The Space Between the Novel and the World: Reading for Objects in the Contemporary Novel

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Bordwin, Jesse, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Felski, Rita, Department of English, University of Virginia
Levenson, Michael, Department of English, University of Virginia

In The Space Between the Novel and the World, I turn to things that do not comfortably or unambiguously participate in social life, historical and economic signification, or symbolic meaning, but which are, at the same time, central to plot, place, and the structure of narrative fiction. They are something like the gratuitous objects Roland Barthes describes, which are “neither incongruous nor significant,” and thus do not seem to participate “in the order of the notable." These objects are often vibrant and unsettle the configuration of human agency, yet rarely do they upend the novel’s investment in the human subject, suggesting literature’s role elaborating human-object entanglement rather than a post-human landscape. These literary objects tend to appear materially substantial—sometimes in ways that seem to exceed or survive the text in which they are produced—while simultaneously drawing attention to their own discursiveness and the ways they participate in meta-literary processes of world building and the construction of novel form. The particular conditions that give literary objects being—namely, their reliance on readerly participation—make them seem close at hand and immediate to the reader, but the irresolvable dialectic between language and matter ensures that the literary object is never fixed or frozen, never any one thing, and never exhausted by the set of relations between it and the characters, the reader, and the fictional world.

The centrality I assign the literary object is not part of a revisionist project but stems from the frequent and insistent representations of subject-object relation in modern and contemporary literature. In these moments, the thing-itself gives way to a set of relations, which include those between subject and object, language and matter, and text and reader. The reading practice for which I argue in The Space Between the Novel and the World is one that elaborates how each object takes part in the fictional world, the production of narrative, and the structure of the novel, and I show how the different literary objects of Tom McCarthy, Lavie Tidhar, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Jeanette Winterson, and Arundhati Roy produce different aesthetic, affective, hermeneutic, and political experiences of the text. Here we find another reason why we should concern ourselves with objects that, in Barthes’s terms, do not seem to participate “in the order of the notable.” For Barthes, such objects clamor “we are the real” and so produce the “reality effect,” “the basis of that unavowed verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the standard works of modernity.” In The Space Between the Novel and the World, I argue instead that each literary object sets the terms of the novel’s fictionality, remaking time and again the contract between reader and aesthetic world.

In loose terms, the preoccupations of my first chapter, "The Detective and the Phenomenologist," are onto-phenomenological (what existence do literary objects have, how do they structure fictional worlds, and how does the novel position characters and readers in relation to them?); those of my second chapter, "After Reference," are epistemological (what can we know about or from literary objects, and how is it distinct from what we can know about or from objects in the world around us?); and those of the third, titled "A Politics of Mattering," are political (when and where do literary objects enable or disable certain forms of relation, and how does our experience of matter in the novel create the structures of power that order the fictional world and make us complicit in them?).

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Contemporary Novel, Object-Oriented Literary Criticism, Thing Theory, Global Novel, Anglophone Novel, Contemporary Literature, Tom McCarthy, Lavie Tidhar, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Jeanette Winterson, Arundhati Roy
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