Contemporary British writing moves in a variety of directions, and the object of this study is the exploration of a particularly fertile path some recent British fiction has taken. This book reveals the extent to which the grotesque endures as a dominant artistic mode in British fiction. It presents a new way of understanding authors who have been at the forefront of British literature over the past four decades. The book examines the history of the grotesque in visual art and literature together with its historical and theoretical accounts. Criticism historically has often represented the grotesque in the work of an author as the product of the personal habits and idiosyncrasy of the writer. Devoted to the late Angela Carter, the book considers the hallucinating characters, monstrous metamorphoses and disorientating play with perspective and scale that all point to the importance of the grotesque in fiction. Looking at the work of Martin Amis in the light of the grotesque in literature, it examines his novels Money: A Suicide Note and London Fields. The presence of the grotesque, with its characteristic contradictory elements, in Ian McEwan's fiction offers a sustained engagement with issues of subject formation. The grotesque provides a theoretical model capable of investigating both the principal narrative energies and the controlled structures of Iain Banks's fiction, acknowledging his place within the Scottish and wider European literary traditions of the grotesque. The book also looks at works of Will Self and Toby Litt.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book examines the history of the grotesque in visual art and literature together with historical and theoretical accounts of the grotesque. It traces the way in which the different approaches to writing contemporary fiction have their roots in the tradition and discourse of the grotesque. The book is devoted to the late Angela Carter, who mixed fantasy and politics to spectacular effect in her fiction, which is shot through with the grotesque. It considers the hallucinating characters, monstrous metamorphoses and disorientating play with perspective and scale that all point to the importance of the grotesque within Will Self 's fiction. The book looks at the growing prominence of Toby Litt as marking a new development in the contemporary British grotesque, with his fiction crossing different genres and exhibiting diverse stylistic approaches.
This chapter provides a brief account of the historical tradition of the contemporary British grotesque in literature and the visual arts. Debates about the relationship between the realist novel and the grotesque have often crystallised around the figure of Charles Dickens. The logic of carnival is also the logic of the grotesque. The chapter examines the works of Angela Carter, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, Will Self and Toby Litt as well as the links between their texts. It elaborates the set of core qualities through an examination of manifestations of the grotesque throughout history and in the light of work on the subject by critics such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Arthur Clayborough and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. The chapter also engages in the critical debates surrounding the use of the term 'grotesque'.
The active construction of the grotesque as a paradoxical 'order of disorder' has been a hallmark of Angela Carter's writing career. This chapter aims to show, The Bloody Chamber, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children collectively form a vivid contemporary grotesque that stays unfinished in its treatment of the excessive body. Both Nights at the Circus and Wise Children rely on the discourse and mechanisms of carnival for much of their literary vigour. However, Carter takes care to situate their often-comic narratives within wider contexts of historical change and its attendant troubles. The chapter focuses on the important congruence between the carnivalesque and dialogic forms in Mikhail Bakhtin's work. It explains how Bakhtin himself describes the English comic novel as a menippean tradition of a heteroglossic kind.
This chapter looks at the work of Martin Amis in the light of author's discussion of the grotesque in literature. It examines his novels Money: A Suicide Note and London Fields. An important example of Amis situating his work within the tradition of the grotesque occurs at the very beginning of Amis's career as an author in The Rachel Papers. Amis is interested in genre and brings comedy and slapstick to bear on his account of the contemporary novel. Time's Arrow represents a prime example of a grotesque novel. In Time's Arrow it is ironically the irreversible nature of time and of the past that is emphasised, and through the grotesque what has been a mechanism for comedy becomes a means of engendering deep pathos and horror.
The presence of the grotesque, with its characteristic contradictory elements, in Ian McEwan's fiction is most easily visible in the author's use of grotesque images and scenarios. McEwan's first novel The Cement Garden offers a sustained engagement with issues of subject formation. The city of Venice forms a readily recognisable, albeit anonymous site for McEwan's second novel The Comfort of Strangers. McEwan is also interested in the temporal contraction involved in regression, and his fiction frequently evokes the 'timelessness' of childhood, or of a regression to a childlike state. The idea that social situations often disguise a deeper, less pleasant reality is one that recurs again and again in McEwan's work. This is evident from The Comfort of Strangers through to The Child in Time and The Innocent to Enduring Love and Amsterdam.
Iain Banks's writing often embodies a duality characteristic of much contemporary literature, involving a disjunctive fusion of violent force with carefully calibrated and organised literary form. Since his disturbing debut The Wasp Factory in 1984 Banks's fiction has often encompassed the taboo and excessive. The grotesque provides a theoretical model capable of investigating both the principal narrative energies and the controlled structures of Iain Banks's fiction, acknowledging his place within the Scottish and wider European literary traditions of the grotesque. It is clear that Banks's work is heavily concerned with structure both in terms of narrative structure and in terms of structure as a primary theme. This structure of twin narratives is found in many of Banks's work, both mainstream (The Wasp Factory, The Bridge, Complicity, The Crow Road, Espedair Street) and science fiction (Use of Weapons, Against a Dark Background, Inversions).
Will Self has emerged as one of the most important and indeed most industrious of British authors of recent times, having written several novels, novellas and collections of short stories, to say nothing of the many volumes of collected journalism. Self 's first book, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, was published to general acclaim in 1991, winning the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. His multifaceted career has included appearances on a television game show, book reviewing and working as the restaurant critic for The Observer. Self shares his description of the 'gallimaufry of grotesques' of William Burroughs's Junky with Ian Wharton's description of his friends in My Idea of Fun. Self 's comments in an article entitled 'New Crack City' make clear his debt to Burroughs in his approach to writing about drug use.
This chapter examines the development of Toby Litt's work and how it is informed by the grotesque in terms of its consistent use of distortion and humour and in relation to its complex fusion of the prosaic and the fantastic. It shows how his literary career has been shaped by an arguably postmodern approach to contemporary culture but one that is also based on a contemporary form of the literary grotesque. Toby Litt's first collection of stories, Adventures in Capitalism was first published in 1996 and immediately created a critical stir around its inventive approach to the world of branding and consumerism. If Adventures in Capitalism in its pursuit of a comic grotesque bears comparison with the work of Martin Amis and Will Self, then deadkidsongs is an ambitious novel that enters similar terrain to Ian McEwan's disturbing stories of childhood and Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory.
This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on the concepts discussed in the preceding chapters of this book. The book focuses on the grotesque in contemporary British fiction from a number of different perspectives. It explores how the grotesque's status as non-classical results in a paradox where it comes both before and after the establishment of classical norms. The book outlines a tradition of the grotesque in European art and literature of which the contemporary works under discussion are a part. It illuminates the economies and 'classical' nature of the aesthetics of realism, and the strength such economies still hold is demonstrated by the tenor of much of the contemporary criticism. The book examines a particular strand of the grotesque in contemporary writing.