The Contemporary British Novel

The only way, it seems, that an English novelist can write satisfactorily about the English present,’ Sebastian Faulks, one of our leading historical novelists, told me at the time, ‘is to do so in a surreal way, as Martin Amis did in Money

Jason Cowley surveys the contemporary British novel and discovers that contrary to Naipaul’s obituary to the contemporary novel, it is indeed up and live, though the events post-911 evidently cast a long shadow. A couple of extracts from his long review essay:

To read Never Let Me Go alongy side Saturday, although both novels are at times despairing, is not to be deflated; rather, it is to be reminded of what most gives meaning to our lives in a time of fear and what both the jihadists and scientific absolutists, in their different ways, most despise: love, loyalty, moderation, democracy, fairness, scepticism, uncertainty.

The meaning of love in a time of fear is also a theme in Zadie Smith’s new novel, On Beauty, which is published in September. Her black and mixed-race characters are confused and adrift; they are all looking for something – for certainty, for meaning. Her book is about many things. It is a hugely engaging social comedy about miscegenation and cross-generational misunderstanding. It is about the vexed issue of Anglo-American relations. It is a campus novel. And it is also a smart rewriting of Howard’s End. As EM Forster’s novel did before it, On Beauty asks important questions about the relationship between culture and power – such as is the acquisition of knowledge and culture dependent on wealth and privilege?

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