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Contents

  1. Bibliographic Information
  2. Celebrate the Fourth of July with These 9 Great American Reads
  3. The Contemporary British Novel - Edinburgh University Press
  4. The Contemporary British Novel Since 1980

Philip Tew. Studies of the 'contemporary' British novel often turn out not to be very contemporary at all. All too often the discussion is dominated by the literature of the immediate post-war years. Phil Tew, in contrast, provides a genuinely fresh treatment of the theme by focusing on the work of authors who have made their reputation within the last two decades. In the process he brings so-called minority writers out of theoretical ghettos and, paying their work full respect, integrates them into a synthesis of literary trends and historical context.

Designed with the student reader in mind, The Contemporary British Novel will become the first point of reference for a new generation of study. Much contemporary ction, then, has been keen to engage with the shifting positions of national identity over the last thirty years and I will return to this issue in Chapter 5, especially in the discussion of the representation of Englishness in Julian Barness novel England, England The complexity of the internal make-up of the United Kingdom in addition to its engagement with a series of other national identities has made the issue of ethnicity extremely complex in contemporary Britain.

As Richard Bradford notes, It would seem that within these islands the permutations upon identity, separateness, conict and division are almost without limit. One of these is Homi Bhabhas concept of hybridity and what he calls the third space. Thereby, the power relationship assumed in typical hierarchies between the colonized and the colonizer are avoided. This can be taken at the level of racial identity, whereby children of mixed-race marriages could be described as hybrid, but more importantly in a cultural sense, whereby the idea of a third space identies a location of culture that rejects the binary oppositional framework in which race and the idea of ethnic origin has often operated.

The third space is a new hybrid, but also contains the sense of the dual heritages that have contributed to its formation. Hall identies two trends in the historical development of racial politics, the rst being when black became an important signier of cultural identity and allowed for a politics of resistance against racism in Britain. This involved challenging the use of black stereotypes in mainstream literature and culture, a process that gained ground from the s onwards.

It also championed the development of what became recognized as Black British art and literature. The second context developed from the rst and recognized that, in practice, there is a range of marginalized positions, a fact that complicates the idea of a unied black subject in opposition to a white subject. In New Ethnicities, Hall writes of the need to recognize that, black is essentially a politically and culturally constructed category, and that the immense diversity and dierentiation of the historical and cultural experience of black subjects [.

In addition, the black subject is itself subject to a variety of dierent positions and particular histories. As Hall notes, it is no longer accurate or useful to talk of monolithic categories of race such as black and white when in practice much of Britains ethnicity is made up of a series of identities that negotiate each of these categories. A number of writers who have immigrated to Britain from former colonies or are the children of such immigrants have been producing novels since the s that have articulated this experience, and have to diering degrees addressed some of the issues raised by Bhabha and Hall.

One signicant theme in contemporary British ction is the representation of youth and the experience of growing up in Britain. Formally, either through the use of rst-person or third-person narratives, the coming of age story allows for the workings of society to be described as if from a fresh perspective, and through the technique of defamiliarization, a cultural critique can be produced of some of the practices of contemporary society encountered for the rst time by the protagonist.

In this book there are several novels that engage with the Bildungsroman form, although in some cases a parody of the nineteenth century model is often produced, for example, in the fantastic adventures experienced by the central character in Angela Carters The Passion of New Eve Within the genre of the Bildungsroman a more specic trend in ction has developed since the s that could be described as subcultural ction. These are novels that set out to explore the inner world of certain youth cultures that have their own codes of practice, fashion and artistic styles and are usually identied by a particular style of music.

This kind of ction can perhaps be traced to one novel produced in the late s, Colin MacInness Absolute Beginners , which set out to describe, through the eyes of its teenage hero, the emerging youth cultures of the later half of the s that included Teds, jazz fans both traditional and modern and the emergence of a group of sharp-dressed teenagers that later came to be known as Mods.

These texts explored the world of alternative subcultural spaces such as illegal raves and gatherings and the use of drugs and other forms of criminality. The writers in this genre that emerged during this period include Irvine Welsh and Nicholas Blincoe. The main characters in the novel, Renton, Sick-Boy and Begbie, represent a kind of subcultural manifestation of Thatchers Britain in that they are imbued with a selsh selfpreservation that is an inverted reection of the Yuppie culture of the period.

This is made evident in Rentons decision to betray the rest of the group at the end of the novel. Within this narrative, Welsh is able to produce a critique of the society that has inuenced contemporary working-class life in Scotland especially for youth from deprived areas of Edinburgh.

The representation of youth subcultures in ction has fed o work done in cultural studies. The British New Left in the s became increasingly interested in the sociological and political factors behind the rise of youth culture, although tended on the whole to produce negative images of youth as followers of an Americanized shiny barbarism, a term coined by Richard Hoggart, one of the members associated with this group. One of the key contexts in which contemporary ction is studied at university is in relation to what has been seen as the explosion of literary and cultural theory from the s onwards.

For most of the early twentieth century and after the war, literary criticism was a mixture of author-centred criticism, which tended to determine the meaning of texts through reference to the authors life, and literary-historical criticism, which tried to place an authors text with respect to the literary period in which they were working. In the mid-twentieth century, this was accompanied by a series of approaches that were gathered under the heading of formalism.

This included Russian formalism, which generally adopted a linguistic approach to literature and was interested in what gave literature its literariness. This loose grouping includes such gures as Mikhail Bakhtin and Viktor Skhlovsky and introduced concepts such as heteroglossia and defamiliarization. Brooks was interested in the way poetry worked by setting up linguistic oppositions and paradoxes, whilst Wimsatt and Beardsley rejected the authors intention as a useful source for trying to determine the meaning of a text, and encouraged an approach that concentrated on the organization of the words on the page and how meaning was produced independently from the author.

Richards and F. Richards encouraged a form of analysis that had. Leavis, on the other hand, wrote signicantly on the English novel. Leavis imbued literary criticism not only with an evaluative critical faculty, but also with a sense of morality. He made bold claims for the novel arguing that in the greatest examples of the form it produced a philosophical and ethical investigation into the human condition, and that criticism of such novels necessitated a corresponding seriousness from the critic.

For the study of contemporary British ction it is a great advantage to know a little of the following schools or loose groupings of literary and critical theory: Marxism, feminism and post-feminism , structuralism, poststructuralism including deconstruction , reader-response criticism, postmodernism, queer theory, postcolonialism, ecology and theories developed from cultural studies. The following chapters will introduce some of the main points related to these theories as and when they are relevant to the particular novels under discussion.

Byatt and Salman Rushdie, have a knowledge of the recent developments in literary and cultural theory and often refer to these ideas in their novels. There are a number of very good introductions and guides to literary theory and in the reading list at the end of this book there is a list of the most useful. Both contemporary and British are problematic categories that need to be addressed when discussing the ction produced over the last thirty years. The break up of the Empire and the multicultural nature of contemporary Britain have provided a rich source of subject matter for ction.

Much of contemporary British ction has been interested in the role of youth and subcultures as distinct forms of identity. Questions of class, gender, ethnicity and age often interrelate in contemporary British ction. See, for example, James Acheson and Sarah C. Iain Sinclair is a British writer who would certainly be part of any emerging canon of contemporary British literature, however, perhaps because of the perceived diculty of his ction, he does not appear on many undergraduate courses.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, ed. Parshley London: Jonathan Cape, [] Robert Hurley London: Penguin, [] Salman Rushdie, Shame London: Picador, [] , p. Bradford, The Novel Now, p. Homi K. Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, p. Bakhtin, ed. See, for example, F. Some of these writers see themselves as continuers of tradition, others as radical innovators, and some as a mixture of both.

The formal characteristics of the British novel in the contemporary period have much to do with the debates around literary form that were established in the s and s, and which were themselves engaging with the debates of the s and s. The British literary environment in the s had been largely inuenced by what was perceived as a reaction to pre-war modernism. Snow, David Storey and John Wain, were identied as representing a retrieval of an English realist tradition that had been diverted by modernist experimentation.

This is a reductive view of the complexity of these writers, however, and many others continued to experiment with narrative form such as Samuel Beckett, Christine Brooke-Rose, William Golding, B. Johnson, Muriel Spark and Doris Lessing. Postmodernism is a tricky concept, but many of the writers covered in this book have at some time or another used narrative and stylistic techniques associated with this mode. As we shall see, two of the novels discussed in this chapter, Martin Amiss London Fields and Alasdair Grays Poor Things , use a variety of techniques that can be identied as postmodern.

Before looking in detail at these novels, then, it is worth taking some time investigating the term further. Postmodernism loves paradoxes, and the term itself is something of a paradox. If the term modern refers to current or of the present, then how can a form of contemporary writing be post present unless it is referring to the future? This paradox relates to the history of the term itself and how its sux and prex have developed from dierent sources.

Bibliographic Information

The root of the word is clearly modern, and as we have suggested relates to the now and carries the connotations of the current and being up-to-date. It thus stands in opposition to the sense of the traditional, the established and in some senses the ordinary and the out of fashion. The kind of experimental writing many British authors were practicing in the s and s clearly saw itself as new and more attuned with contemporary concerns and ideas. However, in literature modernism as a term had already found its denition as relating to the kind of writing that emerged amongst an inuential range of writers in the early part of the twentieth century such as Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Manseld, Dorothy Richardson and to some extent Henry James, D.

Lawrence and E. The post of postmodernism, in literary terms, therefore, served to establish a link with this experimental attitude towards writing, whilst at the same time signalling that the experiment itself had shifted due to the changed historical situation in which writers of the late twentieth century found themselves. Although modernism related to aesthetic and cultural practices roughly from the last decade of the nineteenth century to the early s, modernity has a very dierent historical etymology. Modernity in Western denitions of the term usually refers to that period after the middle ages in Europe and taking hold in Britain from the mid-fteenth century.

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The high point of modernity is often associated with the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and can be seen as establishing modernity in a range of social, political and philosophical contexts. JeanFranois Lyotard has been an important theorist in this context of postmodernism. Lyotard suggests that modernity relates to any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse [that makes] an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.

This scepticism towards grand narratives has provided a fruitful area for novelists who are keen to explore the nature of ctional narratives generally. The postmodern, then, operates at at least two distinct and interconnected levels in historical terms. It signals a style of writing that supersedes, or at least marks itself as dierent from the modernist literature of the early twentieth century whilst at the same time employing a philosophical outlook that rejects many of the tenets of modernity as established during the Enlightenment.

Philosophers that have been inuential to postmodern thinking such as Lyotard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari all tend to position their respective ideas as in some sense alternative to or critical of the enlightenment thinking of modernity. The post is complex and can relate to dierent approaches for dierent practitioners of postmodern technique. The post can be understood simply as a periodizing term as we have been using it so far. Fredric Jameson, for example, sees postmodernism as a phase in cultural history associated with what he calls late capitalism.

Or it can refer to a term of dierentiation from some of the tenets of modernism. For example, postmodernism tends to reject modernisms suspicions of popular culture and mass art and often reworks it through a self-reexive celebration of the everyday and the kitsch as can be seen in the Pop Art works of Andy Warhol and Peter Blake. One caveat to add to this brief account of postmodernism, however, is that there are many dierent versions of the postmodern, and each writer studied in this book has their own understanding of how their work relates to, engages with, or rejects its positions.

In keeping with its embrace of multiplicity it is more accurate to talk in terms of postmodernisms rather than a clearly dened theoretical discourse. It is important to note therefore that the term postmodernism does not relate to a xed set of characteristics or criteria, but is a rather uid term that takes on dierent aspects when used by dierent critics and dierent social commentators.

An area of critical thought that has been inuential to the development of postmodern techniques in ction is poststructuralism. This tends to argue that language, far from being a transparent tool that allows people to describe the world in an accurate way, is in fact more like a gauze or lter through which the world is textually reconstructed. This emphasis on the constructedness of language has challenged the assumption in much realist ction that the way in which an author used language was as an aid to expressing emotions faithfully or describing aspects of the real world accurately.

Poststructuralism, on the contrary, argues that the attempt to record realistic experience through the medium of language is fraught with problems and that when someone attempts to write about some aspect of the world, they are not simply describing what is already there, but constructing it anew, and creating it in a textual form. The traditional understanding of formal realism is based on its ability to represent some aspect of the world accurately in a narrative form. Ian Watt, for example, describes formal realism with a series of characteristics including the use of identiable locations and periods of history, characters that are representative of people you might meet in real life, a plot structure based on cause and eect, and an assumption that language is referential and denotational.

Roland Barthes, for example, sees realism, not as a reection of reality, but as a textual convention that employs a series of narrative codes that attempt to construct the idea of vraisemblable, or trueseemingness. According to Barthes, what we understand as realism is thus a series of narrative techniques that produce the lie that what we are reading relates directly to reality.

The Novel Now Contemporary British Fiction

Realist ction, then, is really just a structural arrangement of language and: Claims concerning the realism of a text are therefore to be discounted [. As she explains: Realism is plausible not because it reects the world, but because it is constructed out of what is discursively familiar. Much postmodernist ction is interested in interrogating this claim of realist ction and many of the narrative techniques associated with postmodernism function to pursue this aim.

These techniques include metaction; the disruption of the linear ow of narratives and the relationship between cause and eect; challenging the authority of the author; the use of events and characters drawn from fantasy; selfreexively drawing attention to the language that is being used to construct the ction; the use of parody and pastiche, and more generally a scepticism towards xed ideologies and philosophies. Zadie Smiths White Teeth , on the other hand, although it includes some postmodern techniques, tends, on the whole, to use a realist mode.

London Fields is, in many ways, a novel about writing novels and about playing around with ctions relationship to reality. It is also about the way in which ction, in its broadest sense, aects the formation of identity: how people create narratives in order to understand their place in the world. In doing so, it seeks to undermine some of the grand narratives by which we have come to understand and interpret the late-twentieth and early twenty-rst-century world.

The playful approach to ction is introduced to us on the rst page of the novel, which opens with an unknown voice, later revealed to be a novelist called Samson Young, who is commenting upon the real life situation in which he nds himself providing the ideal material for a novel: This is a true story but I cant believe it is happening.

Its a murder story, too. I cant believe my luck. And a love story I think , of all strange things, so late in the century, so late in the goddamned day. This is the story of a murder. It hasnt happened yet. But it will. It had better. I know the murderer, I know the murderee. I know the time, I know the place. I know the motive her motive and I know the means. I know who will be the foil, the fool, the poor foal, also utterly destroyed.

And I couldnt stop them, I dont think, even if I wanted to. The girl will die. Its what shes always wanted. You cant stop people, once they start creating. What a gift. This page is briey stained by my tears of gratitude. Novelists dont usually have it so good, do they, when. This paradox is taken further in the suggestion that real life is being represented as part of an established literary genre: the murder story or love story. There is also a reference to the idea that real life might be following a pre-arranged plot It hasnt happened yet but it will , and to the imposing of character types the murderer, the murderee, the foil on individual people.

Amis is also keen to explore the power relationships suggested in this combination of characters. This is extended by the fact that the characters are outside the control of the author: you cant stop people, once they start creating. The passage ends by alluding to the moral responsibility the author has to the people he is to exploit as characters in that it will eventually be a product that will earn the author money as a saleable commodity. This suggests that the author will only have a dramatic interest in the people he is going to become close to, rather like a journalists relationship to the people he might use to produce a news story.

The metactional context of the opening is continued in the structure of the novel. It is organized in alternating sections; the chapters, with headings are supposed to represent the novel that Samson Young will eventually create. Interspersed between them are the reections he has on his encounters with each of the three main characters: Keith Talent, Nicola Six and Guy Clinch. This format maintains a fairly rigid structure for the rst twelve of the twenty-four chapters as they are arranged in blocks of three each one being concerned primarily with Keith, Nicola and Guy respectively.

From chapter thirteen onwards, however, the interaction between these three characters becomes more convoluted, and the. This formal device is also suggestive of one of the thematic concerns of the novel: that the late-twentieth-century world is beginning to spiral out of control, and where the structuring grand narratives of religion and ethics are beginning to unravel. This suggestion of a world on the brink is set against the Cold War context.

Published in , London Fields marks Amiss continuing interest in a future in which nuclear weapons have the potential to end humanity and the world on which it survives. As part of the novels metaction, London Fields provides us with a series of narrative levels that contribute to the questioning of who has narrative authority in the text.

Alongside Samson Young, there is the mysterious gure of Mark Asprey, another novelist in whose at Sam is living during the course of the novel and who represents a more successful alter ego. The letter at the end of the novel addressed to Asprey shows that Sam has died by the time the novel ends and that he has bequeathed the novel to him. It is never clear, therefore, how much of what we are reading is an account of the events that is faithful to Sams experiences, or whether Asprey has added his own alterations.

Power over the narrative is, then, removed at least one level from the narrator. It is also signicant that Mark Aspreys initials are the same as Martin Amis. This produces another narrative level to the novel. The Note that precedes page one of the novel is signed by an M.

However, this is hardly a conventional novel and the reader is persuaded to ask whether these are perhaps Mark Aspreys initials. Nicola and Mark Asprey? This would also mean that the ction does not start on page one, as conventionally assumed, but begins as soon as we open the front cover. This is a technique also used in Alasdair. In eect, the ctional world is extending beyond the bounds in which it is usually contained and this works at a thematic as well as formal level. Amis seems to be persuading us to think about where ction begins and, consequently, where it ends.

This questioning of the ontological status of ctional worlds extends to the characters in the text. The novel presents a series of stereotypes: Keith Talent, a white, working-class Londoner; Guy, an English upper-middle-class gentleman; and Nicola Six, who appears as if she has stepped o the pages of a hard-boiled detective novel.

It becomes obvious fairly quickly that these characters are so overplayed that they are parodies of the stereotypes. To use a phrase by the French critical theorist Jean Baudrillard, they appear as examples of the hyperreal: they are characters based in recognized interpretations of the world but exaggerated to such an extent as to make them appear strange. However, the reader is also implicated in this misreading, an eect produced by the desire to believe the positions taken by a rstperson narrator.

This ambivalent form of presenting character draws the reader in, but the unfolding of events signals the dangers of too easily accepting stereotypes. This can be seen, for example, in the provocative characterization of Keith Talent. Keith is of limited intelligence and his cultural pursuits revolve around darts, football, pornography and TV. He is a violent petty criminal who preys on the weak and vulnerable, mainly because he has failed to be ruthless enough to get into serious violent crime.

He is a racist and he abuses women. This is a provocative representation of working-class masculinity and leaves Amis open to the charge of negative stereotyping. As Philip Tew has argued: One ought to wonder whether such parodies of the working-class or proletarian male [. The text is keen to blur the distinction between reality and ction, but is, by implication, signalling the dangers involved in applying cultural stereotypes to the real world.

Keith, like Guy and, indeed, Sam , is an individual who is unaware of the cultural and ideological forces acting upon him. He is an example of the kind of individual that is produced by Western capitalism, an individual who the post-Marxist critic Louis Althusser would see as subject to the eects of what he calls Ideological State Apparatuses. For Althusser, ideology works to mask their subject position to themselves. This can be seen in Keiths understanding of class and his position as a working-class male as a factor in the creation of his identity: Keith acted in the name of masculinity.

He acted also, of course, in the name of class. Yes, its still here [. It would surprise Keith a lot if you told him it was class that poisoned his every waking moment. This is an exact model of the way in which Althusser suggests class operates in society. Keith perceives himself to be acting freely in his relationships with Nicola and Guy, but in fact the unperceived eects of ideology condition him.

This is emphasized in Keiths consumption of TV, an example of one of the Ideological State Apparatuses that control him: He watched a very great deal of TV, always had done, years and years of it, aeons of TV. Boy, did Keith burn that tube. TV, he thought, or Modern reality or The world.

The Contemporary British Novel - Edinburgh University Press

It was the world of TV that told him what the world was. How does all the TV time work on a modern person, a person like Keith? TV] came at Keith like it came at everybody else; he had nothing whatever to keep it out. He couldnt grade or lter it. So he thought TV was real. This corresponds to Althussers understanding of the way in which culture works to enforce the dominant ideologies of a society, and this, signicantly, aects the way in which he relates to other people: In the days after their rst meeting, the image of Nicola Six began to work on Keiths mind.

It worked like television p. Note here the conation of real and ctional for Keith: it is the image of Nicola that works like television on him: that is, works in a way that convinces him of the reality of the constructed ction Nicola has tailored for Keith. However, the Althusserian model only helps so far as a way of dealing with the way in which identity is constructed in London Fields.


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The identication of Keith as duped by class and TV only works as long as there is some sense of the actual conditions of Keiths life behind his own false perception of it. This is what Althusser would call science as opposed to ideology: the study of the real conditions of existence behind the false consciousness. In the passages quoted above, this works because, through Sam Youngs narrative, we are able to see the ironic distance between Keiths own perception and the truth of the situation.

The basis of this ironic distance, however, becomes increasingly unstable as the novel proceeds, and especially as it is revealed that Sam, himself, has been living under a false understanding of Nicola: that she has in fact been manipulating him and, by extension, the reader in a similar way to her control of Keith and Guy. Sam gradually becomes aware of his position within the novel, not as the impartial recorder of the events being played out in front of him, as suggested at the beginning of the novel, but as intricately bound up in the plot. As he nally recognizes, rather than Nicola.

Her story worked. And mine didnt [. Not three p. Here, Sam realizes he is the fourth point on the cross alongside Nicola, Keith and Guy and, therefore, is not above the plot but part of it. In one sense this is another parodic reference to the hard-boiled detective novel in which the detective-narrator increasingly becomes bound up in the criminal world he is investigating.

However, this situation raises deeper ontological and ethical issues. If Sam has not recognized his place within the narrative then it forces questions about how far his judgement is to be trusted generally. Up until this moment, the reader has been led to trust in Sams interpretation of the events and the world in which they have taken place, but his epiphany serves to show how both he, and by implication the reader, have in fact been in a position of false consciousness with respect to what has gone before.

This is a postmodern move that undermines the reliability of narratives that one has previously been led to believe. A similar situation is established in the gure of Nicola Six although Amis develops a more complex characterization than with Keith or Guy. Nicola essentially performs a series of roles adapted to reect the fantasy image each of the male characters project on to her, and she ensnares both of them because of her ability to adapt her performance to the recognized type that each desires.

Because of Keiths love of pornography, Nicola produces a porn movie for him with herself as the star. This form of mediated sex also reects Keiths love of the debased and his inability to engage in meaningful human intimacy. Guy is drawn in by his own fantasy of Nicolas innocence: He had long guessed it, he now felt, the pinkness and purity of Nicola Six [. Guy believes Nicola because he transforms her character into a stereotype and thereby convinces himself of her plausibility.

This is because the character she performs is one that is recognizable culturally and, therefore, Guy accepts it uncritically. Nicola, then, uses two of the conventional female stereotypes of patriarchy the whore and the. As suggested earlier, it appears initially that Samson remains outside of Nicolas entrapment but in fact she dupes him as convincingly as Keith and Guy. For Samson, she is the embodiment of the femme fatale, a gure that is no less articial than the ones she performs for Keith and Guy. In reply to Samsons challenge But youre not in a story, she replies Its always felt like a story p.

Nicola fools Sam by playing a role with which he is familiar and, therefore, more easily taken in. At one point she rejects the role Samson has imposed on her, replacing it with a far more unsettling type: Im not a Femme Fatale. Listen, mister: Femmes Fatales are ten a penny compared to what I am [. Nicola presents herself as a vulnerable female that seems to invite violence against her. This is, of course, another stereotype a way that culture has designated one of the traditional ways of constructing femininity, especially in the type of detective novel that London Fields parodies.

As suggested earlier, because of the eects of rst-person narration to empathize with the voice telling us the story, then the reader is also implicated in this reading of Nicola. Nicolas representation has been the subject of much controversy. When the book was published it came under criticism for its apparent sexism, with the novels portrayal of its main female character as evidence of Amiss misogyny and reproduction of stereotypical images of women. However, this is part of Amiss method of characterization in the novel.

The issue turns on how far the book supports these constructions or is critical of the way in which culture and society reproduces them, and this in turn relates to the implications of Amiss use of metaction. It is important to remember that Amis has taken great pains to establish the ctional context within which all the characters are produced and consequently, the way in which reality is aected by articial narratives of identity.

To suggest that the characterization of Nicola represents a misogynist view of women is, therefore, obvious. What is more complicated is the attitude the reader is supposed to have to. The slippery nature of postmodern ction means that the charges of sexism are as valid as the argument that Amis is foregrounding those stereotypes in order to satirize them, as he does with Keith and Guy with respect to class.

In one sense, however, the novel questions the morally ambiguous nature of postmodern representation. Nicola Six is presented as a character that is made up of a series of masks with nothing behind them. Stuart Hall, for one, has identied the postmodern subject as having no xed, essential or permanent identity, and Nicola is a symbol of this kind of identity. As Susan Brook puts it, Nicola is the form of the postmodern text, deconstructing the distinction between the real and the ctional to produce the hyperreal.

She adheres to certain images of femininity, but there is no human identity behind these masks. She is a kind of black hole a motif to which the text keeps returning. As the designated murderee, her only function is to die and yet she is the enigma round which the plot is organized. This represents a paradox in terms of power: the most powerful gure in the novel is also the most obvious victim.

London Fields, then, is concerned with engaging in a kind of postmodern ethics: a form of critique without necessarily having a xed moral stance against which to launch that critique.

The Contemporary British Novel Since 1980

In a lmed interview with Ian McEwan, Amis suggests that when an author creates a character, there is an ethical responsibility to the humanity of that ctional entity. In London Fields, this is related to the enjoyment the reader gets by seeing characters in desperate situations.

As noted, however, Amis reverses the power relationship by having certain characters rebel against the controlling narrator. More broadly, then, Amiss novel persuades us to consider the responsibility people have to those over whom they have power. What makes it a dicult text is that it uses postmodern techniques to reect this postmodern ethical dilemma, whereby the suspicion. As with Amiss London Fields, Poor Things opens with a deliberate confusion regarding where the ction begins. To begin with, the title page is unreliable in that it presents Poor Things as an autobiographical work produced by one Archibald McCandless M.

In the paperback edition this is followed by a page of quotations from ctional reviews such as the one from the Skiberreen Eagle. The following page continues this playful blurring of fact and ction by providing a fake biography of Archibald McCandless, and a real, if unusual one of Alisdair Gray, who is referred to as the editor, rather than the author of the book, and is described as a fat, balding, asthmatic, married pedestrian who lives by writing and designing things.

This may be true, but it comically disrupts the conventional way of presenting the author to the reading public. Before the main narrative even begins then, Gray introduces us to a textual world in which fact and ction are intertwined, where the reliability of narratives is constantly under question and where it is up to the reader to ascertain where the truth lies.

Style, Landscape, Perception

This indeterminacy in the veracity of stories is worked into the structure of the novel, where a series of narrative frames are presented in which the accounts of the lives of the main characters, Godwin Baxter, Bella Baxter and Archie McCandless often contradict each other.

The main narrative is the account in the Episodes From the Early Life of Archie McCandless, which describes the history of Bella Baxter as a fantastic scientic and biological experiment undertaken by Godwin Baxter. According to McCandless, Bella has been articially put together using her resuscitated dead body with the brain of the baby she was carrying implanted in her skull. In a characteristically playful way, the Introduction written by Alasdair Gray supports Archies version of the events while presenting an alternative view by one Michael.

Michael would prefer it as an introduction, but if read before the main text it will prejudice readers against that.


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  5. If read afterward we easily see it is the letter of a disturbed woman who wants to hide the truth about her start in life. Furthermore, no book needs two introductions and I am writing this one. Yet in undermining the reliability of the voice that normally carries the greatest authority in a book the author Gray alerts us of the slipperiness of all claims to truth. In fact, Donnellys description of McCandlesss book as a blackly humorous ction into which some real experiences and historical facts have been woven would act as an accurate description of Grays novel overall.

    The novels concerns with textual complexity is shown in its use of multiple kinds of writing letters, journal entries, poetry, historical and critical notes, an introduction each of which add layers of meaning. In addition, Grays anatomical drawings which allude to another Gray, Grays Anatomy 24 contribute to this web of meaning. One example is the passage where Archie challenges Godwin on his motivations for creating Bella: I will preserve her honour to the last drop of blood in my veins as sure as there is a God in Heaven p.

    Archie displays a romantic sensibility, fortied, as he is at this point, by the port that Godwin has been feeding him. This passage is accompanied by a diagram of the heart, which combines the universal signier of love, but also, in showing it as dissected scientic drawing undercuts these romantic associations and places the organ in a coldly anatomical setting. This is paralleled in the text when Archie assesses his own reactions after the event: It. Another example is the diagram of the dissected and inverted penis that forms the introduction to Douglas Wedderburns letter.

    This is again ironic because the letter goes on to detail the way in which this predatory male is ultimately emasculated by Bellas excessive sexual appetite. Grays use of multiple textual forms and his disruption of the conventional role of the author is reminiscent of Roland Barthess essay Death of the Author Barthes argues that our attitudes to authors have changed over the last three hundred years or so and that texts that pre-date modernity tend to see the author of a text, not as its sole creator, but more of a mediator of ideas that already exist in cultural circulation.

    Rather than a monologic voice, a text provides us with: a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture. This produces a radical notion of a text as a multi-dimensional space made up of quotations from and allusions to other writings and cultural discourses.

    Poor Things dramatizes this idea through its use of allusions to a series of intertexts. The most obvious is Frankenstein , another text that includes the creation of a human being by an experimental scientist and in which the creature eventually escapes the restraints placed on it by its creator. Just as Frankenstein tells of the consequences of man trying to override the natural role of women as the producers of life, Poor Things develops a feminist reading of Bellas empowerment and evasion of patriarchal power, and it is relevant in this context that Mary Shelleys mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was an early feminist writer.

    There are a series of other textual allusions that the novel. As she says: What morbid Victorian fantasy has he not lched from? The fantastic gure of Bella Baxter is part of the novels charm as a gothic tale, but it also allows Gray to engage in a political commentary on both Victorian and contemporary society. In the gure of Bella, Gray, through Godwin, provides us with a character who has an adult body, with all its attendant adult characteristics, but with the tabula rasa of the childs open and enquiring mind.

    Much of the novel is concerned with Bellas acculturation, her becoming aware of the politics and relationships between people in her society, and which allows Gray to defamiliarize the ideological relationships between people in Victorian capitalist society. Bella travels around the world reecting on the injustices and absurdities of the dominant capitalist-imperialist system she encounters, as well as the organization of human relationships into patriarchal units.

    Bellas education represents, therefore, a move from a position of ideological innocence to one of knowing experience and the inevitable sadness that experience brings as she discovers the unfairness, inequalities and injustices of capitalist society. One fruitful way to approach Grays novel is by considering the way in which it provides us with a series of ideological systems, which are communicated through dierent characters.

    This ts in nicely with theories on the socio-political function of ction produced by the early twentieth-century Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin. A novel thereby is able to manipulate, through the expression of characters and narrators, what he calls the heteroglossic nature of the language of society at any particular moment in time. It rejects the idea of a nations language as a single uniform system but as a series of competing discourses, which put together reveal the ideological debates and contests within society.

    Poor Things, in particular, is keen to explore the way in which modes of expression represent dierent ideological outlooks and its. Many of the characters Bella encounters stand not only as individual subject personalities, but as ideological ways of looking at the world. Godwin Baxter, for example, represents the morally blind rationalism associated with a form of scientic investigation that operates without consideration for human emotions and feelings. He also represents an ideology of power over women, and in spite of his atypical appearance and lifestyle serves to support mainstream Victorian patriarchal attitudes.

    Archie represents the less intelligent sidekick to Godwin the Watson to Godwins Holmes who, although also a scientist, is tempered with a humanity that rejects the excesses of scientic experimentation. It is Archie that recognizes the dubious intent behind Godwins creation of Bella Baxter: You think you are about to possess what men have hopelessly yearned for throughout the ages: the soul of an innocent, trusting, dependent child inside the opulent body of a radiantly lovely woman p.

    And yet Archie also desires to control and contain Bella, although his approach to her is fashioned by what he sees as a romantic love, which leads to his conventional proposal of marriage to her. His desired relationship with Bella, however, is as containing as Godwins and is shown in his complicity to restrict Bella from meeting with Duncan Wedderburn. Wedderburn is a predatory misogynist that is driven by an exaggerated male libido.

    He preys on vulnerable women and disregards their emotional feelings and the consequences of the sexual relationships he enters into with them. Bella, however, is attracted to Wedderburn and, to Archies dismay, eventually elopes with him. Bellas narrative, then, is the story of a strong womans evasion of a variety of male characters who try to impose their power over her.

    She escapes from the parental connement of Godwin and Archie by eloping with Wedderburn. The latter is eventually driven to madness by Bellas excessive sexual appetite, which ironically reverses his initial aim to use her.

    His descent into hysteria also ironically reverses the fate of the traditional female heroine of many Victorian novels, so much so that Wedderburn, in failing to contain Bella, is forced to resort to a series of female stereotypes in order to explain his symbolic emasculation: So I know who your niece is now, Mr.

    She is the White Daemon who destroys the honour and manhood of the noblest and most virile men in every age p. That Wedderburn is hardly the most honourable or noble of men increases the irony of his rant here. Bellas narrative of empowerment over men is, then, part of the texts aim to show the aws in patriarchy when faced with a strong intelligent woman who enjoys her sexuality, and who in many cases is physically and emotionally stronger than the men she encounters. That this appears as unnatural to the Victorian gender ideology explains, to a certain extent, why Archie has decided to represent her as a monstrous gure, one that transcends the natural order of things in both her creation and her subsequent dealings with men.

    Textually, Bella also succeeds in evading the representation that Archie attempts to place on her. The letter that follows Archies book, signed Victoria McCandless, puts forward a contrasting account of her life which undermines the representation of her in the main text. Names, of course, are signicant here: Bella, the beautiful female that is contained by the male gaze, is replaced by Victoria, the strong woman who has escaped each of the claims the men have over her. It is discovered in Victorias letter that she has become a practising doctor who supports her husband nancially, a situation that has clearly aected Archies masculine Victorian ego, and hints at the real reason for the fantasy he has woven around her unnatural creation.

    This is achieved again through using characters as the mouthpieces for political and ideological systems. The central section of Archies book is taken over by Bellas account of her journey to Cairo with Wedderburn and her conversations with Dr Hooker, an American evangelist, and Harry Astley, an intelligent upper-class cynic. Hooker represents a form of white supremacist thinking that combines religious Protestant fervour with an unshaken belief in the correctness of his moral positions.

    Harry is more complex, and a whole chapter is given over to Astleys Bitter Wisdom in which he summarizes a range of political issues and positions and why he regards each of them as awed. Astleys ideas are presented in. After considering the political options Astley presents to her, Bella concludes, Everyone should have a cosy shell around them, a good coat with money in their pockets. I must be a Socialist p. Through the texts technique of defamiliarizing human society, this conclusion by Bella is powerful and seems to carry the political message of the text as a whole.

    It is further supported by Bellas experiences in Cairo.