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The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction, 1950-2000
Dominic Head
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
£40.00, 307 pages, ISBN 0-521-66014-9 (hardback).
£14.95, 307 pages, ISBN 0-521-66966-9 (paperback).

Marylin Mell
Madison, Wisconsin


Dominic Head’s ambitious study of post-war British fiction lodges its center within the flexible and forgiving shape of antinomy. Society/ Individual. Anti-Theory/History. Time/Timelessness. Ethics/Self-Interest. In The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction, 1950-2000, Head’s daunting task is to offer comprehensive commentary upon several factories’ worth of literary production. How might one individual—who must occasionally need respite and further fortification to carry on—find a way to oversee such a prodigious amount of material? (By his own accounting, repeated several times, Head scrutinizes more than 100 authors and 200 literary works.) Head soldiers his way through this project by creating a limited number of categories for analysis, fine tuning his focus, and eliminating what he considers riffraff. (Gleefully, for instance, he jettisons Angela Carter asserting that her current stock value far exceeds its actual worth.) Head’s investigation of postwar British fiction concentrates almost exclusively on social fiction. The criterion for inclusion here is that a novel, novella, or short story must brush up against reality and reshape it. Head’s assertion is that the best fiction is that which interrogates life, repackaging its vibrancy and dreariness within itself. His fascination is for how fiction’s porous quality, its absorption of life’s most elusive or radical dimensions, provides a specialized knowledge unavailable elsewhere.

Responsibility often becomes burdensome. In seeking to survey fifty years of recent and near-recent fiction, Head desires to go the distance, and be as all-inclusive as possible. Yet his insights are most compelling when he revels in extended critiques of individual works. Ironically, in a critical analysis dedicated to outlining the evolution of the social novel over the last 50 years, his own prose is most effective when he indulges in lyrical outbursts. Perhaps, there is a book on John Fowles in Head’s future since he is particularly engaging when he writes about Fowles’s Daniel Martin (1977). In the Introduction, he focuses on how Fowles cleverly places Daniel Martin within Tsankawi ruins, an abandoned Amerindian site in New Mexico. Fowles manipulates Martin’s experiences here to investigate time, especially the phenomenon of time’s horizontality. Fowles recalls how the Tsankawi culture held no sense of the past or future, but only of time-not-present. To conceive of time only within the present permitted the Tsankawi to create equivalence between memories and feelings and to construct a totality of consciousness so distinct from contemporary fragmentation and alienation. Clearly, Head structures his critique within the materialist tradition and appears most heavily influenced by Raymond Williams. Perhaps, this is why his chapter on “Country and Suburbia” is one of this text’s most inspired. Evoking Williams’s meditations on how pivotal the city was in modernist formations, Head reflects powerfully on how alienation and fragmentation of suburbia are symbolically lodged in mid-to-late twentieth-century British fiction.

Ironically, it is Head’s circumspect tour guide manners that occasionally chafe. In seeking to offer an in-depth analysis of such a wide scale of material, some of his best insights are denied their maximum development. Head clearly took considerable care in designing the text’s layout. The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction, 1950-2000 is divided into 7 chapters: (1) "The State and the Novel"; (2) "Class and Social Change"; (3) "Gender and Sexual Identity"; (4) "National Identity"; (5) "Multicultural Personae"; (6) "Country and Suburbia"; (7) "Beyond 2000". "National Identity" and "Country and Suburbia" emerge as the strongest and most appealing chapters. In "National Identity" Head with economy and discernment offers an overview of Britain’s radical altering of its sense of self. Perhaps, it is because Head can comprehend how the individual is knotted into the society-at-large that his critical skills seem so keen and fast paced here. Clearly, Head’s gift is for analyzing how social and historical culture shapes and even limits those who live within specific places and mindsets. Head’s interest in Ireland and what is termed the Northern Troubles leads him to construct a compelling analysis of Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal (1983). Yet, in attempting to include many other multicultural perspectives, sometimes his commentary thins out, even if understandably so. Although his chapter on "Multicultural Personae" is not as gripping, his reading of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) is one of the book’s highlights. Here Head demonstrates a compelling even-handedness, indicating how Rushdie’s portrait of Mohammed as Mahound or “false god or even devil” would be offensive to devout believers but also suggests how the novel cleverly satirizes cultural problems resulting from a conformity too tightly wound. Head is also most entertaining when he liberally dismisses popular authors. Yet his need to dismiss critical perspectives seems somewhat disingenuous since his work could not be structured as it is (with its emphasis on nation, gender and multiculturalism) without the trench work critical theory has performed.

What is genre? Embedded within Dominic Head’s treatise on post-1950 fiction, this question is implicitly handled in several intriguing ways. First, Head in determining what to include in his encyclopedic account of fifty years of British fiction decides that he must include short stories, novellas, and novels in his analysis. Second, and more curiously, Head’s most passionate interest is in narrowing the type of fiction that he will analyze in The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction, 1950-2000. Although generously discussing more than 100 authors and 200 works, Head asserts directly that he will be focusing on post-war British fiction that contributes to a greater understanding of social and cultural history. Here Head’s interest might be typed as concern for the genre of the social novel as it unfolds in the second half of the twentieth century. Yet, third, it could be claimed that Head is participating within a materialist critique of literature, one that intentionally follows in the principles used most memorably by Raymond Williams. Here Head can be seen as crafting a type of social criticism whose purpose is to reveal how literature’s mimetic undertones offer its greatest good. What is the reality that fiction offers to its readers—and more precisely how gracefully does it enact epiphanies that transform perception and even induce the possibility for an altered consciousness? Since it is this question that dominates Head’s critical apparatus, it is here that the work stakes its claim for the future.

In attempting to analyze what the Victorians termed “The Woman Question”, Head adopts a chronological approach that rather heavily relies upon the pre-set critical categories of second wave feminism and post-feminism in a manner that sometimes seems more methodical than illuminating. Yet the chapter does begin with the engaging and useful commentary that the “impression that the 1950s epitomized a traditional British way of life is belied by the way in which some of the planks of second wave feminism were being put in place” (83.) Yet since The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction, 1950-2000 operates within this not always fully acknowledged mimetic undertones, his concern for women’s experience is more socially bound than might be most effective here. In another of his desires to be inclusive, he ends the chapter with a sketchy and rather disappointing section on gay literature. Again, Head’s sense of responsibility pushes him to get cornered in a section that he either cannot really handle or due to time constraints cannot forcefully execute. Yet, it should be considered that he seeks to include commentary on society’s repression of gays precisely because he feels that it should be done—perhaps aware that others might investigate both women’s writing and gay literature in a manner more compelling and charismatic than he can muster here in his Napoleonic march across British/Commonwealth fiction of the latter half of the twentieth century.

In assessing this monumental work, Head should be offered his due—respect and gratitude. This book is likely to age well and will undoubtedly allow students and scholars alike a place to begin to see patterns emerging within British social fiction. Although the book is not so easily read straight through, casual readers can indulge in reading those sections which interest them most. This marathon labor offers the reader quick entry into the best of the period. Head's critical analyses allow the reader to consider which of the works that are covered he might like to revisit or read for the first time. In re-reading the Introduction and noting those lyrical outbursts this reader becomes impatient for further works by Head where he will not be constrained to offer such radical breadth and where he will be able to work further within those intense passages where his gloss is most brilliant. Head’s close reading of Fowles’s temporality and his Ricoeur citations indicate that his future insights into time will be worth reading. Additionally, Head’s generosity toward other critics, especially his gracious citing of Andrzej Gasiorek’s study of realism suggest that this is a critic knotted within the larger social visions of the time and place of his own inhabitation.

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