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This Thing Called the World: The Contemporary Novel as Global Form.

GANGULY, DEBJANI. This Thing Called the World: The Contemporary Novel as Global Form. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016. 300 pp. + xii. $94.95 cloth. $26.95 paperback/e-book.

World literature is an elusive critical category. Unlike other fields of demarcation in literary studies, it is not always historically situated nor defined by any singular form or genre. Debjani Ganguly's This Thing Called the World: The Contemporary Novel as Global Form is admirable for the way it is able to harness a field characterized by seemingly amorphous scales of space and time and provide a discrete historical frame of reference for its argument. Ganguly's thesis is immediate and clear: she argues that a "new kind of novel as a global literary form" emerged in 1989, born from the conjuncture of "three critical phenomena: the geopolitics of war and violence since the end of the cold war; hyperconnectivity through advances in information technology; and the emergence of a new humanitarian sensibility in a context where suffering has a presence in everyday life through the immediacy of digital images" (1). The emphasis on the year 1989 at first seems peculiar. Surely, the "mediatized witnessing in our time" and the "exorbitant visual stimulus" of global violence and war that for Ganguly "generates the melancholic realism of the world novel" existed before 1989, and especially for America through broadcasts of the Vietnam War. Yet Ganguly argues that 1989 marked an operative threshold, manifested in the way that novels since this period "tend to offer trenchant critiques of the redemptive projects of international security and humanitarian assemblage" that emerged since the end of the cold war (26). In other words, Ganguly sees the modern novel not just as incorporating but witnessing such violence against and within a larger horizon of hyper-mediated representations of the world encountered on our television screens. How, Ganguly asks, does the modern novel come to terms with a hyper-violent globalized media landscape, especially against the backdrop of transnational terrorism, the rhetoric of neoliberalism, and endless global conflict? Ganguly resists an easy, single answer to such a question, as do the texts she studies. Rather, it is the very terms of reckoning with such a question--especially the way this reckoning manifests itself in formal, aesthetic ways--that is the subject of this book.

The study is divided into three sections: "World," "War," and "Witness." The first chapter, "Real Virtualities and the Undead Genre," focuses on ekphrasis as "an intermedial space between narrative and image" that "carr[ies] the burden of making legible to our myriad virtual publics the melancholic, visually excessive remainders of our capitalist deathworlds" (34). Ganguly's thesis about global form is most apparent through her readings of the ekphrastic modes of texts such as Martin Amis's "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta" (2006) and Ian McEwan's Saturday (2005). If Ganguly is committed to studying world literature in a way that is temporally and historically situated, her close readings mirror that grounding through their attention to detail. She is willing to sit within the span of a single sentence and consider the way it both registers and responds to what she terms "the world-scale burdens of the novel after 1989," including a longing to address "an affective public sphere in an ever-expanding realm of digital mediation" and to visualize "the melancholic property of events and persons incommensurable with our generalized systems of exchange that now span the globe" (52).

This ability to pair close readings with broader theorizations underscores the way that Ganguly resists the temptations of the critical ideologue, emphasizing that scholars of world literature must be willing to use a myriad of methodological tools--including both close and distant reading practices--to contend with both "the material circuitry of literature" in the world as well as its "specific literary provenance [in order to] rescue it from reductionist neomaterialist readings" (78). This is perhaps the greatest asset of This Thing Called the World: it frames modern world literature as deeply responsive to the post-1989 geopolitical horizon from which it emerged. In other words, for Ganguly, the modern world literary novel has its own unique agency to intervene in what she terms the "collective sensorium of violence unleashed by the deathworlds of our time" (86). For instance. Ganguly considers the way that the aesthetic and thematic networks of David Mitchell's Ghostwritten (1999) and Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown (2005) register their local cityscapes or global imaginaries as porous and insatiable, "maximal site[s] of cultural comingling and extranational, extraterritorial, heterotemporal belonging" (97). Some critics will object to Ganguly's framing of Rushdie as primarily a world writer rather than a postcolonial one, or her suggestion that writers like Rushdie are "reluctant to confront a new kind of postliberal political rationality that global Islam now represents" (128). Yet even dissenting critics may find common cause in Ganguly's premise that aesthetic form can operate as an important counter to a media landscape saturated with violence and global terror. This premise is emphasized in the second section's focus on "War," which includes detailed readings of pseudonymous author Riverbend's blog novel Baghdad Burning (2003), Art Spiegelman's graphic novel In the Shadow of No Towers (2004), and Don DeLillo's Falling Man (2007).

The final section of the book, "Witness," begins by turning a familiar argument concerning the ethics of literary witnessing on its head: instead of "rhetorically enact[ing] [its] inability to capture the truth about war, terror, and suffering" for a privileged, western reading public, the contemporary world novel "actually works across this chasm in that it is symptomatic of the foreshortening of the distance between the postcolonial world's violent spasms and the various forms of spectatorship that have been generated in the global West" (178). The novel--as Ganguly demonstrates through her close readings of Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost (2000) and Janette Turner Hospital's Orpheus Lost (2007)--animates what Ganguly describes as "the work of witnessing in novels, their textual and tropological play with multiple modalities of spectatorship and witnessing, and their distinctively different braiding of the factual and the affective in comparison with genres of the visual" (177). Such aesthetic interventions engender an importantly different kind of testimonial witnessing, one more precarious, indirect, and self-conscious. The novel, in this way, attains its own kind of epistemological grammar, one complementary and sometimes contrary to the primacy of forensic truth or the seeming inviolability of data, fact, and image.

Henry James described the novel as a "loose, baggy monster," and it is precisely in that amorphous messiness and monstrosity that Ganguly situates the novel's capacity to offer new ways of recording, witnessing, and transforming our understanding of a hyperconnected, globalized world. This Thing Called the World both models and theorizes a grounded approach to modem world literature, urging its critics, despite our habit to look beyond the horizon, not to forget the dirt beneath our own feet.

CHRISTOPHER McVEY, Boston University
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Mcvey, Christopher
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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