Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird
This chapter focuses on Atkinson’s first three novels. Metafictional, self-conscious and intertextual, they particularly bear the mark of postmodernism because they offer textual games and a feast of narrative strategies. It reads these early novels as narratives of self-discovery, feminist narratives of development that rework traditional forms like the Bildungsroman and the fairy tale.
Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News?, Started Early, Took My Dog and Big Sky
This chapter analyses how Kate Atkinson introduces dissonance in the genre of detective fiction as she combines tradition with postmodern aspects and with her own distinctive marks: excess and expansiveness, complex plots with a sustained interest in character that are narrated through disrupted temporality that unsettles readers’ expectations. The chapter considers the Brodie novels as a sequence and examines how the stock character of the private detective is appropriated. It discusses the relationship to the past and the realist representation that is then deflated by metafictional devices and intertextuality. Finally, it analyses the use of chance and coincidence as narrative strategies.
This chapter examines Kate Atkinson’s play, Abandonment (2000) and her collection of stories, Not the End of the World (2002). It reads Abandonment as a neo-Victorian play that entwines two temporalities and social worlds and analyses the expansive nature of Not the End of the World. Both texts are shown to confirm Atkinson’s predilection for female characters and gender issues, the complexity of representations of the past and a hybrid form of realism, for instance, with the inclusion of a ghost in her play and Greek gods in her stories.
This chapter first considers the literary and theoretical background to Atkinson’s work that encompasses postmodernism and its aftermath. It then points to some idiosyncratic elements of her aesthetics: the combination of tradition and innovation particularly noticeable in her alliance of flowing narratives and fragmentation, the use of humour, the concern for history and memory and the feminist dimension of her work.
This first book-length study of Kate Atkinson’s multifaceted œuvre is a comprehensive introductory overview of her novels, play and stories. It situates Atkinson’s literary production in terms of an aesthetics of hydridity that appropriates and re-combines well-known genres (coming-of-age novel, detective fiction, historical novel) and narrative techniques. This book explores the singularity and significance of Atkinson’s complex narratives that engage the reader in contemporary issues and insight into human concerns through a study of the major aspects and themes that tie in her work (the combination of tradition and innovation, the relationship to the collective and personal past, to history and memory, all impregnated with humour and a feminist standpoint). It pursues a broadly chronological line through Atkinson’s literary career from Behind the Scenes at the Museum to Big Sky, the latest instalment in the Brodie sequence, through the celebrated Life After Life and subsequent re-imaginings of the war. Alongside the well-known novels, the book includes a discussion of her less-studied play and collection of short stories. Chapters combine the study of formal issues such as narrative structure, perspective and point of view with thematic analyses.
This chapter argues that, contrary to the general view that Atkinson’s narratives convey a strong sense of closure because everything seems to fall into place at the end, they self-consciously de-naturalise closure to make way for a poetics of unrest in which comfort is eventually partly denied to the reader. It shows how the early novels in particular display ‘hyperclosure’. It examines Atkinson’s appropriation of the surprise ending in the novels that offer a twist at the end. Finally, it considers how she weaves a form of poetic justice and instability into her crime fiction.
This chapter contends that Atkinson’s three historical novels display a ‘fresh commitment to what we might call the reality of history’ (Peter Boxall) when the past is rendered through specific innovative ways marked by hybridity that combine self-consciousness with a sense of realism and immersion that draw the reader in the novel. This chapter examines Life After Life as a forking-path narrative that renews the historical novel and invites a reflexion on the representation of the past. A God in Ruins is analysed as a companion novel to Life After Life that brings into focus issues of memory and oblivion. Finally, this chapter considers how Transcription revisits the spy genre and its theme of secrecy.
This chapter analyses ‘Good Old Neon’, detailing the reader’s progressive coming to terms with its multi-layered structure. The reader encounters Neal, who speaks and imagines, David Wallace, who stares and imagines, and David Foster Wallace, who writes and imagines. In delving into these three layers and exploring the centrality of imagination, the chapter demonstrates why a reflection on the shifting referents of the second-person pronoun is necessary to understand the dynamics of the text and why Neal’s posthumous positioning and its inherent privileges – first and foremost omniscience – open up a reflection on the kind of authorship Wallace is interested in. Being-posthumous provides a frame, an interpretative key, that juxtaposes knowledge with invention. This reading proposes to consider Wallace’s short story as ultimately staging a meditation on how literary imagination may counterbalance and somehow undo the ending – opening up the possibility of endlessness. The overall argument is that the kind of imagining activated here is the essence of literature itself: the experience of close-reading the short story invites to consider it as thematizing, indirectly, what literature is all about according to David Foster Wallace. This aboutness concerns, crucially, the possibility of caring and compassion, past the pervasiveness of fraudulence and past the manipulative attitude that fraudulence entails.
This chapter argues that reading David Foster Wallace’s fiction ‘between philosophy and literature’ means proceeding via the work of G. W. F. Hegel. A towering philosophical figure, Hegel in his phenomenology posits an essential role for aesthetic expression in the progression of human understanding, while his science of logic and philosophy of history provide an alternative route to the ‘deep necessity’ that Wallace initially sought in analytic logic and maths. The chapter sets out from a phrase – ‘transcendence is absorption’ – that Hal Incandenza attributes to Hegel at the outset of Infinite Jest, and goes on to engage the work of the Hegelian art historian Michael Fried in order to think about what it means to create an absorbing work of art, and what the risks and opportunities of doing so might be. The chapter then examines how absorptive themes play out in the work of Infinite Jest’s primary artist figure, Hal’s father James Incandenza. It ends by examining one particular Incandenza film – more precisely, one character's viewing of that film – that provides the closest thing in Wallace’s novel to a model for what sincere artistic communication looks like in its achieved form.
Wallace’s writing is full of bodies, often in grotesque situations of pain, addiction, or stress. From LaVache’s Leg in The Broom of the System to Cusk’s sweaty self-consciousness in The Pale King, the body is a site of contested identity, a physical inscription of the mind–body problem. Wallace’s engagement with the body situates the body as both locus of subjectivity and focus of objectification, and through examining his close attention to embodied subjectivity it is possible to elucidate aspects of his preoccupation with solipsism and human connection. Of particular interest is how our embodied experiences, according to Wallace, shape and foreclose our linguistic engagement with the world. Through close readings of a number of scenes, this chapter works towards an outline of Wallace’s poetics and ethics of embodiment. The chapter draws on existing scholarship on Wallace arguing that Wallace’s engagement with the body speaks also to a post-Kantian desire to locate the self both in opposition to and in co-operation with the unknowable other. I argue that Wallace uses the body – often the female body, often in pain – to dramatize coherent alterity. By the same token, Wallace engages in a struggle to imagine a whole and fully contained self, but this imaginative process is troubled by the forces of late capitalism in the form of drugs, labour, entertainment, and violence. The chapter argues that the body of Wallace’s work is a site of epistemological and phenomenological crisis that engages with the deepest and most sustained questions of his craft.