- Degenerative Realism. Novel and Nation in Twenty-First-Century France by Christy Wampole
Christy Wampole's new book Degenerative Realism presents a timely theorization of a pervasive undercurrent haunting the gradual return to various forms of realism in French literature witnessed since the 1980's. In her wide-ranging study, Wampole gathers together works by Michel Houellebecq, Frédéric Beigbeder, Aurélien Bellanger, and a cast of other contemporary novelists under the mantle of what she names "Degenerative Realism," which does not refer to a coherent literary school or movement, but groups together a set of characteristics and anxious preoccupations shared by the novelists under scrutiny. Chief among these are a return to the maximalist scope of 19thcentury realism and its entanglements with "sociologism, Darwinism, Decadence, and positivism," a marked, if less openly didactic, formal and political kinship with the "roman à thèse" à la Barrès and Maurras, and an obsession with the inevitable and impending decline of Western civilization, "a collective worsening of life in the contemporary moment" (2). Part of this worsening is attributable to the progressive breakdown of boundaries between reality and fiction in a "Post-Truth" era inaugurated by the rise of the internet and the hyper-mediatized terrorist attacks of 9/11. The novels examined in this study tend to frame realism as a privileged genre for staging the impotence of the novel to capture reality in the 21st century, which in Wampole's analysis comes to reflect a double disillusionment with both novel and nation.
Following a thorough conceptual introduction of its basic tenets, Wampole extends her concept of Degenerative Realism into four chapters that develop a series of more involved trends common amongst its practitioners. Chapter one strings together a collection of novels, including works by Houellebecq, Beigbeder, Yann Moix and Charles Robinson, that share a dark preoccupation with demography and population science, theories of degeneration, and the looming risk of some variation of a "great replacement" à la Renaud Camus [End Page 255] due to a perceived "feminization" of the West and rise of Radical Islam after 9/11. Chapter two shifts attention to the rise and fall of the Minitel and the rapid expansion of the internet that led to a destabilized relationship with reality and the truth and the proliferation of false information and mediated sociality. The novels considered in this chapter (most centrally Aurélien Bellanger's La Théorie de l'information , Phillipe Vasset's La Conjuration , and Antoine Bello's novel trilogy Les Falsificateurs , Les Éclaireurs , and Les Producteurs ) feed off of these effects to explore the simultaneous degeneration and potential preservation of humankind, France, and the real.
Chapters three and four theorize what Wampole dubs "Real-Time Realism" through respective examinations of Degenerative Realism's mobilization of journalistic materials and techniques–in part to imbue its content with a form of pressing immediacy–and its resuscitation of the political pamphlet. Both allow the degenerative realist novel to track the "breakdown of the real" in "real time" (122). Chapter three opens with a welcome reading of Jean Raspail's Le Camp des Saints (1973) as a decisive precursor to the degenerative realist novel. Raspail's deeply xenophobic, apocalyptic tale of the Global South's wholesale invasion of the Occident has received considerable attention in recent years, championed by the likes of Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Marine Le Pen, and other far-right pundits. Wampole examines Raspail's use of news matter and statistics culled from real sources to frame Le Camp des Saints as a harsh critique of media and the Leftist press, and as a "reality check" (135) for its likeminded readers. Wampole's reading is compelling, if somewhat brief, given the vast influence of Raspail's novel for the contemporary, conspiratorial far-right in both France and the US. Wampole's reading of Le Camp des Saints is also light on critical examination of the politics of race and masculinity that so clearly drive the novel, dismissing these elements as the "manifestation of the author's own psychosexual complexes...