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  • Utopia and the Contemporary British Novel by Caroline Edwards
  • Mark Schmitt
Caroline Edwards. Utopia and the Contemporary British Novel.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 277 pp. Paperback, ISBN 9781108712392.

The development of the novel as a literary form is closely linked to the representational mode of realism and how it can convey the human experience of time. That the novel distinguishes itself substantially from earlier forms of literature in how it attempts to capture temporality through means of literary realism has been acknowledged ever since Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957). As such, the novel form underwent dramatic changes throughout the periods of modernity and postmodernity, with modernist and postmodernist techniques of representation mirroring shifts in the temporal experience. But how can the contemporary novel—a category itself loaded with implication and definitional problems—of the twenty-first century confront the particular representational challenges of its time? This is the question that Caroline Edwards addresses in her study Utopia and the Contemporary British Novel. Edwards is concerned with the wider repercussions of the post-postmodernist notion of the Fukuyaman thesis of the “end of history” and the profound challenges to this thesis in the face of the post-9/11 unfolding of the twenty-first century. The temporal experience of this century is marked by what Edwards calls “non-contemporaneity,” that is, a “political, and even ontological uncertainty” (9). In the context of contemporary literature, the resulting “temporal disjointedness that marks our experience in the twenty-first century” has “given rise to different expressions of the unevenness of the contemporary, at the level of novelistic structure, prose style, generic sampling and non-mimetic interventions into otherwise realist narratives and juxtaposed timescales” (9). The notion of non-contemporaneity is drawn from Ernst Bloch’s concept of Ungleichzeitigkeit, which Edwards considers to be “productive to thinking about the complexity of [End Page 595] utopian times and the different kinds of pasts and futures that circulate within our own present moment of contemporaneity, which is inescapably non-contemporaneous with itself ” (30). Edwards considers this noncontemporaneity as a prevalent temporal register in contemporary British fiction that speak to the crises of temporality associated with a range of political, social, and economic events and processes that have marked the first decades of the twenty-first century. The seemingly natural unfolding of the “the linear progressive time of neoliberalism” (8), what Mark Fisher has called “capitalist realism,” has increasingly been put into question, not least due to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (158). Similarly, Edwards identifies the 2016 Brexit referendum as symptomatic of a nationalism that must, following Michael Gardiner, always appear to be “out of time” (8). Such crises are thus indicative of anachronistic unevenness and conflicting temporalities. Consequently, a literary fiction that wants to adequately represent these struggles with temporality cannot confine itself to the pitfalls of literary realism, but it would be equally ill-suited by resorting to postmodernist metafiction and irony. Rather, as Edwards contends, the twenty-first-century fictions that she discusses attempt to complicate realist modes by using disruptive and experimental narrative techniques that amount to “non-mimetic experiments with narrative voice and structure” and “delinearised” temporalities (4). With this approach, Edwards argues, these texts interrogate the present as unstable.

The four main chapters of Edwards’s book proceed by first establishing the dominant philosophical and theoretical concepts underlying her hypothesis. Chapter 2 (“Reading Fictions of the Not Yet”) is a theoretical and methodological chapter and offers an in-depth engagement with theories of temporality and narratology. Edwards’s aim here is to advocate for an updating of conventional narratology to account for the multilayered narrative experiments with time since modernism and especially in contemporary fiction. Her approach to theorization and analysis is inspired by Elizabeth Freeman’s Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010) in the decision to focus on close readings of a small number of primary texts and read them as texts or aesthetic artifacts that develop “theories of their own” (29). The chapter offers an in-depth engagement with Bloch’s philosophy of utopianism and his concept of Ungleichzeitigkeit.

Another cornerstone for Edwards’s theory and method is the work of...