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Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau (eds), The Poetics and Ethics of (Un-)Grievability in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction

New York and London: Routledge, 2023, 229 p.
Paula Currás-Prada
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Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau, eds. The Poetics and Ethics of (Un-)Grievability in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction. New York and London: Routledge, 2023, 229 p., ISBN: 978-1-032-38976-9

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1Traditionally, elegy and other forms of literary mourning have focused on grieving the grievable, that is, those whose lives have been constructed as sufficiently valuable to merit collective bereavement. However, how has (postmodern) literature responded to the precarious subjects who, as Judith Butler puts it, fall last on the ‘hierarchy of grief’ and are thus declared ungrievable even before their death? What happens to those confined to ‘starvation, underemployment, legal disenfranchisement and differential exposure to violence’ (25)? Jean-Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega’s edited volume The Poetics and Ethics of (Un-)Grievability in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction collects several responses to these—and other—questions, bringing forward diverse examples of Anglophone fictions that retrieve vulnerable individuals and/or groups, unmournable entities that nevertheless make their way into literary representation. Divided into five thematic parts, the eleven chapters in this book provide the reader with an ambitious and multifaceted look into forms of (un)grievability that supersede classical expressions of literary mourning. Taking Butler’s notion of grievable life as a starting point—defined as ‘a life that can be regarded as a life, and be sustained by that regard’ (14)—the work observes how diverse, ungrievable subjects—i. e., those whose life remains ‘ungrieved when it’s lost’—operate, sometimes leading to the emergence of new and unconventional forms of grievability.

2Part I, “The Presence of History”, compiles three chapters on narratives that, one way or another, unearth the experience of subjects and/or historical events that result in situations of ungrievability. In this light, Susana Onega’s “Trading Relations, Violence and Ungrievability” explores David Mitchell’s historical novel The One Thousand Autumns of Zoet. Onega presents us here with a dense, thorough close reading of the novel that highlights the profound inequalities underlying the Japanese and European cultures of the early nineteenth century. She underlines the common vulnerability of women, slaves, and orphans, relegated to the ‘animal condition of bare life’ (Onega 32). Mitchell’s characters, however, often display an ethics of compassion and hospitality that signals a plausible evolution of these two cultures in contact. The following chapter, by Paula Romo-Mayor, takes the reader to the twentieth century, to the more familiar—but no less unsettling—Nazi invasion of Ukraine in 1941. Romo-Mayor’s discussion of Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in Winter logically follows Onega’s lead in presenting an experimental novel that deals with the aftermath of a traumatic historical event, one that brought about the dehumanization and consequent ungrievability of human beings that were seen as ‘eternally flawed’ (Romo-Mayor 38)—e. g., Jews, but not only. Romo-Mayor interestingly argues that the formal characteristics of the novel—such as its polyphony—contradict the Nazi monologic discourse of power, thus undermining the precariousness of the Other. The third and last chapter in Part I is significantly divergent, with the notion of history featuring obliquely in the form of temporality and trauma. And this is a particularly interesting and innovative take on the subject of (un)grievability: the characters of Ali Smith’s The Accidental, as understood by Katia Marcellin, live immersed in a ‘dead time’ (55), a temporal stasis that precludes their expression of grief and mourning. Ultimately, it is through metalepsis and temporal reversal that Smith’s characters introduce new forms of grievability, breaking relationships of causality to bring about transformation.

3In Part II, subtitled “Grieving the Earth”, Barbara Aritzi and Angelo Monaco put forward two post-apocalyptic, environmentally conscious novels that deal with grievability from two different prisms: respectively, the reclamation of Indigenous epistemologies and the juxtaposition of ‘ecological grief’ and ‘human grievability’ (Monaco 97). In these two chapters, mourning is seen as a ‘planetary right,’ i. e. not only an expression of human grief but a form of grieving that encompasses all that is. This idea—that grief can be extended to the environment, animals, land and the nonhuman in general, including inanimate objects—is a necessary turn towards the radical Other that brings Butler’s grievability to the domain of the nonhuman. Furthermore, the two texts discussed here—The Swan Book by Alexis Wright and Doggerland by Ben Smith—construct a new poetics of mourning through experimental, fragmented form, breaking the traditional rhythms of elegy and allowing for expressions of care and hope.

4In Part III, “Outcasts”, the notion of exclusion features prominently in the analysis of two characters, constructed as vulnerable subjects whose abnormality, i.e. their threat to normativity, has rendered them into ungrievable subjects. “Ungrievable Incest”, by Maite Escudero-Alías, focuses on Michael Stewart’s Ill Will. The Untold Story of Heathcliff, exploring the ways in which William Lee—Heathcliff’s alter ego in the contemporary adaptation—subverts some of the associations that make Heathcliff an ungrievable outsider, but retains the transgression of kinship norms—i. e., incest— relegating him once again to a position of ungrievability. Similarly, Paula Martín-Salván’s analysis of Toni Morrison’s Love retrieves the usually overlooked character of Celestial—a prostitute—to observe the particularities of her death, an event that remains unnarrated and thus, ungrieved. Just like Heathcliff, Celestial is ‘pushed to precarity’ (Butler 25) by her status of otherness. However, if Heathcliff is, along with Catherine, the undoubtable protagonist of his narrative, Celestial is an outcast from the novel’s structure itself, a haunting but ‘socially dead’ presence (Butler and Davidson qtd. in Martín-Salván 138). Escudero-Alías’s and Martín-Salván’s contributions to the collection bring about two ungrieved individuals that can be easily paralleled: a man who is ungrievable even before his death and a woman who remains in a permanent liminal status: by the end of the novel, the reader does not really know whether she is dead or alive. Eventually, these two chapters offer stimulating new perspectives on two widely-analyzed novels and characters, convincingly bringing them to the current preoccupations of contemporary criticism.

5The title of Part IV, “Contamination”, evokes pollution, contagion, a blatant but effective title should we consider the implications of José M. Yebra’s and Giulio Milone’s excellent contributions, problematising questions of (un)grievability in AIDS fictions. Yebra’s work takes on the case of three narratives (two by Booker Prize winner Alan Hollinghurst and one by Colm Tóibin) to reassess homosexual literature’s restructuring of the genre of elegy. According to Yebra, the two authors portray disparate reactions to ungrievability. Whereas Hollinghurst develops a more orthodox vision of elegy, recalling the classic ‘ambivalence between loss and its remains’ (Yebra 158), Tóibin’s is a case of ‘redemptive elegy’ (Yebra 161), a restorative mode in which the characters still lack institutional grievability but regain the capacity to be grieved privately by their families. By contrast, Milone’s examination of Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers concentrates on highlighting the ways in which the novel represents the ungrievability of AIDS victims. Derealizing the Other becomes, in this narrative, a way of making the Other spectral, condemning him to erasure and to the inability to be mourned in a normative, heterosexual society.

6The last part, “After the Subject”, moves from the human to the post- and sub-human. Here, Sylvie Maurel and Jean-Michel Ganteau investigate the future possibilities of grievability in the context of the clone and the machine: can these entities be constructed as subjects and thus engage in a dynamics of loss and grieving? Departing from Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Maurel analyzes the figure of the clone in terms of Butler’s and Agamben’s theoretical framework. Ultimately, she argues, Ishiguro’s dystopian novel functions as a metaphorical representation of precarity in ‘contemporary, market-based society’ (199), but it also sheds light on the possibilities of elegy as a humanising tool that counters the exploitation of clones’ bodies. Ganteau’s contribution is all the more speculative, pondering over the future conditions of grievability in the case of humanoid robots through a discussion of Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me. The novel’s blurring of boundaries between the human and the nonhuman, in the words of Ganteau, allows for a reconfiguration of Butler’s theory that situates subjects—and not only humans—as grievable and ‘essentially relational’ (Ganteau 211). What is at stake in both chapters, thus, is a fascinating, posthuman reconsideration of the workings of (un)grievability that seem hauntingly contemporary in the current advent of artificial intelligence.

7A challenging and resourceful collection, Onega and Ganteau’s edited volume undertakes the difficulties of Butler’s theoretical approach to (un-)grievability from a wide array of perspectives, demonstrating the impressive malleability of the concept. The heterogeneity of the contributions, although risking an obscuring of the reading experience, is conveniently managed through the different thematic parts, weaving together an ensemble of entities that fight their way towards grievability.

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Bibliographie

Butler, Judith. Frames of War. When is Life Grievable? London/New York, Verso, 2009.

Onega, Susana and Jean-Michel Ganteau, eds. The Poetics and Ethics of (Un-)Grievability in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction. London, Routledge, 2023.

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Paula Currás-Prada, « Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau (eds), The Poetics and Ethics of (Un-)Grievability in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 65 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2023, consulté le 19 juin 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/ebc/14284 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/ebc.14284

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Paula Currás-Prada

Universidad de La Coruña

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