What relationship, if any, does the anticolonial novel of ideas bear to the contemporary “theory novel”? Nguyen’s novels expose the tension between the two forms.
“It is a thriller; ideas thrill me.” This is how Viet Thanh Nguyen responds to critics’ complaints about the use of high theory in his latest novel, The Committed. The Committed—in which a brothel doorman reads French theory and the protagonist laments, “that in this tempest of a world, I was what Césaire considered Ariel”—can be comfortably catalogued as a novel of ideas. In particular, it is an example of the defining predilections of what Nicholas Dames dubbed the “Theory Generation”: graduates of the cult of High Theory in the American academy of the 1980s, like Ben Lerner, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Lorrie Moore. In their fiction these writers simultaneously disavow and court the high-minded deconstructive discourse of their education.
In debates about the contemporary theory novel, I often find myself looking for an engagement with the longstanding tradition of the anticolonial novel of ideas, such as the novels of George Lamming and Buchi Emecheta. These novelists investigated how aesthetic practices could take up vexed questions about history, politics, and theory. For the anticolonial and postcolonial novels of the twentieth century, theory was neither what Sianne Ngai calls a gimmick nor, despite its ubiquity in intellectual life, “just another thing in the world” (Dames).
What relationship, if any, does the anticolonial novel of ideas bear to the contemporary “theory novel”? Nguyen’s novels expose the tension between the two forms. Unlike the other novelists of the Theory Generation, Nguyen’s characters do not first encounter theory behind the sheltered walls of the academy. And even when they do, such ideas register and imprint differently, so neither the person nor the theory can emerge unscathed. Consider the comical, though earnest, moment in The Committed when the bouncer who reads Sartre and Césaire loans the protagonist “his densely underlined copies of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth, as well as Césaire’s A Tempest.” It is difficult to tell whether the scene wants to satirize the obsolescence of anticolonial theory or corroborate its enduring democracy.
Nguyen places himself in the company of these post- and anti-colonial writers, like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, John Okada, Emecheta, and Lamming. For instance, Lye and Nguyen’s exchange on last week’s episode of Novel Dialogue brings to mind Chinua Achebe’s implicit yet impassioned support for the novel of ideas in “The Novelist as Teacher.” For Nguyen’s characters like those of Lamming and Ayi Kwei Armah, theoretical concerns are neither magical nor mundane; they are a searing indictment of what it means to live in the defunct present of failed decolonization, including the existential humiliation of seeking political and economic refuge in the lands of former colonizers.
And yet, Nguyen’s novel—like others by the Theory Generation—is infused with the names of mid-century thinkers. In the acknowledgements to The Committed Nguyen cites Derrida, Fanon, Benjamin, and de Beauvior, whose ideas the novel provided an occasion of return. In straddling the theory novel and the anticolonial novel of ideas, Nguyen’s work prompts us to consider what these proper names enable the anticolonial novel(ist) and vice versa. By confirming the enduring stakes of theory while at the same time staging that which exceeds it, Nguyen’s novels try to rescue theory from the gimmick without surrendering it back to the sheltered politics of the ivory tower. Towards the end of last week’s episode Lye points to the moment in Nguyen’s first novel when the protagonist reflects on his alienated split self and likens it to a “talent you cannot not use.” This is an invocation of Spivak’s famous formulation on what the postcolonial subject cannot not want. It makes one wonder whether the anticolonial anti-imperialist writer cannot not write a novel of ideas.
image credit: Collage by Romare Bearden, Eurozine