The Otherworlds of Liz Jensen
A Critical Reading
Helen H. Mundler
Studies in English and American Literature and Culture Series
Woodbridge: Camden House, 2016
Hardcover. 232 p. ISBN 978-1571139627. £60
Reviewed by Christian Gutleben
Université Côte d’Azur (Nice)
Helen H. Mundler’s study of Liz Jensen’s whole work is the first monograph to be published on this novelist whose importance in contemporary British fiction is more and more acknowledged in today’s critical and cultural landscape. The monograph is organised chronologically and divided into eight chapters which analyse Jensen’s eight novels in the order of their publication; but, and this must be stressed emphatically, the analysis of each novel constantly and thoroughly establishes links with the other novels, showing how the first works herald the following ones and how the later novels expand on, qualify or modify the previous ones, and this not only thematically but also narratologically and ideologically. The result is that one gets a very precise picture of Jensen’s oeuvre with its distinct thematic and ethical continuity and also its outstanding and untypical attempts.
As the title of the monograph clearly indicates, the most significant common point between Jensen’s various productions is the creation of a fictional world that is not strictly mimetic of everyday reality. By implementing defamiliarising chronotopes, Jensen at once underscores a determination to avert or subvert, to go past or beyond social or psychological realism – with the exception of War Crimes for the Home (2002) which purports to be a historical reconsideration of World War II. To designate Jensen’s improbable, fantastical or science-fictional scenes, Mundler uses Atwood’s concept of ustopia (i.e., “the continuum within which utopia becomes dystopia” ) which is not only a technical neologism but almost an ideological statement highlighting the inevitable failure of idealism. Naturally, imaging other worlds or other times is just a means to reflect upon the potential forms of otherness of today’s society, culture and humanity, and Jensen’s ustopian logic is then always at the service of a speculative type of fiction. This is particularly the case in The Paper Eater (2000) in which the machine-ruled world of Atlantica gives rise to an elaborate satire of technology and consumerism and therefore an implicit warning against the dangers of a society in which humanism is relinquished and commerce a new religion. In Atlantica, like elsewhere in Jensen’s otherworlds, what is also crucial is the role of language, for language is not only what societies create, it is what creates societies. Since language establishes rules, for example, and since rules determine social and political life, it can be argued, as do these novels, that language regulates, presides over and even generates a whole range of attitudes thus gaining a distinct performative potential. The metatextual musings on this linguistic performativity, clearly reminiscent of Foucault’s perceptive insights, run through all the novels of the corpus and reveal an enriching awareness of the power of words, be it harmful (as in The Paper Eater) or playful (as in My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time).
Malfunctioning imaginative worlds tend to end up in catastrophe, it seems almost logical that an apocalyptic aspect should be perceptible in all the novels – and almost literally present in Ark Baby (1998), The Rapture (2009) and The Uninvited (2012). As a marked intimation of the sense of an ending, apocalypse raises the question of the novels’ teleology and this distinct teleological momentum enables Mundler to make fine analyses of the works’ structures and guiding principles. The systematic deregulation of Jensen’s imagined civilisations may suggest a particular “bleakness of vision”, but, according to the author of this monograph, “while these visions are disturbing, […] they are not nihilistic” [194-195], the reason being that the process of destruction is envisaged as a path to re-creation as well as a reflection upon what must be cherished and salvaged at all costs. The presentation of self-destructive societies includes the cultural dimension, the apocalyptic component affords then also opportunities for metafictional comments about the state of contemporary, or post-contemporary, culture, the criticism of certain forms of self-reflexivity and auto-referentiality, for instance, standing unmistakably for a metaliterary urge to move beyond late postmodernism in matters of fiction-writing.
Since the apocalyptic turn evidently includes ecological disasters, the concerns for ecology in general represent another factor of unity for the eight novels under consideration. Resorting to established critics like Terrence Gifford, Cheryll Glotfelty, Richard Kerridge, Wendy Lynne Lee and Karen Warren, Mundler defines Jensen’s novels as “ecofiction” and “ecothrillers” , and uses the tools of ecocriticism to deal with the works’ warnings against environmental misuse or abuse. Considering the current convergence of ethical and ecological studies, it could be contended that Jensen engages in an ethics of vulnerability and precariousness, the vulnerable subject being not a specific type of social, ethnic or sexual being but the whole of nature. Often taking the form of an evocation or a reminder of past natural harmony, as in the description of a lush vegetal life in Egg Dancing or in the presentation of a democratic natural world in Ark Baby, Jensen’s ecological streak questions the place and role of humanity for the few glimpses of natural harmony all occur outside the range of strictly human affairs. What the novels’ denunciation of ecocide ultimately conveys is the necessity of a holistic approach to the environment, that is, an ontological repositioning of man and reconsideration of the non-human. What this also means is that this eco-conscious fiction challenges not only the place of nature but also the nature of place, the ideology of localism being necessarily superseded by the ideology of globalism. Jensen’s axiological priorities, though, so goes the argument, are never one-sidedly ecological, but always polyphonic and polymodal, including notably an updated interest in feminism.
Taking hold of Elaine Showalter’s concept of gynocriticism, Mundler sets out to demonstrate how Jensen’s novels illustrate the limitations and offenses deriving from a phallic perspective, order or worldview. In order to foster this sexual debate, the novelist not only adopts homodiegetic female narrators who illustrate the ordinary and extraordinary plights of women’s lives, but also ventriloquises male voices so as to delineate the male territory and reveal the male outlook from the inside. However, just like in the case of ecology, Jensen’s treatment of feminism is not exclusive nor radical; rather her kind of postfeminism links the question of femaleness to the broader questions of gender identity and human answerability, feminism being, for example, inseparable from ecology and its message of a global responsibility of humanity. In the section felicitously entitled “Feminist Problematics / Problematic Feminism” , Mundler questions the depiction of Charlotte in My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time and sees in this time-travelling harlot a possible parody of the objectification, not to say the commodification, of the female subject as a sexual pawn. Be that as it may, nineteenth-century Charlotte visiting contemporary London is also a tool to re-present today’s society through the eyes of a historical alien and to denounce the very little ecology-friendly predominance of technology. Finally, Jensen’s critical (post)feminism allows her to establish a dialogue with other women writers, particularly Margaret Atwood, but also A.S. Byatt, Hilary Mantel, Miranda Miller, Emma Tennant, Sarah Waters and Fay Weldon, and this dialogue is fruitfully explored in this monograph.
In the study of the intertextual network binding Jensen’s oeuvre to the great works of the past resides one of the noteworthy assets of this study – as it was already the case for Mundler’s previous monograph on A.S. Byatt (L’intertextualité dans l’œuvre d’A.S. Byatt, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003). The Biblical and Victorian intertexts are particularly thoroughly researched and the analysis of these cultural interconnections convincingly evidences the literariness of Jensen’s fictions as well as the dialogue they create across periods and genres. Engaged as she is in writing back to the canon, Jensen also resorts to popular traditions and pays tribute to popular voices, so much so that her novelistic art is best characterised as versatile or multifaceted. What the author of this monograph wishes to insist upon is that, in spite of her learned parodies and sophisticated rewritings of models, works or myth from the past, “her work has a marked futuristic bent” . There is one point of the analysis, though, with which the present reviewer does not agree, and that concerns the designation of hybridity as the specificity of Jensen’s work . Being the hallmark of postcolonialism in general and certainly also one of postmodernism’s main features, hybridity can hardly be the distinctive attribute of a single novelist.
Closely studying Jensen’s relationships with other writers also allows Mundler to try and situate this oeuvre in the contemporary literary landscape. If her subtle deconstructions of traditional or canonical metanarratives manifestly place Jensen in the postmodernist camp, her visionary ustopias and her bold forays into cli-fi (climate-change fiction) point to new forms of globalism, internationalism and cosmopolitanism seemingly typical of the new millennium. Jensen’s work is thus exemplary of the twenty-first-century novel which seems to have moved beyond postmodernism without entirely forsaking it and which seems therefore in quest of a new identity – which has variously been called postpostmodernism, hypermodernism or supermodernism. The inscription of Jensen’s novels in this as yet undefined aesthetic trend of the new millennium generates thought-provoking assumptions and tentative formalisations of such innovative fiction. Accordingly, Mundler’s study is aimed at and should interest not only amateurs of Jensen’s fiction but also scholars or students concerned with the evolution of the contemporary British novel in general. But, of course, this monograph mainly intends to – and manages to – show the coherence and diversity of a novelistic work whose importance and impact on the global literary scene can only expand. Here the critic is at the service of the novelist and this critical stance enhances both the writer and the scholar.
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