Interview with Caren Irr, Author of “Toward the Geopolitical Novel”

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What is a “geopolitical novel?” When I read the title of Caren Irr’s book, Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century (buy at Columbia UP or Amazon), I was immediately intrigued.

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My interest was further piqued by the line in the marketing material for the book that read, “More cosmopolitan and socially critical than domestic realism, the geopolitical novel provides new ways of understanding crucial political concepts to meet the needs of a new century.” I wrote to Ms. Irr to ask for an interview. She graciously agreed. This is the result.

Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Caren. You say in the acknowledgments section of your book that the book arose out of conversations during a year you spent at a university in the Czech Republic. What was the gist of those conversations?

Well, one question in particular stayed with me. A very serious young woman came up to ask me after class one day, “We have been talking about what we think of Americans, but what do they think of us Czechs?” My first thought (which I kept to myself at the time) was that most Americans probably do not have a lot of ideas about Czechs in particular, but I did not want to tell her that, so I stalled and went to my office to look into recent fiction by Americans that was set in Central Europe. I had already read Arthur Phillips’ entertaining expatriate novel, Prague, but that book is actually set in Budapest and was not really much help, so I kept looking. That exercise set me on the path of collecting novels with international settings and concerns, a project that resulted in this book.

You start off your book by discussing Mary McCarthy’s rather broad definition of the political novel. What makes a novel political versus one that is geopolitical?

I consider a novel geopolitical when it explicitly deals with the social issues arising in international disputes, travel, or networks. The political novel in the United States has a long history of engaging domestic issues (strikes, women’s rights, civil rights, treatment of veterans and so on). While of course interesting political novels focused on the domestic scene are still being written and international concerns are not confined to the 21st century, the center of my study is the preponderance of contemporary fiction with a multinational or even global reach in its subject matter.

You say that the geopolitical novel is a new literary form. Is that true only of American novels? Weren’t books like those of Arthur Koestler, André Malraux, or Victor Serge often geopolitical?

“Toward the Geopolitical Novel” by Caren Irr

Yes, there are definite international concerns apparent in the work of the European writers you mention – all of whom were engaged in different ways in left-wing politics. The internationalism of the Old Left is an important source for some of the writers working in a contemporary geopolitical vein, but the concern with ideology and political conversion so apparent in mid-20th century works is usually absent in the new writing. The newer authors almost never position themselves as part of an international political movement, and very often they seem to be more concerned with documenting global processes rather than urging readers to adopt particular positions on them. In that sense, they tend to be problem novels rather than persuasion novels.

The new geopolitical writing also has a different tone and mission than the European novel of political ideas, and it often satirizes parts of that tradition. I am thinking here of William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central in particular – a great novel dedicated to a minute inspection of the entanglements that might underlie different sorts of ideological commitment.

You write, “In particular, authors of twentieth-first-century geopolitical fiction tinker with the conventions of the so-called program era.” What is the program era?

This is a reference to Mark McGurl’s impressive book by the same title; McGurl describes the effects of the rise of MFA programs, arguing that literary postmodernism and multicultural narratives of identity crises can both be traced back to these programs.

You discuss in your book writers outside of the MFA type of fiction and say that urban, migrant, extra-university, and indie authors seem to represent a trend toward the geopolitical. Who are some of these?

Well, some of the big name writers who work outside the MFA system would include Jonathan Franzen, Gary Shteyngart, and Dave Eggers, but there are lots more who do not have MFAs, teach in MFA programs, or really base their professional lives around universities at all.

You say that that geopolitical fiction “tests the viability and boundaries of domestic literary conventions.” But isn’t that what most innovative fiction has always done?

While innovation is normally about testing conventions, the specific attention to pushing past domestic concerns that we see in geopolitical fiction is more distinctive. Plenty of innovative fiction does the opposite – moving more deeply into the domestic scene and examining its strangeness. Isn’t that what is so funny and terrific about a book like White Noise, for example, or the early fiction of Philip Roth? Domesticity as a concern and the national or regional setting within the U.S. is, however, not the focus of geopolitical writers. When someone like Tony D’Souza launches his novel of Peace Corps service in Whiteman, the hero’s American background shapes him, and he ultimately returns to the U.S. But, that domestic scene is not subject to particular examination. It is pretty blank, actually. The focus turns outward instead, away from the U.S. and toward a world that the hero may or may not be prepared to encounter.

In your discussion of how you chose to examine which books to examine in your study, you mention that you consulted digital sources. What were those and how did you go about studying their review sections?

I found literary blogs such as Bookslut and The Millions enormously helpful, since they are packed with great responses to new work and often publish longer pieces than the shrinking book review sections of major U.S. periodicals.

You mention, too, that you consulted independent booksellers with strong literary reputations. Do you think you got a representative mix from across the US?

I did my best, but I know there are some regional differences in the kinds of works that appear on shelves in California vs. the East Coast (where I live and browse most energetically). I found information from IndieBound’s online Indie Bestsellers list very helpful.

You refer to the five genres of the international novels. Could you tell us what at least some of those genres are?

The genres I used to organize my project are all modifications of important existing forms. The digital migrant novel emerges out of immigrant assimilation narratives. The Peace Corps fugue is a variation on the political thriller. Neoliberal allegories develop out of the national allegory, while contemporary revolutionary fiction fuses the historical novel with apocalyptic near future fiction. Expatriate satires largely build on and invert conventions of the classic expatriate narratives of the 1920s.

You define U.S. fiction quite broadly. You write, for example, “More important than biographical markers for my purposes is an explicit effort to address a North American audience.” Could you mention a few of the authors you include who might not usually strike some readers as writers of U.S. fiction?

Gladly. For the purposes of this project, I define a work of U.S. fiction as one that engages with major genres and presuppositions of American literature. I see those genre elements as being a lot more important and useful than citizenship – something that shifts and changes.

That means that a work like Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist seems like a work of U.S. fiction, because it engages so fully with Gatsbyesque narratives about the compromises involved in carving out a place in the East Coast establishment. The fact that Hamid was born in Pakistan and now holds a British passport does not tell us much, I argue, about the audience he addresses or the literary dialogues in which he is engaged. His new novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, also engages some American predecessors, such as The Rise of Silas Lapham and other business novels of the late nineteenth century, but its core concerns seem more rooted in a specifically South Asian dialogue about economic development. The advantage, I think, of focusing on genre rather than the author’s biography when establishing the parameters of a literary tradition is that we can immediately begin asking how literary norms help to frame and shape national questions.

You refer to “the domestically significant date of September 11, 2001.” Do you not consider that a significant date in world and not just American history?

No, I do not think that September 11, 2001 was a major turning point in world history or in literary history. Nor are the kinds of stories that Americans told about the Muslim world are fundamentally different immediately before and after that date.

This is a pretty bold statement, “The resurgence of the political novel is, in my view, such a widespread phenomenon that we cannot generalize responsibly about contemporary fiction without attending to it.” Again, could you help us distinguish between a political novel and a geopolitical one? What are examples in the last five years of one but not the other?

Well, in writing that passage, I was thinking about the tendency of a lot of literature professors (myself included) to choose books for an American literature survey that reflect on recognizably American settings and questions. If there are going to be explicitly political works on the syllabus, they are usually focused on subjects that have been important for a domestic agenda. So, for example, Richard Wright’s Native Son is a lot more widely read in classes than is Black Power, his meditation on West Africa.

In contemporary fiction, though, we have so many writers whose primary concerns are international that we simply do not appreciate the full range and diversity of current voices if we only seek out works with a domestic focus. Similarly, if we come to contemporary fiction with a preconceived notion about what counts as a properly literary subject (say, family relations or personal identity), then we will miss out on some of the really exciting and numerous work that addresses, say, the oil industry or post-Soviet housing issues.

Please tell us what you mean by saying routes become routers.

In Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, the anthropologist James Clifford made a memorable distinction between roots narratives and routes stories, basically arguing that the way we imagine the origins of social groups is now dependent on the paths that group has taken. The recoverable and planted “root” is defined by its “route,” and immigration stories become stories about the process of migration. My analogy takes that mnemonic one step farther, asking how migration narratives feel and sound different in the context of digital communications technology. Thinking about books such as Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, it struck me that the core of this kind of multidirectional migration story is not so much the physical travel of the hero as it is the frequent transmission, reception, and redirection of information about the hero’s past. The narrator reflecting on the migrant’s often withheld or partial past acts, in other words, like a router – relaying packages of information and sometimes blocking or containing it, too. The story of migration of course continues to involve important scenes of physical border-crossing, but these are supplemented by the rather different geography of digital communications.

I was rather surprised to read this, “ethnographic objectivity – even in its more reflexive, postmodern mood – turns out to be rare in contemporary U.S. fiction devoted to international travel.” Sounds like that school of fiction is still pretty shallow. What accounts for this?

When I set about to read as many novels arising out of the Peace Corps experience as I could find, I really did expect them to be preoccupied with documenting the lifeways of different parts of the world, and I was surprised, too, to discover that ethnography is really not the main concern in these books.

I don’t know that I would call the concerns of Peace Corps fiction shallow, but it is definitely concerned more with the tensions and anxieties of a sudden arrival in a new part of the world than it is with documenting that world. Some of the more metafictional works in this vein – Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork comes to mind – reflect explicitly on this phenomenon. Berlinski’s narrator (also named Berlinski) investigates the death of an anthropologist in rural Thailand.

You discuss Norman Rush and his relation to the Peace Corps novel and argue that his work lifts the genre to a higher plain of sophistication. Could you please elaborate?

Rush’s fiction is really exciting and complex. I wrote mainly about Mortals, since it connects most fully to the Peace Corps genre’s preoccupation with administrative betrayals and the anxious volunteer’s experience of being isolated in a strange place. But, I actually prefer Mating, his National Book Award-winning 1991 novel about a women’s utopian community in Botswana and the cult-like appeal of its leader. Rush’s novels are satisfyingly committed to pushing way past initial impressions of a place and a self; they start not from the drama of a first contact with something new but rather with the wrinkles involved in inhabiting a structure, a culture, a relationship that one is perhaps overly familiar with. His writing is saturated with ethical and political questions that have been asked and answered and rethought. I really cannot recommend him enough to ambitious readers.

Here is another genre you mention that is new to me: the neoliberal allegory. What are some examples of that?

“Neoliberal allegories” is the name I give to novels set entirely outside the U.S. and not featuring an American protagonist, yet in some way addressed to American readers. Often these novels include a minor American character who is educated about conditions in the country in question; either that, or a major American preconception about the nation is overturned. In large part, these novels read allegorically, because they take special interest in demonstrating how webs of economic connections permeate a national space. It is not the particularities of that nation that an author like Helon Habila, Romesh Gunesekera, or Daniel Alarcón is necessarily exploring. Often specific place names are obscured in order to heighten the allegory and make the specifics read as an account of many different locations. What remains the focus of attention instead is the opposition between a local condition and a destabilizing process arriving from elsewhere. Neoliberal economic initiatives are not always identified as such, but I read these as the implicit frame of reference for these allegories.

You say that authors of 21st century neoliberal allegories, “pragmatically keep an eye on their international readership.” Are most of these authors based in the U.K. or are most of them American? Many of them seem to be written by authors with roots in South Asia. Any from Latin America or Southeast Asia?

The examples discussed in the book include several books focused on Latin America, Africa, and post-Soviet countries. I found fewer focused on Southeast Asia when working on the book, but I have recently been reading Tash Aw. He is a terrific Malaysian author (who writes in English), and his most recent novel, Five Star Billionaire, is set in a hypercontemporary and hypercompetitive Shanghai. It would fit in well with some of the other projects described as neoliberal allegories.

I learned from your book that compared to others writers from Africa, Nigerian authors have an outsized place in the American literary marketplace. How did that come to be? Who are some of these writers?

Well, Nigeria is a very populous and relatively wealthy nation, so it is not especially surprising that there would be lots of interesting writers there. Also, English is a major language of instruction there, so there are fewer linguistic barriers for Nigerian authors who want to write and publish in English. Some of the best-known authors (in the U.S.) with a Nigerian background include Chimamanda Adichie, Teju Cole, Chris Abani, and Helon Habila.

You say that dwelling places and houses are recurrent themes in neoliberal allegories. But aren’t they so in almost every kind of fiction?

While houses and dwelling places appear in many sorts of fiction, they are not always the subject of explicit reflection. Nor do they always become central metaphors. It is a question of intensity and degree, I’d say. Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, for example, is very interested in space, and it includes descriptions of a number of bedrooms in motels and houses. But its central metaphor is the city and the circuit board, not the apartment building.

By contrast, I found many 21st-century novels (including those with a Pynchon-like fascination with urban forms) that investigate the changes to domestic life that occur when living in extremely close proximity to a large number of people. In an American context where the private family home occupied by at most two generations remains such a crucial desire, this multigenerational, multifamily collective living space stands out by contrast. Collective housing is often also a positive thing in this fiction, rather than something that needs to be escaped. I thought a lot about this theme in the Czech Republic, where many of my students insisted that Americans all lived in wastefully large homes, because they’d seen these in American television shows. That vision of the lavishly appointed American house as the pinnacle of personal achievement is overturned and replaced with something quite different in many of the novels I examined.

You say, “a properly geo-economic novel has yet to emerge.” What would one look like? What has come close?

When I wrote that passage, I was imagining a novel version of the kind of multistranded business narrative seen in the BBC miniseries, Traffic (on the heroin trade). While there are some interesting mass-market business thrillers with strong international elements (say, John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener), I had trouble identifying a more “literary” approach to the same themes. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas has a number of elements that come close, and I am very interested in new fiction on economic themes, such as Dave Eggers’ Hologram for the King or Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia or Tash Aw’s books. But, most of these are set in a single location and examine the ways that spot is plugged into the global economy (or not). I am not familiar with a more mobile novel that derives its central drama from economic processes. I would love to hear about some, if others have suggestions!

You write, “Innovations in revolutionary fiction began with the abandonment of several subgenres of the existing tradition.” Could you give us examples of revolutionary fiction and of those subgenres? Has any geopolitical fiction arisen out of the Occupy Movement, for example?

I am sure someone will write a good novel about Occupy and/or the issues that provoked that movement. Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story includes some passages that presciently seem to predict Occupy, and there has of course been a rash of novels dedicated to ‘60s radicalism that one might read as indirect commentary on Occupy. I’m thinking here of Christopher Sorrentino’s Trance, Susan Choi’s American Woman, Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, among others. But a novel that was built around the international network of Occupy protests could be a real narrative challenge. Hope to see one someday soon!

As for abandoned genres of revolutionary fiction, I had in mind here the novels of political conversion that were so important in the 1930s and ‘40s – books such as Native Son or (differently) The Grapes of Wrath. The kind of new revolutionary fiction I examined was a lot less concerned with providing details about the psychological processes underlying political commitment than it was with describing the social upheaval produced by revolutionary conflict. The exception here would probably be Hari Kunzru’s moving study of the English far left, My Revolutions.

Is there such a thing as a geopolitical graphic novel?

Absolutely – there are some terrific graphic novels that I would consider neoliberal allegories (say, Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie’s Aya series). I know less about this form, though.

Where do novels such as Snow by Orhan Pamuk or House of Meetings by Martin Amis fall into your schema?

Well, I did not discuss Pamuk, since he does not write in English. I guess I would be tempted to consider House of Meetings as a post-Soviet neoliberal allegory, reflecting back on the gulag from the point of view of its obsolescence, but I’d need to think more about this.

One of the most useful aspects of your book is your employment of tables to illustrate the differences between the genres and subgenres you discuss. Is the use of tables common in literary criticism?

I don’t run across a lot of tables in the criticism I read, other than in the magnificently inspiring and memorable work of Franco Moretti.

I do think a lot about the semiotic rectangles that Fred Jameson uses in his work and the way that they can be so useful for either beginning or summarizing a discussion in class, because they encapsulate a complex dynamic. In my much simpler approach, I just try to heighten contrasts between different sets of writers with the columns of each table. A certain amount of schematic thinking can be very productive, I find. The schema – be it a table, a diagram, or some other visualization – can really pull you out of the comfort zone.

Writing of apocalyptic novels, you say, “Political revolution becomes impossible in novels that imagine a catastrophe without causality, because there is no state power to seize.” Could you give us some examples of such novels and is there a market for books of such utter bleakness? Who buys and reads these books?

Oh, dystopian novels are hugely popular from what I can tell, and a lot of authors have experimented with this form. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a recent example, but I would include some of Margaret Atwood’s recent ecologically themed fiction, several of Jim Crace’s books, some of Paul Auster’s work from the ‘80s, and the new Chang-Rae Lee novel. Then, of course, there is dystopian fiction produced by dedicated science fiction writers, too.

Personally, I love these dystopian novels and do not find them at all bleak. They are about rebuilding societies from the detritus of failed institutions – a task facing each new generation to one degree or another. In their commitment to preserving the spark of art, civilization, and justice, dystopian novels often strike me as being a lot more optimistic than contemporary realism that describes accommodating oneself to social breakdown.

You write that of the ambitions of “a certain type of contemporary writer” for a world novel. What is that type?

Well, I guess that is sort of like saying a woman is “of a certain age” – pointedly unspecific. I don’t know what makes someone aspire to writing large, but I love it when I see it. That is such an important skill to cultivate in fiction and elsewhere – the ability to expand beyond one’s immediate scene and imagine our interconnections with persons and places that are unfamiliar to us. This goes beyond the conventional sense of empathy as the literary virtue, I think. Writing the world novel means, I’d say, being dedicated to finding out how our world works and taking the risk of sharing that. If there is a type of person who is drawn to that kind of task, I’d have to say that it is a courageous and generous one.

Thank you for your time.