Interview with Caren Irr, author of Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century

Toward the Geopolitical Novel, Caren IrrIn a wide-ranging interview with Critical Margins, Caren Irr discussed her new book Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century. In the book, Irr argues that one of the dominant trends in twenty-first century American fiction are works that have a multinational or global reach. More precisely the works of writers such as Edwidge Danticat, William Vollman, Junot Diaz, Chris Abani, Susan Choi, and others are geopolitical in the sense that they explore issues arising in international disputes, travel, or networks.

Irr contends that the work of these contemporary writers differs from twentieth-century political novels not only because of the preponderance of interest in the global but because of its more skeptical attitude toward ideology or political doctrine. Irr explains:

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.

In the interview Irr also discusses the different genres that make up the twenty-first century geopolitical novel:

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.

For Irr, the geopolitical novel in twenty-first century American fiction reveals a diversity in subject matter (immigration, the oil industry, new media, etc.) as well as the writers themselves, whose lives are increasingly lived in global ways whether it be an immigrant writer in the United States or an American working abroad as a Peace Corp volunteer. Yet, amidst this diversity, many of these works circle back on “major genres and presuppositions of American literature.”

In the final question in the interview, Irr considers the draw that certain contemporary writers feel toward writing the “world novel”:

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.

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