London in Contemporary British Fiction: The City Beyond the City, edited by Nick Hubble & Philip Tew (Bloomsbury, 2018).
Anthony Walker-Cook reviews Bloomsbury’s latest scholarly collection on London in contemporary British fiction.
Thinking of the ‘Big Smoke’ that is London, it’s impossible not to be swept into the historical perceptions of the city through time. Whether it be the bustling (though nonetheless dangerous) city captured in eighteenth-century literature, a space of Dickensian harshness or a ruined skeleton following the Blitz, conceptualising and writing about the city has occupied the best writers of literary history. London in Contemporary British Fiction updates this fictional tableau, gathering twelve essays to suggest how the city has evolved in the psyche of living authors, but also looks through the mythical and historical lenses through which it continues to be cast. Nick Hubble and Philip Tew, the editors of the collection, have done a superb job of enlisting ten other academics to write about a morphic city scarred by terrorism and living in an oneiric state, inhabited by irascible citizens and those who want legitimate change. Hubble and Tew’s goal, as stated in the Introduction, is to build a ‘layered socio-cultural map of London’ through narratives at the human level that demonstrate how urban identities include (and subvert) the global economy (8).
Tew begins by examining Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005) through its representation of trauma culture. Through journalism and other literary endeavours, the status of victimhood and being traumatised has entered into the public psyche, and McEwan chooses the upper middle-class white male as the focus to trace this internalised struggle, ‘with literal, localised violence stalking’ Henry Perowne, the novel’s protagonist (23). The fissures of terrorism are also explored in essays by Susan Alice Fischer and Nick Bentley, who respectively analyse work by Ali Smith and Martin Amis, with the former concluding the necessity of collective responsibility. Bentley takes a heavier biographical route in charting the effect of 9/11 on Amis, writing that Yellow Dog (2003) shows both the anxieties of the new millennium and attempts to establish moral and ethical judgements through chastisement of the tabloid and porn industries that imply a crisis of masculinity. Bentley’s conclusion, however, is similar to Fischer’s, arguing that the ‘modernity of rational response’ must be used to bring us back for this state of disturbed existence (78).
Individual authors are the primary focus of these short and cogent essays. Writing on Will Self, Sebastian Jenner argues for the importance of ‘liminal localities’ (49) in the novelist’s depictions of London, which then act as arenas for the reconstruction of stereotypes; that is, the formation of ‘Cockney Visionaries’, a phrase brilliant in its juxtapositions and for its textually-coherent formation. A spatial focus takes central position in Tomasz Niedokos’ essay on Peter Ackroyd, where he convincingly argues that the repositioning of older parts of the city allow the author to focus on its social history, believing in a ‘genius loci’, defined as a spirit of a place, to act as a key to communal memory. As such, spaces become enchanted in Ackroyd’s fiction so that citizens are inflected by ‘long-standing patterns of permanence’ (84). Under such conditions, Niedokos argues, time is cyclical. Other essays on Iain Sinclair (Laura Colombino), Andrea Levy (Anja Müller-Wood) China Miéville (Mark P. Williams) respectively characterise the city as acting within a ‘dynamics of chaos’ (119), a utopian backdrop for personal re-evaluation through a Bakhtinian polyphony, and as operating within the periscopic lens of the fantastic. Jung Su offers a revisionist examination of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (1999), looking at the role of emotions with feminist and lesbian issues in the periphery of the novel and concludes with the observation that glimpses of survival as captured in the novel demonstrate the transnational quality of global cities. Certainly, more chapters that focus on the international condition and status of London would have been welcome in the present collection.
Three essays in this collection break from the individual-author focus, instead offering thematic examinations across multiple authors. Doris Bremm’s ‘Viewing Art in London’s Museums: Ekphrasis in Selected Fiction’ looks towards the cultural institution of the museum, proffering that through the novels of Julian Barnes, A. S. Byatt and Peter Ackroyd the space of the museum offers a setting for individual experience wherein each visitor must perform the act of viewing works of art. As readers, then, we become aware of the acts of perception that are involved when we too visit these ‘heterotopic museum spaces’ (96). Bremm thus concludes the public space becomes one of private contemplation. A standout of the collection, Nora Pleßke’s ‘The Liminality of Underground London’ begins by listing the uses of the underground in the various genres of fiction – in crime and thriller stories, science fiction and apocalyptic catastrophe, London Noir – and provides classical precedents for subterranean spaces, including Plato’s Cave and traditional descent narratives in ancient epic. Examining novels by Tobias Hill, Conrad Williams and Neil Gaiman, Pleßke concludes by suggesting that in the underground defined boundaries are dissolved, forming an ‘archive of the past’, whilst the tube acts as ‘an alternative chronotopic capsule’ (173). The characters that inhabit such a space are fragmented and marginalised, Pleßke continues, achieving a liminal status indicative of an unstable urban mentality that implies metropolitan spaces are, if central, uncanny. Of the collection, Pleßke’s essay has a sense of immediacy that draws from the daily existence of living in London, positing these thoughts for further self-examination. Hubble concludes this thematic triplet and the collection itself with ‘Common People: Class, Gender and Social Change’, tracing the influence of Virginia Woolf and John Sommerfield on Zadie Smith’s NW (2012) and the latter’s depiction of the working classes.
What emerges from London in Contemporary British Fiction is, to use a phrase quoted at the beginning of this review, a city hidden by the ‘big smoke’, but within which physical, mental and other boundaries are found to be constantly in a state of flux. Quoted in four essays, Tew’s status as a key voice in the development of contemporary British fiction is certainly affirmed throughout the collection, as are the potent opportunities for future discourses revolving around the city and its inhabitants, and what changes might happen to both. Given the relative shortness of each essay – they rarely go beyond fifteen pages – there are plenty more opportunities to examine the texts discussed in the collection alone, no less those not covered. What is certain, however, is that this city, which can feel unsafe, domineering, and polluted, will continue to capture the imaginations of both novelists and, more importantly, its inhabitants. Every bit helps if it means clearing the smegma of the ‘Big Smoke’.
London in Contemporary British Fiction: The City Beyond the City (Bloomsbury, 2018) is out now in paperback. For more information and a link to google preview, click here: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/london-in-contemporary-british-fiction-9781350057807/