Kaup on James, 'Narrative in the Anthropocene'

Erin James
Monika Kaup

Erin James. Narrative in the Anthropocene. Theory and Interpretation of Narrative Series. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2022. 222 pp. $79.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8142-1507-4

Reviewed by Monika Kaup (University of Washington) Published on H-Environment (November, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58046

It was only a question of time for a book like Narrative in the Anthropocene to appear, alongside other studies that together make up the new subspecialization of econarratology to which the present study is a valuable addition. The concept of “econarratology” was introduced by Erin James and her co-editor, Erin Morel, in their field-defining study Environment and Narrative: New Directions in Econarratology (2020), as a fitting denominator for the new field’s unique blend, which brings together the distinct specializations of ecocriticism and narratology. Econarratology fills an obvious gap, which is evidenced by two more excellent related studies that have recently appeared, Marco Caracciolo’s Narrating the Mesh: Form and Story in the Anthropocene (2021) and Contemporary Fiction and Climate Change Uncertainty: Narrating Unstable Futures (2022).

Climate change is a central concern in twenty-first-century fiction, to the point of spawning booms in entire fictional subgenres (such as cli-fi or postapocalyptic fiction). Such works respond to the challenge of making sense of the unfamiliar lived reality of the Anthropocene, which confronts humans with irreversible changes at geological scales and in planet-encompassing ecologies that are the products of our own species. A quintessential human expression and, more important, a fundamental mode of human understanding, according to cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, narrative must change if it is to do justice to the more-than-human reality of the Anthropocene. It is clear that core elements of narrative understood as measured by human experience since Aristotle—character as human agent, plot as a connected sequence of human actions—must be revised. What new shapes do core constituents of narrative take when we newly take into account such factors as nonhuman agency and the vast evolutionary timescales to which climate change opens a door? James selects five narrative elements—“storyworlds, narrativity, temporality, spatialization, and narration”—which are examined in as many chapters (p. 18). On James’s account, narratologists are well equipped to investigate such formal problems that, in James’s assessment, have remained relatively understudied in ecocriticism and in the environmental humanities despite the latter’s robust growth since the 1990s. James duly acknowledges often cited caveats about “the fundamental ability of narrative to stretch to accommodate the nonhuman perspectives and vast time- and spacescapes” that define climate change (p. 8). Yet, in James’s view, narrative has stepped up to the challenge.

Narrative in the Anthropocene is thus intended to “extend the econarratological project by identifying and categorizing innovative narratological structures that represent the human-created world of the Anthropocene” (pp. 4-5). James conceives of this undertaking as an “Anthropocene narrative theory,” which she posits as mutually beneficial for both parties in the marriage: “Our understanding of narrative and the Anthropocene is reciprocal—... we not only better know the current state of the world and our relationship to it by engaging with narrative but also better know narrative and how it functions by placing it within the context of the Anthropocene” (p. 175). The book’s five chapters address what James considers the most pressing problems of narrating climate change: “Worlds,” “Material,” “Time,” “Space,” and “Narration.” Each chapter begins with a detailed theoretical discussion and ends with well-executed close readings of a wide range of well-selected fictional works. These include Afrofuturism and indigenous speculative fiction, a Chicano farmworker novel, speculative fiction about the flooding of Venice and New York, graphic novels, cli-fi, and short stories.

Chapter 1 (“Worlds”) turns to the “world-building power of narrative” (p. 20). Far from copying the external world—a common misunderstanding of narrative—stories create a second world alongside the real world, the storyworld. Storyworlds may or may not be fictional. James’s focus on worldmaking spotlights features of narrative that the classical narratology of Gérard Genette, Algirdas Greimas, and Tzvetan Todorov did not centrally consider: questions of narrative’s use as a rhetorical tool of persuasion as well as narrative’s cognitive function as a powerful tool for organizing thought. Thus, storytelling is a core problem-solving technique, a device to digest unfamiliar events and circumstances by organizing them in narrative order. These functions are the focus of rhetorical narrative theory (James Phelan and others) as well as cognitive narrative theory (Lisa Zunshine, David Herman, and others), often referred to as so-called second-wave or postclassical narrative theory. Because it overcomes the formalist limitations of classical narratology and opens up the view to pragmatic and rhetorical uses of narrative, James draws on postclassical narratology to build her argument about the function of narrative in the Anthropocene. Accordingly, James defines narrative “as worldbuilding for some purpose,” a conceptualization that “brings together rhetorical and cognitive understandings of the mode” (p. 36). The close reading portion of this chapter offers an intriguing and original argument in defense of novelistic realism in climate change fiction. Realism was the target of Amitav Ghosh’s influential critique as inadequate for the demands of the catastrophic everyday of climate change. Countering Ghosh, James proposes a deconstructive reading for the “unnarrated” that is modeled on Edward Said’s postcolonial theory of contrapuntal reading. Just as Said exposes the repressed traces of imperialism that Jane Austen largely leaves out of her realist novels, so James argues that the realities of climate change that are not narrated in contemporary anthropocentric realism can similarly be distilled. In illustration of this claim, Ian McEwan’s contemporary satire Solar (2010) uses the resources of realism to expose the complacencies of the anthropocentric worldview.

Subsequent chapters address the much-discussed problems of narrating vast evolutionary timescales (chapter 3, “Time”) and equally unsettling spatial configurations (chapter 4, “Space”). Due to lack of scope, I can only skim the surface of these well-researched and tightly organized arguments. James introduces two central devices for narrating deep time (chapter 3), the “pseudo-singular” and the “effect event.” The pseudo-singular modifies Genette’s classification of “singulative” frequency (what happens once—or n times—is narrated once—or n times). The pseudo-singular is an event formally encountered “in a narrative as singular” but which is so charismatic or haunting that “no reader can realistically believe it occurs as disconnected from earlier events known from other contexts that exist outside of the text” (p. 102). In Cherie Dimaline’s indigenous speculative novel The Marrow Thieves (2017), indigenous children in a futuristic Canada are rounded up in residential schools run by a sinister Oneirology Institute, where their bodies are harvested for substances to cure the nonindigenous population, which has lost the ability to dream. The Oneirology schools, on James’s account, illustrate the pseudo-singular, evoking—without explicitly naming—a real-world event from the deep past, the horror of the Canadian indigenous residential schools. For its part, the effect event names a key class of climate change realities exemplified by the accumulation of greenhouse gases, whose effects only emerge after a significant delay. Due to the extremely slowness of their pace, effect events defy conventional understandings of events as instantaneous. How to narrate such effect events, which range from geologic processes to human-scale processes of “slow violence” (Rob Nixon) “that occur ... out of sight” (p. 108)? Effect events threaten to explode the traditional human-centered framework of narrative action. To illustrate the slow dynamics of the effect event, James discusses Helena Maria Viramontes’s representation of the delayed effects of pesticide poisoning in her migrant farmworker novel, Under the Feet of Jesus (1995).

Chapter 4 (“Space”) considers the “increasingly protean nature of environments rendered unfamiliar” by the effects of climate change. James formulates the concept of “despatialiations” to describe “spatializing cues in narratives that are strategically inexact and thus difficult to map.” How do Anthropocene narratives build worlds whose spatial settings are chaotic and unstable? As James notes, despatialized storyworlds eliminate a key premise of traditional narratives: that nature provides “a stable background against which the human drama” takes place (p. 126). This is exemplified in Maria Vitaglione’s near futurist narrative of flooded Venice, Solastalgia (2017), and Jeff Vandermeer’s novel Annihilation (2014), an iconic instance of “new weird” fiction that blurs ontological boundaries between humans and nonhumans and is ecologically oriented. In both novels, space is emancipated from its traditional role of background setting and becomes a source of dramatic action in its own right.

Chapter 5 (“Narration”) illuminates the problem of how Anthropocene narratives reorganize traditional modes of narration, such as devices of omniscient narration and focalization. On James’s account, revisioning narration must also involve consideration of adjacent questions, such as the collective agency of humans as a species in engendering climate change and of assumptions about the limits of human knowledge about nonhumans. The chapter examines three narrative modes: conventional omniscient narration, collective “we-narration,” and the second-person address. James discovers alternate uses of omniscience eschewing anthropocentrism in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2017 cli-fi novel set in a flooded Manhattan, New York 2140. Next, Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea (2014) and Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible (2020) are seen to experiment with varieties of we-narration, including “inconstant we-narration” (oscillating back and forth between individual I-narration and collective we-narration) (p. 24). They offer counternarratives revealing that a unified human “we” acting as a species in some Anthropocene accounts is a fiction. Thus, the “we” narrating Lee’s novel is not the species “we” that created dystopian climate change. Finally, the second-person address of hypothetical future readers, breaking the fourth wall of illusionism, is revealed to function as an antidote to the singularity of omniscient narration. The device of you-address is associated with found-text narratives—another favorite trope of Anthropocene fiction—exemplified here by short stories by Margaret Atwood and Luis Alberto Urrea.

I end by looping back to chapter 2 (“Material”), which considers nonhuman agency, specifically the agency of matter, the focus of energetic debates initiated by new materialism. This subject allows me to transition to a discussion of two shortcomings I discern in what is overall a very accomplished study. In introducing the concept of “material narrativity,” James takes care to distance herself from controversial claims by material ecocritics that “material possesses narrative agency” (p. 21). Illustrated by an informative reading of the “Good Oak” chapter in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac (1949), material narrativity illuminates how reading material structures, such as the rings of a felled oak tree in Leopold’s narrative, can “provide the chronological bones” of his story (p. 75). This, James concludes, illustrates matter “possessing a limited degree of narrativity in its material semiotics.” It also shows that “fragments of narrativity appear in nonhuman material and can, in turn, inspire human narratives” (p. 21). The phrase I take issue with is the claim of narrativity (such as plot) “appearing in” nonhuman material (the rings of an old tree). At issue is the problem of scale that threads through any effort to narrate climate change, which we must undertake, as James rightly insists, if we want to “catalyze legislative and collective action” (p. 175). Narrative is and remains a quintessential characteristic of human interaction, from which nonhumans are strictly excluded. Attempts to suggest otherwise lapse into the fallacy of scale collapsing. For example, nonhuman narrators (such as Franz Kafka’s burrowing beast) perform as such on condition of what Jerome Bruner calls “intentional state entailment,” which means that they are endowed with intentional states like humans.[1] In short, animal narrators narrate “as a human” and not “as an animal.”

My other quibble is less of a criticism than a suggestion indicating a missed opportunity. In the effort to join narrative and Anthropocene studies, the coda, “Narrative and Climate Change Science,” predictably takes a defensive tone in describing scientists turning toward narrative (“storytelling has a bad reputation within science” [p. 175]) more as a necessary evil rather than an endeavor valuable on its own terms. What is missing here is a clear account of narrative’s unique mode of understanding and its singular standard of truth, which is verisimilitude. As Catherine Gallagher reminds us in an influential essay revisiting accounts of the rise of the novel, narrative fiction endorses an expanded standard of truth that deals with probability (“Is this a believable story or not?”) rather than scientific standards of objectivity, verifiability, or falsifiability.[2] In part, this is due to the priority of the particular that has been recognized as essential to narrative since Aristotle. In narrative, the particular never resolves into formal abstraction and universals as in science. Setting these minor points aside, Narrative in the Anthropocene is a well-researched study and a welcome and important contribution to several expanding fields.


[1]. Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality,” Critical Inquiry 18 (Autumn 1991): 7.

[2]. Catherine Gallagher, “The Rise of Fictionality,” in The Novel, ed. Franco Moretti, vol. 1, History, Geography, Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 336-63.

Citation: Monika Kaup. Review of James, Erin, Narrative in the Anthropocene. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58046

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