prior texts and recognizable genres. While cities across the world retain their distinguishing characteristics and vary in the extent of their late capitalist development,2 these novels eschew the representation of locational particularity. Instead, Number9Dream and 1Q84, which are set primarily in Tokyo—a location they depict as a consummate site of globalization—represent sites that are increasingly delocalized, similar to sites in post-industrial cities around the world and saturated with and structured by a global media surround. Mitchell and Murakami create images of the generic sites that have become commonplace in metropolises in nations of the Global North. Using techniques and addressing concerns that are by now hallmarks of literary postmodernism, Mitchell and Murakami take pains to depict the unmooring of subjective experience, the interlayering of reality with fiction, of sense perception with the mediation of prior representations, representing a Tokyo that [End Page 628] is image-laden, and suggesting the irrevocability of an "actual" Tokyo from its many representations. Further, Number9Dream and 1Q84 reinforce their depiction of characters' experience of generic sites by utilizing forms that are shaped by the spread of global media: the genre frameworks of science-fiction, fantasy, and hard-boiled detective novels, and of mafia, disaster, and spy films. Self-consciously deploying popular genres—forms that are recognizable and portable, able to be overlaid onto many settings—and citing, ceaselessly, an extensive range of cultural references, these novels effectively position themselves for circulation in a global flow of cultural goods—a flow Murakami and Mitchell do not so much critique as revel in.
While their simultaneous diagnosis of and participation in this global flow aligns these novels with well-known accounts of postmodernism, this essay aims to demonstrate how their representation of generic, textually-layered, and media-saturated sites works to facilitate...