Another kind of kinship
LITERATURE: EIBHEAR WALSHEreviews In the Company of StrangersBy Barry McCrea Columbia University Press, 265pp. £58.50
IN THIS THOUGHT-PROVOKING study, subtitled Family and Narrative in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust, Barry McCrea opens up new ways of thinking about their representations of family via the perspective of queer theory. In particular, what marks McCrea’s treatment as original is the rethinking of the role of the stranger in modern fiction.
His argument centres on the contrast between the traditional concept of the genealogical family and the empowering counterfigure of the outsider or stranger. In this binary opposition, the outsider figure can offer alternative modes of kinship and of connection for the protagonist. Thus characters such as Fagin, Bloom or Swann, although unconnected by blood to Oliver Twist, Stephen Dedalus or Proust’s Narrator, enable a valid adult identity for the hero, an escape from the constricting narrative of the family.
As McCrea puts it, “Certain novels of Dickens, the Sherlock Holmes stories, and, on a grander scale, Ulyssesand [À la] Recherche [du Temps Perdu]experiment with the idea of a stranger who is not a transitional figure who interrupts and then becomes family but one who is instead a rival to it, who offers a distinct, different kind of bond; a form of connection that cannot be subsumed into genealogy but might nonetheless offer a basis for a sense of time change and continuity.”
McCrea uses queer theory as part of his analysis but dissents from any sense that a queer perspective deals solely with the subversive elements of any narrative. “But if queerness is expanded, or reduced, to this subversive principle, a bug in the heterosexual machinery of narrative and signification, a mechanism of jamming, blocking and unravelling, then we avoid the structural question that is the central subject of this book: how might the world at large be narrated – as opposed to undermined – from a non-straight perspective?”
Building on this argument, McCrea puts the case that the queer stranger is associated with growth and affirmation rather than subversion, liminality and outsiderness. His thesis is supported by convincing close readings of texts as diverse as Great Expectations, The Hound of the Baskervillesand Ulysses. In successive chapters, he details ways in which these outsider figures allow for the incorporation of other forms of identity and kinship into the narrative structure of each novel. By this account, such figures of non-straight empowerment were not just innovative elements within these key modernist texts but already configured within the Victorian writings of Dickens and Conan Doyle.
The existence of these literary possibilities thus allowed Joyce and Proust to develop this alternative to the family plot in their modernist texts. In fact, this study argues that this idea of the outsider is central to the project of high modernism and a key feature in the development of the 20th-century novel.
This approach works best with the high modernists Joyce and Proust, and, for me at least, less successfully with Conan Doyle. In his chapter on Dickens, McCrea makes a convincing case in reading Oliver Twistas a narrative where Fagin’s den is, in fact, a kind of queer anti-family and ultimately provides a more enduring nexus of kinship for Oliver than that of his biological family.
This is a short book, with fewer than 300 pages, and in this limited space he sets himself the potentially daunting task of finding links between such vast novels as Bleak House, Ulyssesand À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.
Usefully, each chapter concentrates on specific characters or elements within these texts, and close reading supports his examination of alternative forms of identity. In Ulysses, for example, he confines most of his discussion to the opening chapter between Stephen and Buck Mulligan and reads it against the eventual meeting between Bloom and Stephen. At the centre of his argument is the idea that Joyce and Proust, as modernists, employ this emblematic figure of the outsider as a model of regeneration and a way of achieving rather than avoiding closure.
His best section is the final chapter on Proust, called “Proust’s farewell to the family”, in which he suggests that “in the last volume of the Recherche, one of the great revelations for the narrator is that Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way, which had seemed to him to lead in totally opposite directions, actually join up. The family and the queer are not irreducibly opposed, as he had thought; the family was founded on queerness. The final pages of the Recherche, like the last two chapters of Ulysses, reconcile the lost domain of the family with the queer vision it has so carefully set up in the meantime. What is involved is not a reinstatement of the family as a system but its incorporation into a fully fledged queer model.”
McCrea’s work, original, well considered and detailed, offers fresh insight into vital, complex texts and brings queer theory usefully into contemporary debate when reconsidering such influential works.
Eibhear Walshe is a senior lecturer in the school of English at University College Cork