Category Archives: Fiction

The Other Hanoverians


On Simon Dickie’s Cruelty and Laughter




Chances are that you are going to enjoy Simon Dickie’s Cruelty & Laughter quite a bit more than you were meant to, or, perhaps, that you are going to find yourself wanting to like it more than you do. Or both. Liking it to the proper degree, at any rate—and in just the manner that it demands to be liked—is going to prove difficult. Dickie’s subject is eighteenth-century England’s sense of humor—its comic literature, for a start, the books you have probably read (Tom Jones, Roderick Random), alongside a great many others that you almost certainly haven’t (the downmarket imitators of Fielding, Smollett’s pedestrian rivals, the scores of clowning Adventures published at midcentury), and also the jokes that its people cracked even when they weren’t reading and the capers they cut on the streets. One of recent cultural history’s niftier stunts has been to get the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to trade places—to get Victorian England to swap its received image with its Georgian predecessor, like two schoolkids each hungry for the other’s lunch. It has become possible, indeed, to forget that we once associated the nineteenth century with primness and moral fervor, so often have we been reminded that it was actually full of crossdressers and sadomasochists and ten-year-olds who drank gin. Eighteenth-century studies, in the meantime, having first developed a reputation for pissing boozily into any corner, has since retrieved for its students what we might call the other Hanoverians: polite, sentimental, Richardsonian, proto-evangelical—Victorian, in a word, if that word hadn’t come to mean “secretly pornographic.” But perhaps these revisions have by now gone as far as they were ever going to go. For Dickie’s is part of a recent group of books—the list includes Jessica Warner’s history of Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason (2002) and Vic Gatrell’s City of Laughter (2006)—that mean to reinstate older perceptions by resurrecting the hard-living eighteenth century, an Enlightenment bibulous and syphilitic, less an Age of Johnson than an age of johnson. Cruelty and Laughter is the kind of book you can consult if you want to learn the many nicknames for noses devised by eighteenth-century men and women, always eager to draw attention to a drinking companion’s peculiarities—to turn their fellows into animate caricatures: Saddle Nose, Razor Nose, Ruby Nose, &c. It is an almanac of boisterousness.

 The next thing you need to know about Simon Dickie, then, is that he is daring you to find any of this even the least bit amusing. His list of topics is easily named: a chapter each on joke books; on humor directed against the misshapen and the halt; on humor directed against the poor; on the compulsive malice of Henry Fielding’s humor, which pretends to a benevolence that it cannot put into practice; on rape jokes and the insistent smirking that overran even court transcripts of sexual assault trials; and on the vogue in England in the 1750s for cut-rate picaresque fiction. What really distinguishes Dickie’s work, though, more than its chosen subjects, is the unrelieved contempt with which he treats them. As early as the second page, he calls his materials “abhorrent,” and the rhetorical pelting never lets up from there; the jokes he discusses are variously “awful,” “vicious,” and “ghastly.” “Appalling” is one of his favorite words, as is “nasty.” Dickie’s stance might best be described as a pseudo-Marxist moralism, which finally doesn’t amount to much more than the unedifying insight that rich people in the eighteenth century were unkind. I could put the point in a somewhat fancier way: There are few literary critics now writing who identify more closely with the social historians. Dickie more than once refers to himself as a “historian” and keeps naming the “social historian” as his implied reader. But he is entirely stuck between his literary training and his historian-envy. He despises the archive he has made his own and so cannot even be bothered to pose any of the interesting literary questions about it. The loathing he feels towards his bibliography terminates in an intellectual weariness or indifference towards that writing’s inevitable intricacies. Dickie has obligingly read a great many noncanonical novels that you are never going to get to, but working through Cruelty and Laughter, you won’t learn much about them except that first, they existed, and second, you probably won’t like them. The literary historian longs to ask: Did laughter really only come at the expense of the lowest and most vulnerable? Is there really nothing to be said in defense of the carnival and people’s laughter? What about satire or hilarity directed against the great? Does knowing about the culture of cruel laughter change our views on those forms? Was there no affirmative laughter or Shandeism—rehabilitating laughter, that is, or laughter that defied misery—and if there really wasn’t, how did Laurence Sterne manage to convince himself that there was? Even if we agree to discuss malign laughter exclusively, then what do we make of its uneasy compound of delight and disgust—its high-spirited repugnance or mood-lifting hate? Does such laughter develop unwitting investments in the baseness and abnormality that it seems to scorn? How exactly do we know what in such laughter is contempt and what celebration?

 Alternately, we could take Dickie’s commitment to social history at face value and thereby allow a second round of questions to emerge. When we think about European fiction in the several generations before the major innovations of the 1740s, the books that spring to mind are mostly comic: Rabelais, the Spanish picaresque, Cervantes, Swift. If we conclude that this was not just some belated canonization effect—and Dickie gives us good reasons to think that it wasn’t, by suggesting that literary historians if anything downplay the preponderance of comic literature in earlier periods—then the question poses itself: Why was comic fiction once so widely read? What is the relationship between laughter and the formation of the nation-state? Or between laughter and colonization? Or between laughter and early capitalism? Will major social upheavals tend to produce the human anomalies or mock-epic incongruities—the mushroom and mimic men—on which comic fiction thrives? But Dickie shies away from these questions, too. He is not, finally, trained as a historian and will not, as a discourse-minded English professor, allow himself the kind of sophisticated speculation from multiple evidence streams that is the hallmark of good social history. So instead he compiles endless lists of verbal bullying: Eighteenth-century writers made fun of deaf people; they made fun of blind people; they made fun of the crippled, amputees, the pock-marked, and on and on and on. The book is a forceful exercise in anti-patrician counter-repugnance, but one begins to suspect that this is all it is.

  The matter is perhaps more curious than that. Dickie’s single most consequential argument is that the historians of sympathy, sentiment, and moral sense theory have tricked us all into according too much centrality to those topics—that a bourgeois culture of compassion and decency was very long in coming. One does not have to disagree with Dickie on this score to want to point out that Dickie is not, in fact, writing against sympathy. Quite the contrary: He is writing against the historians and critics of sympathy and sentimentalism, but those concepts—and the cultural formations they name—remain entirely uninspected. One expects, indeed, that it has to be that way. For Dickie is himself a sympathetic writer—a practitioner of benevolence and striker of sentimental stands—more perhaps than he is either literary critic or social historian, striving to put back in place a set of mid-nineteenth-century judgments against the vulgarities of the dram shop and the pleasure garden. He objects to jokes as “desympathizing.” “One wonders how anyone could have laughed.” He says things like: I don’t want to sound too Victorian, but Horace Walpole really was kind of an asshole.

  Of course, such judgments are not alien to social history. One can still hear in that last sentiment the ricochet of E. P. Thompson’s writing—the working-class historian’s animosity towards “the creatures of Walpole’s …circle” (that’s Walpole père in Thompson’s case), or his disbelief that the English aristocracy could have ever concluded that it was justified to execute a man for stealing a fish with his face covered. At his best, Dickie not only channels the spirit of Thompson and Hobsbawm and Hill, but also devises inventive ways of cross-breeding their arguments with disability studies and so of extending the concerns of English Marxism beyond field preachers and radical mechanics and towards the ragged and the abject. Foucault closes ranks with the Communist Party Historians Group. The category of the poor laborer merges with the category of the freak. Dickie, who possesses a social historian’s eye for the telling detail, takes as his subject “the anonymous, wretched victims of the consumer society so lavishly evoked by recent historians.” In one eighteenth-century version of charades, party-goers would imitate various trades for their companions to guess: Are you a baker? A tailor? A weaver? Successful imitations would typically hinge on reproducing a given tradesman’s characteristic deformity: his stoop, his squint, his abbreviated life.


And yet even here there are difficulties. Dickie’s emphasis on disability eventually changes the character of the English Marxism he often ventriloquizes, or, if you like, blocks some of its signature arguments. The status of class in Dickie’s argument is finally rather unclear, as it is, of course, in histories of humor more generally. The now orthodox position on rude laughter is Mikhail Bakhtin’s, which holds that low comedy is leveling and liberating—a suspension of the rules, an upending of accustomed social hierarchies, a joyful reduction of the body back to it mostly widely shared functions. Mardi Gras, if you believe this account, is the one space in otherwise regulated cultures where grotesque bodies are fully welcome, the one space, that is, in which beauty doesn’t move you to the front of the line, the space where half-naked fat men can dance with dwarfish women and find delighted onlookers cheering them on. This, tellingly, is an argument that Dickie doesn’t even consider long enough to dispute. One question we might now ask is: What do we say back to Bakhtin once we realize that the gentry also liked a good fart joke? Such is the importance of Gatrell’s City of Laughter, which reproduces hundreds of comic prints from the late eighteenth century and the Regency, all of them to varying degrees goatish and none of them within the budget of a saddlemaker’s apprentice. This prompts the student of comedy to modify Bakhtin’s case in two ways: In the eighteenth century, carnival was if anything more the property of the great than of the plebes—the low laughter of the high-born—and for some of them it was permanent and hence not just a holiday mood. Scurrility wasn’t so much the overturning of hierarchy as its habitual and sodden mode. Gatrell is a historian, but philosophically his account presupposes a kind of untutored Nietzscheanism or even a light vitalism: He asks us to think of London’s aristocratic crapulence as a culture without negation, a capacity for taking pleasure in just about anything without having to worry about who sins and who suffers. The visual arts produced a different, more joyous, less alienated city than the Londons one finds in literature, which is condemned to moralism by the simple fact of narrative sequence—compelled, in other words, to care about actions and their consequences. To note the Nietzscheanism in City of Laughter, a book so unbridled one suspects that Gatrell wrote most of it with his pants off, is at the same time to draw attention to the grindingly un-Nietzschean qualities of Dickie’s work. And this is worth dwelling on because the latter has affiliated himself with disabilities studies, a field which typically positions itself as fully beyond good and evil. Or to be more precise: Disability studies is an unlikely compound of Nietzschean and anti-Nietzschean—Christian and universalist—arguments, but from this synthesis Dickie has stripped away the Nietzscheanism (the cruelty, the laughter), and so fashioned a wholly prayerful version of the disability project, preoccupied with fragility and the beleaguered preeminence of the meek. At the same time, then, that he is injecting a set of Foucauldian concerns into English Marxism, he is terminating the Foucauldian thread in disability studies itself: “Scholars have been far quicker to acknowledge the sexual freedoms of early modern libertinism than the equally important freedoms of violence and destruction.”

  And yet Dickie’s very universalism keeps eating itself. His book’s basic position is that eighteenth-century laughter came mostly at the expense of the poor. Gentlemen chuckled into their cuffs while watching worn-down old women shit into ditches. An instability is then introduced into his argument when he notes, as rigor demands, that the laboring classes often laughed along with their betters. Cheap joke books contained the same malicious jokes as their expensively bound counterparts. A butcher was just as likely as a baronet to mimic a cripple’s limp or lead a blind man smack into some wall. And eventually Dickie pulls the plug on E. P. Thompson altogether: “No one can now overlook the nastiness of early modern plebeian life: the violence and long-held grudges, the insults and catfights in alleyways, the elaborate vengeance for unpaid debts or borrowed goods not returned.” The English Marxism which had seemed to furnish Cruelty and Laughter with its guiding ethos turns out to be one of its sadder casualties. “Cruelties in Common,” he might have called this book, in which the beautiful soul compiles its ever-growing catalog of the eighteenth century’s universal wantonness.

  And yet this moral stand is probably something of an intellectual dead end. That the problems attending rude humor are not simply ethical ones, but are rather formal and rhetorical, is amply demonstrated by Dickie’s own book, which itself falls into nearly all the traps that he has identified in eighteenth-century comedy. The only novel that Dickie discusses at any length is Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742), about which he makes two points: first, that Fielding, despite his professed intention to reform humor and elicit from his readers an un-cruel laughter, compulsively reproduces the knockabout of his own earlier stage comedies; and second, that eighteenth-century readers mostly appreciated Fielding’s novel as a bit of silly fun—a farce between covers—and thought of Parson Adams, in particular, not as an amiably eccentric paragon, but as a comedic butt and scapegoat, just another foolish old man to be swatted on the back of the head. We can, on Dickie’s behalf, extrapolate his argument into something of a method: We should be bothered whenever an attack on low comedy replicates what it critiques, and we should take bad readers as authoritative in this regard and so remain vigilant against an amoral audience’s ability to laugh for the wrong reasons. Any “instability of tone,” Dickie often insinuates, is just an unforgivable moral foot-dragging, a reluctance to condemn. I am only demonstrating my fidelity to Dickie’s project, therefore, if I now point out that Cruelty and Laughter extensively reproduces eighteenth-century jest-books in the process of attacking them, and that the book’s jacket promises that its collection of rape jokes and pranks perpetrated upon the sick will be “wildly enjoyable”—“entertaining,” the back cover calls the book, a work of “verve” and “joy.” Dickie himself pauses to explain what eighteenth-century people called it when a person soiled himself: “buttered eggs in the breeches,” they said. He also, in that Fielding chapter, tells us to be on our guard against elite figures who unconvincingly perform their solidarity with the eighteenth-century poor. One can learn a lot from Cruelty and Laughter and still wish that it weren’t so haplessly self-hoisting. If you are convinced of Dickie’s argument, then the only consequent way of showing this will be not to read his book.

The Sea is Not a Place; or Putting the World Back into World Literature




If you want to understand some of the last decade’s renewed interest in the category of “world literature”—if, that is, you want to understand the real achievements of the concept as refurbished by Pascale Casanova, Franco Moretti and others, and perhaps also to begin repairing its weaknesses—it will help if you first understand the ways in which Samuel Beckett’s Molloy is most like the Charlie’s Angels movies. One way to get at their resemblance would be to list some of the complaints that viewers have leveled against the latter. It has “no plot,” wrote one critic of the first Angels movie, released in 2001, and, indeed, fails to meet the basic demands of continuity; “it’s difficult to tell how one punch leads to another.”  The San Francisco Chronicle warned that Charlie’s Angels lacked not only clear sequencing, but also characters that one might care about or indeed any discernible individuals at all, though, of course, it fully agreed the movie was fragmented, less a coherent story than “bits of scenes … overly stylized and self-conscious.”  The BBC elaborated on the point: The picture “leaps from one small scene to another,” it said, dispensing in the process with “real drama and proper exchanges.”  In literary history, these deficiencies are known, collectively, as “undermining the edifice of realism” and are the sort of thing that novelists get a lot of credit for attempting.  One student of modernism has written that Beckett, no less than Columbia Pictures, devised a “new set of technical tools that made it possible to escape meaning—which is to say narration, representation, succession, description, setting, even character.” Indictment: Charlie’s Angels “exists in a reality unto itself.”  Tribute: Beckett “created the most independent world conceivable.”  The medium changes, and calumny is transposed into praise.

This will seem like a joke, but we might, in fact, want to take seriously a certain plain, verbal fact, which is that people who don’t like big-budget action movies often describe them—spontaneously, unwittingly—as though they were modernist novels. Perhaps a moment’s reflection will make this less surprising. For what Molloy and Charlie’s Angels share is easily named; it is the aesthetics of abstraction, the pressure exerted upon narrative by de-specification. This, too, comes into focus when refracted through the criticism. Here is Perry Anderson on blockbuster cinema: “The basis for the fortune of Hollywood” has been “narrative and visual schemas stripped to their most abstract, recursive common denominators.”  And here is Terry Eagleton on the literature of the mid-century: “Beckett’s works take a few sparse elements and permutate them with Irish-scholastic ingenuity into slightly altered patterns.”  Recursion, permutation, slight alterations … Samuel Beckett and Hollywood film, these exact contemporaries, these children of the year 1906 … Spotting the two of them together, in tandem, now becomes a minor test, an opportunity to demonstrate one’s intellectual steadfastness: Are you willing to approach the culture industry and the art novel with the same aesthetic priorities? Can you hold the one to the same standards that you hold the other? Devotees of Beckett’s fiction might, of course, still conclude that they dislike Charlie’s Angels, but they aren’t going to be able to dislike it for insufficiently reminding them of Middlemarch.

Indeed, watching Charlie’s Angels with Beckett open on your lap is a chance to remind yourself of the rigorous formalism of much Hollywood film, which after all has its own particular way of “refusing to yield to the usual requirements of legibility.”  What we will want to say back to anyone incapable of appreciating such a radiance is that they don’t really like film qua film, that they bring with them into the movie theater the worn-out expectations generated by older narrative modes, to the point where they can no longer tolerate a cinema set free from extra-cinematic demands, liberated, more than any Iranian neorealism or the interminably filmed conversations of the French New Wave, into color and kinetics and pace. What offends is not the brainlessness of Charlie’s Angels, but its aestheticism, for which that other is code. A movie “without … purpose,” objects Roger Ebert, to which the only answer is: Exactly.

Turning to Beckett, we will want to repay the favor by pointing out the plebeian and atavistic quality of late modernist prose, the way in which it liquidates the conventions of novelistic realism in large part by reactivating the cadences of folklore and myth. Beckett’s was not an uncharted path to abstraction, but precisely an antique and subliterary one: Here’s a story about “two men … one small and one tall. They had left the town,” some town, no particular town.  We could say, more precisely, that Beckett’s prose achieves its high degree of abstraction by deploying at once two literary registers that we typically regard as opposed: folklore, which is Beckett’s debt to an Irish Revival that he officially scorned, but also a minutely interiorized and doubting ego borrowed from lyric poetry—a blocky folklorism, then, that has no need for novelistic particularities, plus a dismal lyricism that blurs whatever few specificities remain. Molloy often reads like myth retold by some tormented prose-sonneteer. “He wore a cocked hat” could be the beginning of a song or a children’s rhyme. But Beckett’s narrators will glaze any such bare fact: “It seemed to me he wore a cocked hat.”  We might, in the same spirit, call to mind Adorno’s observation that European modernism was basically just an extension of nineteenth-century horror fiction—or rather, that it was an unlooked-for recombination of neoclassicism and its Gothic opposite; abstraction made eerie; Palladianism with the lights turned out: Conrad’s ghost ships and vampire derelicts, Eliot’s bridge-crossing zombie-shades, not to mention the too easy instances of the Czech were-roach and the twelve-tone music that survives now almost only on the soundtracks of scary movies.  To this list we can add Beckett’s writing of the rotting flesh, whose signature tic is to say “death” wherever ordinary English would say “life,” and whose stories center on old men who beat up their even older mothers; on those who live within earshot of abattoirs; on menacing cops and unexplained kidnappings and rectal births. It has taken a sustained effort, of a more or less ideological kind, to get lots of people to agree that this was ever “high culture.” We can praise the Hollywood blockbuster for its euphoric and unweary modernism; or we can conclude that modernist art is less the negation of pop culture than its distension and making-arduous. Either way, it will be hard to escape the impression that modernism, determined to purify itself of mass culture, keeps rediscovering itself in its hated opposite. Charlie’s Angels only had one sequel; Molloy produced two.

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We can begin now to say why this pairing should matter to anyone wanting to study something called “world literature.” The problem with conventional accounts of modernism and aestheticism is that they tend to mistake abstraction for autonomy; abstract prose gets to count as self-sufficient, a writing apart from the world, answerable to no agencies or institutions, borrowing elements from empirical reality only to transfigure them, no longer constrained to file reports on the really existing, to serve out its time as the gazetteer of circumstance. If an artwork is any object unshackled from the demands of mere use—a jug too lovely or fragile or pointy-handled to pour from—then the virtue of abstraction will be that it unfits language for the purposes of ordinary communication and so shifts it over to the realm of art. This is what makes abstraction easy to mistake for autonomy or why it is easily misperceived as its vehicle. In Beckett’s prose, then, one finds a more or less strenuous refusal of context:

• “And I, what was I doing there, and why come? … these are things we must not take seriously.”

• “Shall I describe the room? No.”

• “For the particulars, if you are interested in particulars….”

What jumps out in these lines, and the many more like them, is that Beckett cannot, in fact,  quietly bypass readerly expectations; the apparatus of realism has to be acknowledged so that it can be tauntingly canceled by professions of ignorance and amnesia. My mother has died. “I don’t know how.” I used to love a woman. “I’ve forgotten” her name.  The most telling variant of this tic, also utterly commonplace in Beckett, is the withdrawn specification. A concrete detail of a realist kind is offered to the reader as bait and respite and then in the same sentence negated, like so:

• “A little dog followed him, a pomeranien I think, but I don’t think so.”

• “It was a chainless bicycle, with a free-wheel, if such a bicycle exists.”

• “The dog was uniformly yellow, a mongrel I suppose, or a pedigree, I can never tell the difference.”

It is rhetorical tether-snippings such as these that lead some readers to deem Beckett’s writing independent and self-directed, unbeholden to the objects it just barely names—or fails to name—or names multiply—“literature rescued from dependence,” as one admirer has it.      A self-sufficient literary language, then—except, of course, it is nothing of the sort. Autonomy, I think, except I don’t think so. When “abstraction” renames itself “autonomy,” the concept gets freighted with political claims that it cannot make good on. A writer’s withdrawal from reference is thought somehow to model or to guarantee or to act as signature for a second withdrawal, a retreat from institutions, as though an art for art’s sake did not in some entirely ordinary way have to be produced and announced to the world and disseminated and exhaustively explained. You can say that all art begins, in a fabulating spirit, by separating itself from reality, and you can praise abstract art for resolutely guarding that partition. Or, if you have come to distrust representations as such because they inevitably convey some ideology or another, you can say that an abstract and experimental writing works to unsettle our relationship to language, making it difficult for us to sink back into our usual lexical stupor, irritating us into inhabiting speech less thoughtlessly. Or you can simply marvel that the abstract artwork is the last thing in the world that isn’t expected to do anything, the only object still exempt from the calculus of efficiency, the only one of us who gets to stay out late because it doesn’t have to work in the morning. Humanity delegates its relinquished autonomy to a special class of objects, so that these can enjoy liberty in its stead. The abstract artwork is, in this sense, a labor-saving device, a metaphysical appliance, freedom’s automatic spray tube dishwasher. But having made any of these arguments, what do you then say when you discover that the US government began buying up modern art in the 1940s, that the State Department helped promote abstraction abroad as something like the official aesthetic of the United States, or indeed that many of the journals in which abstraction was argumentatively furthered received funding from the CIA—that the CIA’s first head of counter-intelligence was famous first for founding a quarterly of modernist poetry and that the CIA regularly recruited agents from the Kenyon Review?  Even abstraction has its political uses, chief among them to mime an independence from such use. Autonomous art was nakedly heteronomous—this may be the only paradox of twentieth-century aesthetics that Adorno missed.

Hence Charlie’s Angels. If it is writers like Beckett that you want to understand, then the virtue of talking about commercial film first is that no-one has ever mistaken Hollywood’s motley geometries and dream states for political autonomy. The freedom from reference, which we might also call an indifference to local content, is itself produced by a system and historical occasion—immigrants, in the Californian instance, learning to tell stories to other immigrants, conglomerating and simplifying their inherited narrative forms, which is what lends Hollywood movies the character of a sailor’s yarn, and then streamlining these further once the industry discovers that such reduced forms export especially well, like fortified wines and salted meats, playing with equal facility in nearly any national market or communal VCR, on the simple theory that a viewer in Chongqing is unlikely to commit to a 60-hour film dramatizing the contradictions of US drug policy on the streets of post-industrial Baltimore. The global dominance of Hollywood cinema cannot be separated from the basically Galilean quality of its cinematic space: bodies in motion against green screens, CGI cannonballs dropped from the world’s interchangeable towers.

Once one grants this last point—that abstraction itself has a material underpinning and that it emerges more easily in some historical locations than in others—then the task is simply to extend this insight back to Beckett (and Gombrowicz and Borges and Kobo Abe). This is where Pascale Casanova comes in. Modernism has had its own distinctive patronage institutions, whose needs it roughly serves, and it is the great virtue of Casanova’s World Republic of Letters to help us spot one, alongside the university and the American state, that we might otherwise have missed.  The easiest way to come to grips with her argument is to resolve it back into its component parts—to realize, that is, how programmatically Casanova has grafted Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory onto Pierre Bourdieu’s account of distinction or cultural capital. First Bourdieu: In order for a literary scene to exist, a national language needs to possess nothing so interesting as a rarefied temperament—neither a linguistic cache of ensorceling Indo-European roots nor a secret, primeval resemblance to ancient Greek—but an entirely mundane, nuts-and-bolts literary infrastructure: a leisured elite, schools willing to teach its patricians the skills of higher literacy, a caste of professional writers, bookstores, libraries, publishing houses, state patronage for the arts, and a functioning feuilleton. Any nation with these many latter will be able to convince itself that it also has the former. Then Wallerstein: Not all nation-states possess these resources to the same degree, and the ones that possess them in superabundance—France, Britain, more recently the US—get to tell the rest of the world what counts as literature. It’s worse than that: The literary salarymen of the great European metropolises—editors, critics, translators—have always played a unique mediating role in the global literary system, claiming for themselves the authority to choose which of the world’s aspiring novelists will get access to the large and university-educated readerships over which they stand guard, and the first issue to be decided by young writers on the literary periphery—in the Sudan, say, or in Gujarat—is thus whether or not they are going to write in ways designed to appeal to such people. What Casanova has persuasively established is that there are world cities of literature, places, above all Paris, where authors—and not just French ones—are certified as literary. The best thing about her book, in this sense, is that its title is simply wrong, utterly contravened by her own argument, which describes nothing like a “world republic of letters,” with whatever faded egalitarian associations that term still has, but rather a literary world system, neo-colonial in effect if rarely in intention: stratified, full of power imbalances, “a world of rivalry, struggle, and inequality.”

The point that we do not want to overlook is that a certain orthodox conception of High Literature—the aestheticist account of autonomous writing—is made possible only by this empire-not-republic of letters. That point comes in a weak form and a strong, which depends on the weak. The weak version says that all novels, even realist ones, will seem more abstract or aestheticized when lifted out of their various national contexts and read by foreigners who won’t understand their more sectional references—German readers, say, for whom the names of São Paulo neighborhoods are just sounds, so many swayings of the verbal hips. Against the old prejudice that condemns all translations for being dull photostats of their originals, this idea holds that translation is in many cases just the reverse—the key, indeed, to making a work literary, and that a certain loss, a smudging of the detail or declaring-irrelevant of the particularities, is intrinsic to this process. Literary aestheticism is in large part the effect of being republished elsewhere; we call autonomous those works whose dependencies we are unable to spot. To this idea—that a novel is more likely to get treated as literature once it travels—the strong version of the argument adds that the literary world system is designed to reward writers who have, as it were, preemptively de-nationalized, whose writing comes pre-abstracted, obligingly stripped of geographical and historical markers, proper-name-avoidant. Tolstoy positions a character in Смоле́нск, and a Russian reader in the 1870s recognizes a western border town, a fortress defending the route to Moscow, a crossroads-which-is-to-say-battlefield, a place where Napoleon once attacked. Tolstoy’s translator positions that same character in “Smolensk,” and a reader in Minnesota in 1930 thinks … nothing much, probably … that he wishes the book came with a map … that he likes a good Jewish joke. Smolensk has become a city I just about recognize as Russian, barely more than a spot-marking X. And then Beckett writes, in Molloy: “I beg your pardon, Sir, this is X, is it not?, X being the name of my town.”  Modernism ratifies the condition of literature in translation, neither presuming local knowledge nor offering to produce it. And “world literature” is the name for a certain tendency towards abstraction within the global literary system, the propensity of works aiming for an international readership to make themselves frictionless. There is to that extent a social history to literary autonomy, a social history, in other words, behind the kinds of writing that feel licensed to dispense with social history.

Such, in a nutshell, is Casanova’s splendid revision of the concept of Weltliteratur, which here stops functioning as the name for an (especially tedious) canon and instead makes its rightful contribution to a materialist history of letters. One marvels, indeed, while reading her book, at the determination-unto-mania with which Casanova transposes into the sphere of literature arguments borrowed from Braudel and dependency theory and the like, casting about for belletristic semi-peripheries, programs of poetic import-substitution, &c., and almost always identifying plausible candidates. It makes a person wonder into how many other non-economic domains world-systems theory could be usefully extended: Is there a cinematic world system? Probably. A musical one? A culinary one? And yet Casanova’s argument is, for all that, rather broken-backed; there is a fracture running through her very great book. Here’s the tricky thing: Casanova helps us see that the world’s publishing centers have had the power to declare writing literary, to consecrate a foreign production as Literature, and she argues that the abstraction characteristic of such writing is produced by the unevenness of the global literary system. Abstract writing—or concrete writing read as abstract—involves a false universalization imposed by the biblio-metropolis. She herself speaks in this regard of the “structural ethnocentrism of the literary world.”

And yet—and here’s the puzzle—Casanova aggressively prefers such abstract and falsely universal writing, routinely declaring international modernism superior to rival literary modes, and expressing a certain pity for the African and Asian writers who don’t get to enjoy its bogus autonomy—“nationalist” writers, these would be, and literary realists: “conservative, traditional—in a word … ignorant.”  She begins her book by explaining how a certain illusion of autonomy is produced and concludes it by patly reinstating that illusion. The matter comes to a head when she explains what distinguishes the semi-periphery in her ingenious model. One of Casanova’s advances over postcolonial studies as practiced in the English-speaking countries is that she has salvaged from Wallerstein this exceedingly generative concept, which adds a complexifying third term to the seesawing dichotomies of center/periphery and metropolis/colony. In Casanova, the semiperiphery—that which is neither metropolis nor colony proper—is the domain of the “small languages”—Bulgarian, Romanian, Swedish, and so on—languages, that is, with established print traditions, working presses, national or regional canons, &c, but whose literatures arouse little interest outside their borders and whose native readerships are by global standards so small as to support little professional literary activity. Writers on the semi-periphery thus face a choice, whether as burden or luxury, that genuinely colonized writers do not; the bifurcations in the literary world system crystallize in front of them: Is one to become a national writer or an international one? That choice isn’t fully available on the periphery, at least in the sense that Ngugi was doing something quite drastic in opting for Kikuyu, language without novels, whereas Josep Pla, in opting for an already belletrified Catalan, was merely clambering on board a regional donnée.

The point that we won’t want to miss is that this geopolitical distinction—national v. international—is, on Casanova’s understanding, pegged to a second, properly stylistic distinction: realist v. modernist. Writers who do not care if foreigners read them write stories about their home countries in an accessibly middling prose. Realist fiction thus becomes the symptom-in-literature of a region’s more general backwardness; it is intrinsically parochial, requiring the specifications that anchor prose to a particular pace; and writers who have the option of writing like Beckett and don’t take it stand accused of pursuing a retrograde policy. This is a point Casanova makes repeatedly and in the tones of a Viennese economist instructing protectionist Argentines to stop subsidizing wheat farmers. Such is the uneasy surprise of her book: Its entire conceptual framework is borrowed from the great anti-colonial sociologists, and a reader goes in thinking that she is trying to figure out what literature can contribute towards the liberation of colonized peoples. But it turns out that all she really cares about is the liberation of literature, and that she likes African and Latino writers most when they can serve that other end. It’s like getting to the last page of Wallerstein and finding out that he’d been promoting free markets all along. Casanova thus reliably inverts the anti-colonial position, championing Caribbean and Arab and Asian writers when they take up European intellectual tools against their own peers, as when she praises the Algerian novelist Rachid Boudjedra for “employing the weapons of writers in the center in order to subvert social and religious proprieties [in North Africa].”  What in the first twenty-five pages she exposes, with great agility, as the “naïve” idea of a “pure, dehistoricized, denationalized, and depoliticized conception of literature,”  she reinstates gullibly in her final paragraphs as a “truly autonomous literary revolution,” commending modernist fiction for generating a second “independent world” to shadow the one we actually live in, which I think anyone would have to admit is a rather peculiar definition of “world literature”: a literature as little as possible about the world.

There is more to be said about this cinching together of nationalism and realism, as about its setting over and against a modernism that gets to count as international, since it turns out that very little about this scheme will survive closer inspection. Casanova’s account starts unraveling, as so often, around the antithesis to which it is tacked: nationalist realism vs. internationalist modernism. We can start shouting out the names of argumentative threads as they come unfastened. There are, by my count, three important points to be made against Casanova:

Realism is every bit as international as modernism, at least in the sense that Casanova means it: a widely diffused set of narrative techniques or formal structures, written on every continent, referring back to the same few models—Scott, Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy—and less attentive to local content than you might think. Another way to make this point would be to say, as Franco Moretti has, that the realist novel was a basically imperial northwest-European literature, or that realism was once the name for the encroaching standardization of world fiction, an innovative form, to be sure, but also an inertia, a stable “Anglo-French paradigm … third-person historical novels, and not much else”: Benito Perez Galdós, Park Kyung-ni, Fenimore Cooper.  The insidiously realist novel proved so compelling a form that it convinced writers in southern Europe, Asia and elsewhere to find the most British possible stories to tell about those places or convinced them to trick out French plots with characters bearing assonantly local names. This is the occasion to recall Roberto Schwarz’s great argument that the European novel was not, in its very form, suited to the colonies, but that early Brazilian novelists did not know this.  Once a literary critic has separated realist fiction back into its distinct conventions—free-indirect discourse, marriage plots and multi-plots, character sketches, &c.—there is no reason to think of these as any less abstract than the studied imprecisions of late modernism: easy to carry, iterable, geographically indifferent.

Modernism is every bit as national as realism. There is, indeed, an unmistakable nationalism hitching a ride on Casanova’s argument, offering as it does a Third World anti-nationalism which tends nonetheless to endlessly reconfirm the preeminence of the French. This is no mere prejudice on her part: Casanova does provide some rather good reasons for thinking of Paris as the imperial arbiter of the Modern or for thinking that to become a modernist in Scandinavia or Ireland was in some more or less self-conscious way to Gallicize, and her account accordingly assigns a special, diagnostic role to those foreign writers who were upfront about apprenticing to los franceses: Rubèn Dario, Georg Brandes, August Strindberg, Beckett himself.  It is just that having made this point, she can no longer claim that modernism is, unlike realism, the authentically international position, since its transcontinental abstractions have always carried some secretly national commitments. That of course the same point can be made about an international-but-really-Anglo-French realism only tightens the screw: In addition to there being two international modes of prose fiction, there is also none.

The nation repeats at the level of content. Casanova makes the case for scores and scores of writers that they can’t be read in a narrowly national frame. She asks us to see any national literature as just one more place where international literary rivalries get played out, a perpetual, fraught recombination of foreign elements in which the indigenous contribution often recedes away to nothing: Canadian literature pits Anglophile novelists against Americanized ones. Modern Irish literature, which, from the vantage of 1870, one might have expected to be a running contest between the Anglicizers and the Gaelic nativists, decides instead to remodel itself on French, Russian, and Italian precedents. Casanova has a good time detailing such geo-literary twist and turns and has written perhaps the only literary history that sometimes reminds one of spy fiction: Ibsen “affirmed his determination to introduce realism into the theater and henceforth to use French literary tools for the purpose of devising a distinctively Norwegian style freed from German constraints and control.”  And yet this analytical sophistication comes at a certain cost, allowing one to forget that at the straightforward level of setting and character, the modernist novels that Casanova champions are no less nation-bound than the realist ones she finds contemptible. Faulkner, after all, is a regionalist, the cornerstone of Southern literature seminars, a modernist-of-one-county. Even Beckett’s Molloy grudgingly admits its Irish setting, and not only because the novel shares its name with a Victorian poet who wrote songs with titles like “The Kerry Dance” and “Thady O’Flynn.” If you read carefully, you’ll work out that Beckett has set his story on an island and that there is a sea, tellingly, to the east; you’ll spot the odd local custom or identifying mark: “And da, in my part of the world, means father.”  We could grant for the sake of argument that modernism is in literary history the properly international term, and we would still have to conclude that its internationalism is available in its pages only as form, in which case, Casanova, having laid out the distinction between an international modernism and a nationally minded realism, is not actually choosing one side of that antithesis, but rather a particular way of breaching it: the internationalized narrating of the nation. Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist ends when Stephen Daedalus resolves to leave Ireland, which is another way of saying that the novel itself never gets to leave, that it does not follow Stephen, that it is forever stuck in Dublin; it fails to complete the character’s cosmopolitan turn. Casanova’s point would be that Stephen’s cosmopolitanism has actually been present in Portrait all along at the level of technique, the tangible, typographic sign of which are the dashes that Joyce uses instead of quotation marks, which are, of course, not really an innovation, but simply how many continental European writers handle dialogue: Russian, French, Spanish. Cosmopolitanism is available to Joyce as an ethos, as a principle that characters can discourse about; and it is also available to him as a punctuation mark; but it remains oddly absent at the level of content. That is the condition of modernism.

Here, then, is a proposal, and it is the suggestion that actually concerns me here: In a tinkering spirit, one has to wonder about the unnamed counterpoint to Casanova’s chosen aesthetic—not a single-nation modernism, which is what she prefers, but a realism of many nations—Joyce’s Portrait, flipped. Ask yourself: If it is literary cosmopolitanism that we are after, why are we settling for Joyce’s Europeanized quotation marks? Why are stuck extrapolating the politics from a typographic convention? More broadly: Why is the argument about world literature proceeding entirely at the level of form and technique? Don’t you want to read novels whose narrators themselves travel from continent to continent—and not just from the provinces to Paris, or from Sussex to London, or between neighboring countries—but properly global novels? But then where are those titles? How many can you name? One begins to wonder whether the novel, as a form, in any of its modes, can absorb properly global or transcontinental content, since even on Casanova’s own account, this possibility seems entirely foreclosed. It’s the option that doesn’t even come up. Her formalism is to that extent a grave limitation, and one begins to suspect that an internationalism of content would be the utopian term that eludes her rickety conceptual scheme—utopian, that is, simply by virtue of being missing. We are accustomed to thinking of form as sedimented content—the formulation is Adorno’s—and we want to say in this spirit that certain literary techniques carry the globe with them. But then where are the naively planetary novels of which these techniques are the vaporings? Do we have in front of us the strange case of a sediment that precedes the object of which it is the residue? How could a novel make good on Joyce’s Hibernio-Slavic quotation dashes? Is it possible to reconstitute the body from that trace? Could a world literature actually tell stories about the world?

All one needs to know about Franco Moretti, meanwhile, is that he has written a book, The Modern Epic, which is perhaps the most bizarre contribution to literary history in the last generation, a book about “world texts”—“supranational works” of vast “geographical ambition”; of, indeed, “global ambition”—in which he for all intents and purposes identifies no such works.  The real head-scratcher in The Modern Epic comes in the closing pages when Moretti confesses that he had meant to write a study of novels that conceptualize time into very long periods—super-historical novels, you might call them—but that he had realized as he wrote that he was interested in geographical expanse instead: spatial immensities rather than chronological ones. And yet none of the works he writes about are geographically expanded, which leaves the reader in the odd position of having a deflationary counter-epiphany. Moretti is surprised to have written the book he did, and the reader is surprised that he didn’t actually write that book. His key titles are two national allegories (One Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight’s Children); a city novel (Ulysses); Wagner’s Ring cycle, which Moretti himself calls “spatially concentrated,” “a grand world, but one made up of few places”; and Goethe’s Faust, which so defies Moretti’s attempts to classify it as a “world text” that he finally breaks down and concedes that it is “a kind of national saga” after all.  Instead of the modern epics that his title promises, Moretti has spread out before us a set of more or less unconvincing proxies: Maybe literary crowds and choruses can produce the effect of the world, by reproducing in prose what the planet feels like. Or maybe multiethnic nations can stand in for the world. Maybe department stores can. Or people walking shop-lined streets. Maybe we can say that an epochal and multi-generational narrative is about the world, provided we agree to read time as though it were space. But then why would we do that? Any solution this labored obviously discloses the actual problem, which is that extended space does not seem to be directly representable, and Moretti has not paused long enough to ask why. Why should we have to go through the detour of time? Why this nervous list of approximations? What becomes clear is that the one thing that Moretti most wants—the thing, too, that he has confoundingly convinced himself he has identified—is actually missing. So why do the theorists of world literature routinely make a hash of “the international” and “the national”? And do we have any counterproposals to make back to Moretti in a cooperative spirit? Where, finally, are the books he thought he was writing about?




A Passage to What?

If you stick with this one, I think I’ll be able to explain how it is that fascism can be made appealing to ordinary Americans, and no fooling. I want to be clear that by “ordinary Americans,” I do not mean Birthers and Teabaggers. I mean the rest of us: suburbanites, semi-sophisticates, people who sometimes vote for Democrats, carriers of canvas tote bags. And by “fascism” I don’t mean any politics to the right of my own; I don’t mean traffic cops and my gym coach. I mean unpleasant Italians in the 1920s, Teutonic ghastliness, the Spanish clampdown. I’m not saying that I can show you how a generically right-wing politics appeals to the American Right; there’s not much that needs explaining on that front. I’m saying, rather, that I can show how something rather like National Socialism can be made appealing to you.

It all starts with, which is, I grant, an unlikely place to begin a conversation about fascism. Salon, after all, is an unmistakably “progressive” undertaking: based in San Francisco, founded by a former editor at Mother Jones, temperately anti-war, feminist, queer-friendly, &c. The site represents a kind of publication that has never really existed in print form or on glossy paper: a lifestyle magazine for middle-class liberals, a site where you can get in one click from some fairly trenchant analysis of the US government’s misplaced “imperial priorities” to recipes for “the best burger I ever had” (and in the event, also pretty good). Salon is perhaps the closest thing Statesiders now have to an American version of the UK Guardian, the sort of magazine that will occasionally let itself engage in utopian speculation, when no idiom is more foreign to official writing about politics than that. One recent article introduced its argument with a brief thought experiment about an “imaginary classless society.” But if you look just a little bit harder at that same article, it turns out that such a society would have a “universal middle class.” Socialism as the apotheosis of the middle classes, their driving of all other players from the field: that’s Salon.

Earlier this summer, Salon decided to start a book club: the magazine’s readers would all read the same long novel, at roughly the same time, and would have a public, on-line discussion about it over the course of three weeks. The first book that Salon chose was The Passage, a new vampire apocalypse by a writer who teaches at Rice named Justin Cronin. It’s a little misleading to single out Salon for pushing The Passage this way. The novel has been getting all sorts of attention: declarations of love from Time and The Guardian, a book deal so big that it was reported as a news item in its own right in 2007. Ridley Scott has already bought the rights. There has been touting. Salon was making sure it kicked things off with a novel lots of people were going to be reading anyway.

They were also making a clean break with Oprah, by throwing boy-readers a book they could gnaw at. There are at least two different ways of telegraphing what it’s like to read The Passage. One way is to note its literary affiliations: The novel basically just takes the premise of Richard Matheson’s slender, economical I Am Legend—vampires have taken over the world—and bulks it out to a length that is prolix and Tolkienian: so not just one survivor, as in Matheson, but an entire village of survivors, then a quest narrative, which eventually ramps up into an out-and-out war story, a cage match cosmic and Manichean, between the men of the West and what are really just bioluminescent orcs.

The other way is easier: The Passage is a fast-zombie movie in prose. One suspects that Cronin has called his monsters “vampires” only because, in the fashion cycle of collective dread, vampires are back. Gone, mostly, are the zombies of the last decade—the dilatory, the dawdling, the pointlessly milling dead. Pop culture once again prefers its ghouls to have purpose and penetrating stares. Cronin’s cannibals resemble bloodsuckers in some respects, and the walking dead in others; five years ago he would have called them zombies; but it’s 2010, so he calls them vampires. I want to be careful here. At some level, it’s pointless to try to segregate out from one another Hollywood’s vampire and zombie populations. Monsters routinely intermarry. There have been lots of vampire-zombie splicings, not the least of which is I Am Legend itself. Or rather: I Am Legend was, via its first film version—not 1971’s The Omega Man, but a 1964 Italian production starring Vincent Price—one of the major sources for Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which means that the zombie movie as we know it actually began as a mutation in the vampire code. But we can just as well leave that history aside. The broader point is that any time a movie, 30 Days of Night, say, has its vampires attack in numbers—any time it deploys them against humans in formations larger than three or four—it’s going to start looking, whether it means to or not, like a zombie pic. Humans will board up their windows and huddle in locked rooms. They will fall to multiple, scrabbling hands.

So vampires often look like zombies. And then there’s the simple point that filmmakers and especially novelists have woven so many variations on the vampire that they, like the queer people they are often made to resemble, come in all possible forms: vampire politicians, vampire mechanics, the vampire homeless. It seems useless to insist that vampires are really one way and not another. One wishes to say all the same that the genre’s anchoring works—the stories and novels that have set the horizon for the form: Polidori, Stoker, Anne Rice—have always given special emphasis to aristocracy, etiquette, seduction, intelligence. For a creature to register emphatically as a vampire—for it to be recognizable as something other than a zombie—it needs to seem like a superior being, Luciferous and more than human; and it needs to be something you could possibly make the mistake of falling in love with. All I mean is that a certain Byronism is pretty well wired into the thing.

Cronin’s “vampires,” meanwhile, are dim and scavenging herd animals, not superhuman but rather the opposite: degenerate and cretinous. Rigor commands that I also list the ways they are not like zombies: They are light-sensitive; they don’t turn everyone they bite; a very small number of them emit their memories and commands in a manner extrapolated from antique vampire mind-control or mesmerism; they are fairly hard to kill. But these are secondary characteristics, whereas the monsters’ zombie traits are central to one’s experience of the novel: They don’t have manners, and they (mostly) don’t have minds. Most important: They come in nests and pods and swarms and packs and scourges and hordes.

I want to stick with “hordes.” It’s important to get the matter of genre right, because to opt for the fast zombie, as your particular horror niche, is to place in front of a readership a distinctive set of historical or sociopolitical concerns, concerns that are at this point built into those monsters. Here’s the quick-and-dirty version: Fast zombies, as cinematic and now literary figures, are built almost entirely out of perceptions of Asians and Middle Easterners and Africans and native Americans, some of them new—fast zombies sometimes get framed as terrorists—most of them old: they are above all savages. (They are in this sense unlike slow zombies. I’ve argued out the distinction here.) This was already true of the landmark fast-zombie movies—28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake—and Cronin simply follows suit on this front. When the zombie epidemic erupts, the novel begins to incorporate all sorts of Bush-era GWOT-speak, which means that its vampire apocalypse is at some level nothing more than the War on Terror imagined as lost. But then Cronin has at the same time found a way to reactivate some very old colonial nightmares: One scene has a settlement of human survivors—the creepy survivors; the bad survivors—readying a human sacrifice, to placate the vampire-zombies, in what is clearly a replay of early Spanish lore about the Aztecs. This association is then cemented by Cronin’s notion of where vampirism comes from: It is a virus, let loose from deepest Bolivia, a kind of bat-Ebola, and its sinister work will be to make the United States equatorial. Fast-zombie stories take civilization as their highest good—that might sound like an uncontroversial proposition, but it isn’t—lots of stories don’t. They then designate the zombies as that-which-can-cancel-civilization, a baggy category that can include both al Qaeda and Zulus. Or to put this another way: Fast-zombie stories are devices for making palatable some of the old imperial beliefs, or, if you like, for manufacturing neo-imperial anxieties, though they have their own distinctive way of doing this, one that rather than flaunting the sturdy supremacy of civilization, emphasizes instead the latter’s tenuousness and so the possibility that culture and progress and refinement could collapse in their very hubs and capitals.

What I want to do at this point is list a number of things that early reviewers have said about The Passage; itemize this generic praise back into its commonplaces; and then work out what those vague and blurbish abstractions, with particular reference to this specific novel, actually mean.

•1) Reviewers have routinely described the book as “epic.” This was inevitable, because the book is long, 750 pages and counting. But for once that tag seems appropriate; it seems to indicate something more than just length. The Passage shares with the classical epics—Homer, Virgil, Dante, and the like—techniques and scenes that one doesn’t typically find even in other big, multiplot novels: above all, a vast and prophetic time scheme that, strictly tallied, covers more than a thousand years. The novel falls roughly into three sections: The first part recounts the outbreak of the zombie contagion and the collapse of the US government and American society; the second part jumps ahead a century and describes the workings of a survivor colony living behind walls in the interior of California; the third part follows a band of adventurers as they peel away from that colony and march across the American West, battling zombies, briefly joining a sinister counter-colony, and then enrolling, some of them, in the rump US Army—or rather the Army of the Republic of Texas, which it turns out has been on the ground all along and is the novel’s rootin’-tootin’ deus.

What Cronin shares with the Mediterranean and Mediterranean-style epics, in other words, is their long-durée concern with the Fate of Civilizations, a concern that requires his distended and decidedly non-novelistic narrative canvas, the span of generations. It is from the epic, too, that he has borrowed his descriptions of the zombie armies, though perhaps unwittingly and at two or three removes. Epics are utterly fixated on the distinction between fully settled people and still tribal or semi-nomadic ones. The final books of The Aeneid describe a small army of Trojan survivors as they invade Italy and conquer its indigenous people. Milton’s Paradise Lost describes Adam and Eve as two dwellers in the wilderness, naked foragers in “the new world.” The first American epic, Timothy Dwight’s Conquest of Canaan, recounts in heroic terms a righteous people’s war of extermination against a nation of savages whose land they regard as earmarked. The affinity matters because it is in some of its epic qualities that The Passage is least like a fast-zombie movie, since the films generally have compressed time-frames; are interested only in the apocalypse and its immediate aftermath; and almost never show survivors successfully fighting back. This is how we know that Cronin is not just cashing in—because to write a fast-zombie epic is something entirely different from, say, just novelizing Dead Alive, simply by virtue of letting the novel proceed past page 250, past the nuclear explosions over Boise and Bend, Oregon—simply, that is, by allowing that there might be, even after the swarming, story left to tell.

This then brings us to the next claim that reviewers have been making, which is that…

•2) The Passage is a wonderfully hopeful book.  Time magazine called it “a story about human beings trying to generate new hope.” One of Salon’s readers remarked that “the post-apocalyptic world feels more hopeful than what preceded it.” Another reader agreed that the book’s middle and late sections are “immensely hopeful.” This hope is one of the things in the novel that most needs specifying, because Cronin has produced a full-on reconstruction narrative. It is hard to stress this point with the banging emphasis it deserves. The mood is one of settler expectancy, of pilgrims surveying a land whose savage inhabitants are dying of an introduced disease, though they still lurk ferociously in forests and canyons. The Passage, in other words, is trying to counter the despondent vibe of the long Iraq-Afghanistan decade by retelling the old America myth the way that public school textbooks are no longer allowed to tell it; by trying to get you to occupy the valiant position of the embattled pioneer, to imaginatively inhabit the geography of early settlement, what we used to call the frontier.

There are actually two major historical models that Cronin has incorporated into his book. The first is medieval Europe, especially in its early stages, the systole and diastole of contraction and expansion, the post-Roman heartbeat: villages in Normandy gathering in their borders like so much extra fabric; towns building walls; lords building castles; and then—back out into the wastelands; the outgrowth of an armed agrarianism; planned settlements for serfs beyond the Elbe, generous terms, no labor service, five years rent-free!; Teutonic Knights; Frankish machine-men with their monster-horses and their death-arrows; northern crusades into the heathen Baltic; the Spanish Reconquista—and no historical meme looms larger in The Passage than that: the Reconquest of America. The book’s survivors live in a walled city and have something like guilds and wear tunics and have all but abandoned books and carry crossbows, which was the tenth century’s great advance in military technology, a weapon that was so unsportingly good at killing people that the Church tried to limit its use and crossbowmen were briefly pariahs.

The survivors also ride horses, though this image obviously does double duty. For beyond its medievalism, The Passage is most obviously a zombie Western—Cronin himself has said as much—subcategory siege, with the California settlement doubling as fort. Survivors trek across Nevada and Colorado. They cook jonnycake. A man in a remote house pours boiling water into a tub for his pregnant woman and sits watch at night, shotgun across his lap, armed against whatever might come stalking out of the woods.

The Passage, then, generates “hope” only because it’s underlying notion is that we’ve been through this all before; it is telling, through proxies and vampire-puppets, a history whose ending we already know; and so reassuring us of a certain cycle or historical repetition. Cronin’s answer to our usual bum and apocalyptic trip is to help us envision another round of colonization. North America will get to resettle itself. Indian Wars will be refought. To this end, the novel works in five or six documents form the distant future—conference papers from some symposium a millennium down the line—which is our guarantee, from an early point in our reading, that civilization has survived somewhere and in some form.

Another claim out of the reviews…

•3) The Passage is especially interested in what one reader calls “the civic structure of the colony.” This is true—and it’s an extension of the last point—because it involves “hope” again—and not just hope, but this horror novel’s unexpected interest in hope’s proper literary form and vehicle, which is utopia. Absolutely nothing about The Passage is more surprising than the moment that comes about a third of the way through, after you’ve read hundreds of pages of an utterly routine X-Files/outbreak plot, and you turn the page, and that plot is gone, and a full-blown utopia has taken its place, which is another way of gauging Cronin’s sense of his own writerliness, since the genre-swap—from apocalypse to utopia—is among other things a shift over from a heavily cinematic form to a quite peculiarly literary one. I don’t know that film is structurally barred from attempting outright utopias; I do know that it almost never does. Cronin, for his part, goes so far as to reproduce in its entirety the survivor colony’s written constitution, which is how you know that he has the genre’s canonical texts in mind—Thomas More, William Morris, and the like—that he is actually speculating about the daily workings of an alternate political order. That list of basic laws is the token of Cronin’s utopian seriousness (and is one of the feature’s of utopian writing that a commercial film would have the hardest time reproducing). Salon’s book critic, Laura Miller, said that the utopia was her favorite section of the book, but she is professionally disallowed from using that word, so what she actually said was that she “loves stories about how people form and sustain communities.” “Isn’t life in this last city kind of ideal?” a reader asked, “—if you ignore the vampire bit.”

It is under cover of phrases like these—“sustaining community,” “ideal city life”—that the novel’s fascism rides in. This is itself rather fascinating, since utopia often seems like the special province of the political Left, in some another-world-is-possible kind of way. The term itself, officially neutral, nominally harnessed to no particular ideology, was claimed by socialist thinkers early on. Fredric Jameson continues to use it as a euphemism for “communism.” So it is all the more remarkable to watch an American novelist, in apparent sincerity, attempt a utopia with strong fascist elements. There are at least three:

a) The first thing the constitution does is establish sovereignty, a “final authority” charged with “safeguarding DOMESTIC ORDER” and empowered to declare “CIVIL EMERGENCY.” This is Schmittian boilerplate, and generically authoritarian rather than specifically fascist, but it is worth noting that Cronin’s California does, in fact, break with the main lines of Anglo-American political thought, which—with their doctrines of mixed monarchy, the division of powers, check-and-balances, institutional cantilevers and counterweights, programmed-in gridlock and indecision—have always been hostile to sovereignty of precisely this kind. Montesquieu and Madison are among the books that no-one in the future will be reading.

b) This second one will take a little more explaining. Some social historians think that modern politics came into being in the seventeenth century when European governments began allowing themselves to worry about demography, which is to say to worry about the size and health of their populations. This led, in a hundred different ways, to a politics of the body; a medicalized politics of health and hygiene and sanitation; new political initiatives around birth and death; &c. One way of thinking about fascism is that it marked the culmination and cancerous transformation of this centuries-old development, which, however, continues to shape all modern governments, and especially the social democracies, to some greater or lesser degree. The important point about Cronin, then, is that his utopian colony is nakedly biopolitical in just this way, a utopia of eugenics and euthanasia. Fully a third of the constitutions provisions involve quarantine. There are entire chapters devoted to mercy killings; when colonists are dragged away by vampires, their closest family have to ritually keep watch on the colony’s walls and cut them down if they return. Cronin calls this “standing the mercy.” Women in his utopia are taught trades, but then forced to abandon them when they become pregnant, relegated into compulsory motherhood, in a special building they are not allowed to leave. It is Cronin’s bleak gift to make such a scenario seem reasonable to an ordinary American reader—to make plausible that old physiocratic preoccupation with demography, with keeping the numbers up—by forcing us to imagine a human population reduced to some few hundreds.

c) The colony is also pervasively militarized, which is one of the ways its order is most like a fascism and least like an ordinary authoritarianism, since yer run-of-the-mill authoritarian wants the leadership to preserve a monopoly on force. In Cronin’s future, everyone is taught how to fight. There are weapons ready in every room. This is an ethos of war and blood, a society that has regenerated itself by abandoning the pacifism and potbellies of liberal society, though on a casual read, this all registers only as a low-level Spartanism. Nine-year olds get put through their daily samurai drills: “Where do they come from?” “THEY COME FROM ABOVE!” “And what do we get?” “WE GET ONE SHOT!”

That’s how The Passage looks if you emphasize its utopian qualities, hence its imagined innovations, its breaks with the established order of 2010—and it’s worth underscoring that these add up to a kind of political argument, since Cronin is trying to explain the difference between a society that knows how to survive a terrorist-savage threat and the United States, which, in the novel’s terms, mostly doesn’t. To that extent, these breaks all have the force of recommendations, what the U.S. could have done, but failed to do, to keep itself intact: Streamline the political chain of command, make sure pregnant women stop working, strictly limit the rights of immigrants, lie to the children, seal the borders, build a wall around them, shoot anyone who gets close.

But we can also run the argument in the other direction, and emphasize instead those features of our readerly present that Cronin’s settler-utopians would preserve. The novel’s medievalism, reconsidered from this angle, turns out to be something of a red herring, since its survivors see themselves as the keepers of American techno-civilization; the guardians of illumination in a vampire dark age, though that word, illumination, now refers to halogen lamps and not manuscripts; the ones who can keep running—literally; this is in the novel—the Humvees of the lost world. The novel’s premise is that civilization has collapsed, and yet it remains most interested in the people who have inherited American achievement. Civilization will only be possible again when people figure out how to re-activate its machinery. The middle sections of the novel are accordingly made up of three stock scenes regularly repeated: Characters try to improvise a patch on some machine they consider essential but no longer know, curved-arch-like, how to manufacture. Characters leave the colony to scavenge century-old goods from decaying strip malls and military bases, hunter-gatherers foraging for high-tops like they’re loganberries. Characters encounter some forgotten or never-before-seen device and wonder what it is and how to use it. This aspect of the novel becomes more and more important until it effectively takes over, since the novel’s final order of business is to fold the colonist-survivors into the U.S. Army, which is a techno-survival of an entirely different order, the novel’s strange belated admission that civilization didn’t really collapse after all, certainly not to some zero point. What destroys the first host of vampire-zombies, then, is a nuclear bomb left over from the military—a military solution, then, to a problem created by the military. Salon’s Laura Miller says she likes that the colonists come to the realization that they “need the outside world,” but taken on its own the phrase “outside world” could mean just about anything, when the novel is by necessity much more specific: The colonists need a modern military and heavy ordnance.

The one observation that Miller makes that is flat out wrong is that the novel’s idiom is not ethical or religious. She has said this more than once: “Cronin’s novel isn’t about the clash between good and evil, but about humanity’s struggle to forge a better world.” “Cronin’s characters, unlike [Stephen] King’s [in The Stand], are not caught up in a struggle between Good and Evil.” It’s true that Cronin is being a little sneaky on this front. The survivor colony is nominally post-Christian; they remember Christmas only as a rumor or a legend; they have adopted a new calendar that makes no reference to Domini. But then Cronin makes it his business, in the novel’s final chapters, to smuggle back in all the Christian language that he has up to that point carefully withheld. The Passage, indeed, is so stupidly ethical that it features not only a demonic head vampire whose name contains the word cock, but two supernaturally good characters, as well, the more important of whom is a pre-pubescent girl, and cock and girl appear to one character by turns in a dream and tell him respectively to murder and not to murder a woman in that dream, as in: Cartoon devil on your left shoulder, cartoon angel on your right. That the other radiantly moral figure is a Catholic nun should sufficiently confirm the point. In fact, by the time the novel ends, readers will have to swallow: an immortal nun, an act of heroic martyrdom, characters galvanized upon hearing Bible stories, a set of fiendish counter-apostles called “the Twelve,” and a group fighting these hellhounds led by a man named Peter, about whom sentences like this are written: “He inched his way forward, each step an act of faith.”

More generally, The Passage is packed with writing borrowed from the traditions of sentimental and domestic writing, and this, too, adds up to a kind of shadow Christianity or orthodox morality. It is also another of the ways—indeed, the most pervasive way—in which The Passage tries to make literature out of its cinematic scenario. Everything is POV, free indirect discourse, interior monologue. Events are endlessly focalized, and an intimacy is thereby obtruded on this Gibbonesque-Hobbsean story of civilizations falling and original contracts being formed. It is hard to overstate just how much family writing there is in this book, paragraph upon paragraph describing the ferocious attachments one feels to one’s closest kin: The only moment of love the colony’s leader ever felt was when his daughter was born. One woman reflects at length on how “wonderful” it was “to feel a baby moving inside her.” A tough warrior out on the quest confesses that what he misses most are “the littles.” Time praised the book for its “psychological insight.” Laura Miller said it was a vampire-zombie story “with heart.” In sentences like those we see a hard Right politics being made psychologically credible to a contemporary readership—and the psychology in play is a reassuringly familiar one, the psychology of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or a PTA meeting, the known term that carries you to an unknown place. Fascism is something you do for the kids.

What we can say now, then, is that Cronin’s utopio-fascism is tempered by a certain conservatism. But then fascism, of course, came in all sorts of different forms; it had national variants for one; and each fascist intellectual dreamed up a slightly different fascism, none of which corresponded precisely to any of the fascisms that actually existed on the ground. In the interests of precision, then: Cronin is helping us make our peace with an American fascism, but his is not the fascism of the intellectuals and the avant gardists, not a Nietzschean and anti-bourgeois fascism, which would, let’s face it, probably prefer the vampires. His is a fascism that has in certain key tenets—respect for Christianity and a conventional military hierarchy—joined forces with the conventional Right: a Spanish fascism, if you follow me, rather than a German one.

But then it’s not enough to name, however precisely, which particular historical variant of fascism Cronin is trying to resurrect. The important point, rather, is that Cronin is trying to imagine a version of fascism that has never existed, and this gets us to the crux of the matter: How, after all, do you engineer a fascism that will be palatable to a contemporary American audience, and not just to any audience, but to a Salon audience, a bunch of literate Lefties, the type of people who participate in book clubs? The answer, I think, is quickly given: You subtract race from the equation. For Cronin’s colonists are all multi-racial; the novel makes a big deal of this early on. Racial categories are, like the Jesus story, one of those things from Before that the survivors have heard about but barely understand. The novel is more cunning than this even. The utopian section begins with a kind of oral history recorded by the last person who was born before the vampire apocalypse. And she’s an old black woman, although the novel never out and tells you this; it expects you to hear it in her cadences. That’s a far cry from, say, Tolkien, who is sheerest poison, Wagnerite Anglo-fascism without the tunes. Tolkien’s racialism was always all but overt, just under the surface, like Norplant: all those Celtic-Viking heroes and elephant-riding bad men from the East; that scheming, greedy golem-Jew; those monstrous Urak-hai-sounds-like-Iroquois. So whatever Cronin is up to, it’s not that. Instead, he has worked out a more subtle kind of racial feint; he makes a black woman our gateway into the fascist utopia. The novel actually does something similar in matters of gender, since our colonist-heroes end up visiting two other survivor compounds, each of which treats women much worse than the novel’s central settlement, which means that readers can tell themselves that the colony, whatever its policies on pregnant women, has achieved a fair degree of gender equity. And then that’s it right there: A fascism in which people of all races and genders can participate more or less equally—that’s how one creates a fascism that will pass first-line liberal scrutiny. If you make it so that fascism isn’t primarily racial, an American reader won’t even recognize it as fascism. But then, of course, Cronin can only produce this de-racialized version of fascism because he has transferred the entire apparatus of race onto the zombies, who are sometimes just called “the Many” and who are, of course, a population of the killable. He can loosen racial categories among the survivors, because he has preserved the lethality of race at a higher and more abstract level. Not that any of this is buried in the novel, exactly, since the survivors have a series of different racial epithets for the zombies, one of which is “smokes,” which, well, if you don’t know, you should probably look it up, is all I’m saying. One of Salon’s readers said that “smokes” was “invented language” —and thought it was neat. And it just ain’t … neat, I mean … or invented.