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Forecasts of the Past

Globalisation, History, Realism, Utopia

Dougal McNeill

Whatever happened to realism? What form is adequate to representing our moment, situated as we are after the end of ‘the end of History’? In the face of youth revolts and workers’ insurgencies from Cairo to London, it seems a good time to test the possibilities of alternative Marxist defences of contemporary realist fiction. Can realism’s techniques adequately represent the complexity of contemporary political organisation? This book reads key realist texts from recent decades in order to test their potential to produce the knowledge of history, industrial politics and the metropolis traditionally central to literary realism’s concerns. Positioning himself within and against the inspiration and models of Fredric Jameson’s literary theory, and drawing on innovative realist texts, the author seeks to draw the classic realism controversies of an earlier period in historical materialism into productive conversation with the debates framing the era of austerity.

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Chapter Four Regeneration: The Historical Novel After Postmodernism

Extract

The last two chapters have been concerned with demonstrating how, with appropriate interpretive apparatus in place, we can mine contemporary real- ism for useful and accurate information about the social world today. This chapter shifts our focus back to questions of the more properly historical in realism, and of the uses of the cultural past. I propose here a turn away from discussions of realism’s immediate applicability to various contem- porary situations and, through a discussion of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, to a consideration of the current state of what has traditionally been one of realism’s prime vocations: namely, the tasks of the historical novel. The previous discussions of GB84, Tanz am Kanal and How Late it Was, How Late have attempted to align them with a particular argument about the state of this globalised world and have illustrated realism’s political potential, this chapter is organised empirically. Through a close reading of Barker’s recurrent concerns – and of the new material she incorporates into our familiar cultural images of the First World, or Great War – I aim to produce evidence of the realist novel’s ongoing innovative potential. A reading of an author as formidably talented as Barker could be of interest for any number of particular reasons. My wider ambition here is, like the child with Meccano, to pull apart her texts in order to display their com- ponent parts and, in doing so, demonstrate how her realism has extended our historical sense. Barker’s most exciting advance in the Regeneration trilogy...

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