- This Thing Called the World: The Contemporary Novel as Global Form by Debjani Ganguly
I write this review in November 2016, soon after Donald Trump was elected US president twenty-seven years to the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of This Thing Called the World's most valuable contributions is the attention it accords to "the historically significant threshold of 1989" in shaping our current Manichean political climate (1). Notwithstanding recent scholarly emphasis on the World Trade Center attacks and their aftermath, I agree with Debjani Ganguly's thesis that 1989—a year significant for, but not reducible to, the collapse of communism—marked the most profound shift in geopolitics and literary aesthetics since the revolutionary movements of 1968. However, from my perspective as a researcher of British Muslim writing and given that Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown is one of the key texts discussed in this monograph, it is surprising that Ganguly devotes little space to exploring the Rushdie affair in her nuanced analysis of 1989 as a new "temporal horizon for the emergence of a new kind of novel" (6).
Ganguly, who is Director of the University of Virginia's Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures, argues that post-Cold War world novels are notable for their engagement with modern kinds of unending war and insurgency, the digital environment, and human rights discourse. She launches this ambitious and perceptive line of enquiry by bringing contemporary world novels into dialogue with the late-eighteenth-century protonovel. The eighteenth-century comparative framework is illuminating, but it seldom filters into the individual case studies about contemporary novels. For instance, especially since the Ayatollah Khomeini issued the infamous fatwa against him in 1989, Rushdie has been eager to position himself as heir apparent to Enlightenment philosophes such as Voltaire. This promising research avenue is not pursued in Ganguly's chapter on Rushdie's 2005 novel.
Ganguly's disentangling of the terms "postcolonial," "global," and "world" in the introduction is much needed and persuasive. She hints at the recent emergence of global literature as a category, linked as it is with the ongoing issues of colonialism and globalization. But it is puzzling to see that this well-read study does not interact with work on global fiction by such scholars as Sanjay Krishnan, Revathi Krishnaswamy and John C. Hawley, Diana Brydon, and Richard J. Lane. With her eighteenth-century expertise, Ganguly is more immersed [End Page 177] in longstanding debates about world literature from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Edward Said and Immanuel Wallerstein. Drawing on Romantic sources, she expounds on the lovely, instructive phrase "the melancholic realism of the world novel" (19). She also reflects on the increasingly pervasive sense in academia that there are problems with the term "postcoloniality," particularly in light of transnational brands of terror and war without end.
Ganguly paints a grisly picture of what she terms, with a nod to Achille Mbembe, "deathworlds" around the globe (9), as well as to resistance movements that deflagrate in response. The chapter entitled "Forensic Witnessing," for example, is an elegy for the Sri Lanka killed during its protracted civil war as portrayed in Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost. Strangely, though, the 2003 Iraq War is first encountered via Ian McEwan's Saturday. In this novel, a rather objectionable middle-class man, Henry Perowne, expresses views of the war and Muslim migrants in Britain that are hardly offset by even the echo of a contestatory subaltern voice. Similarly, Martin Amis's "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta" provides readers' first window on 9/11 in this volume. Ganguly praises "Amis's deft strokes" (49) in the short story and absorbs his phrase "the thing which is called the World" (43) into her title. It is a missed opportunity that she does not challenge Amis's preoccupation with the figure of the terrorist, his simplistic view of Atta as a man with a death wish, and the hateful nature of some of his public pronouncements on Muslims and Islam.