THE GROUNDS OF THE NOVEL by Daniel Wright, Reviewed by Timothy Gao

By Daniel Wright
(Stanford, 2024) xvi + 229 pp.
Reviewed by Timothy Gao on 2024-07-02.

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Daniel Wright's fascinating new study The Grounds of the Novel argues that novel worlds have even stranger ontological foundations than ours. It is structured into four chapters which each close read a different metaphor of 'ground' -- "Groundwork," "Underground," "The Ground Gained," "Meeting Grounds" -- in novels by Thomas Hardy, Olive Schreiner, Virginia Woolf, Colson Whitehead, and Akwaeke Emezi, as well as in essays on novel craft by Woolf, Zadie Smith, and Henry James. Wright's interest in these metaphors is not geological or ecological, nor related to "a historicism interested in groundwork as a concept primarily of labor, economic value, and enclosure" (38). Rather, this organising principle reflects the book's method of reading 'fictional landscape, earth, tomb, dirt, work-ground' as metaphors through which novels and novelists engage in 'philosophical speculation about the forms and edges of being' (111), specifically of fictional being. In other words, the sense of 'ground' in question is the one sought for in William James's anecdote about infinite regress, of the woman who 'described the world as resting on a rock, and then explained that rock to be supported by another rock, and finally...said it was "rocks all the way down"' ('Rationality, Activity and Faith,' 82). This book examines what lies 'all the way down' beneath novels, bearing up the soil on which characters walk. For Wright, the strange ontological foundations of novelistic worlds become a "resource" (6) for thinking through our own ambiguities and ethics of being.

The first chapter on Thomas Hardy most clearly exemplifies the book's main interpretative move. It is also the chapter which follows most from Wright's previous book, Bad Logic: Reasoning about Desire in the Victorian Novel (2018), in taking up the implications of a Victorian encounter with infinitude and philosophical paradox. Far from the Madding Crowd's Fanny Robin, mentally dividing a gruelling two-mile walk into ever smaller divisions, manifests Zeno's Paradox that a finite distance can be divided into infinite intervals. As with Bad Logic's discussions of desire, this chapter provides a persuasive model for combining philosophical reasoning with literary specificity, in this case observing the abstract puzzle of infinite divisibility embodied Fanny's "tragically ordinary...affair of hobbling steps" (57) and her despair of ever reaching a continually deferred shelter.

The present book innovates on this model by emphasising the role of figuration as a means for literature and literary criticism to "'do' philosophy in its own language" (133). For example, when a blizzard renders Hardy's landscape a 'colourless background' from which the outlines of features emerge, Wright deftly argues that such blankness not only figures visually for the snow as it covers the other objects of the novel, but that the snow is a figure for the underlying blankness of the novel world usually covered by its objects (32-33). What appears at first ornamental to the fictional reality becomes foundational; like a sudden reversal of gravity, such inversions between "underneath and overtop," (34) concreteness and abstraction, expose the contingent surfaces on which we rest fictions.

This chapter also introduces the book's attention to the metaphysical disorientation of characters who encounter the foundations of their world suddenly exposed or peeking out from gaps in reality. The potential infinitude of Fanny's journey is not only a matter of material or mathematical distances, but also of walking in the featureless darkness, unable to judge how far she has travelled or has left to go. She seems therefore to become lost within the void of narrative space itself, indeterminate and amorphous unless the narrator delineates it for us with landmarks and milestones. There is an echo here of Franco Moretti's admission in Graphs, Maps, Trees [2005]: when we seek to translate fictional worlds into cartographic representations, these maps are actually relational diagrams lacking absolute measurements. What do two miles mean for a "fictional body in fictional space," (68) an unreality moving inside unreality? Wright shows how falling between the cracks of one's reality in this way can be horrifying or, as he suggests with citation to Sara Ahmed's Queer Phenomenology (2006), potentially liberating.

These two ideas -- metaphor's surfacing of fiction's ontological grounds, and the disorienting experience of standing on such grounds -- run through all four chapters. Waldo in The Story of an African Farm, for instance, imagines the landscape around him as both rooted in the body of a buried giant and edged by a fall into the void; Mr and Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, feeling the land and their certainties eroding around them, reflect Woolf's own struggle to find a standpoint from which to establish the reality of her novel. These complementary readings build on and contribute to a growing body of work by scholars such as Elaine Freedgood, Audrey Jaffe, Jacob Romanow, and others who have argued for the distinctiveness, artifice, and hetero-ontologicality of novel worlds as meaningful to their experience rather than, as Wright repudiates it, "an embarrassment [the novel] must bribe us to forget" (6).

These readings constitute a compelling project in itself of rereading realist fictionality, but what makes them brilliantly resourceful is how they attach questions of ontology to arguments of racial and queer justice. For example, taking further Freedgood's recent insights about the connection between fictionality and coloniality (Worlds Enough, 2019), the third chapter 'Underground' draws attention to how Schreiner's ontological metaphors are grounded in figures of blackness in an oeuvre with few literalised African characters. The line between those characters who walk the grounds of the novel and those who remain figured as the grounds echoes, Wright argues, Schreiner's inchoate fantasies of racial segregation. The chapter poses this tendency in Schreiner against Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, a novel which literalises a historical metaphor and brings the almost always figurative underground into literal fictional existence.

Similarly, the question of who is afforded metaphysical reality and recognition in novels -- and who is not -- becomes a means of thinking about queerness. The novel's capacity to probe at its own foundations, and then to insist on its self-evident reality on its own terms, might model, as Wright puts it, "an ontological pragmatism that allows me to be queer [...] without worrying at every moment, or at the beginning of every day, about whether 'queerness' is real or fictional, a metaphysically fundamental difference or a social construct" (7). The final chapter's reading of Emezi's Freshwater connects the novel form's ontological pragmatism to trans studies through their shared interest of when "inhabitation of reality is complicated, painful dysphoric' and of 'support[ing] the kind of in-between existence that isn't always allowed to inhabit reality comfortably" (175). The word "allowed" is key to this book's argument about the stakes in determinations of fiction's reality, and the kinds of exclusion or unrecognition the novel can be a resource for refusing.

As I hope is evident from this account, vertiginousness is both a heuristic and major pleasure of reading The Grounds of the Novel. Its close readings can feel like sudden drops in an elevator, leaving us with a heightened awareness of the void beneath and clinging gratefully to the surface that holds us up. "I'm not all that afraid of infinite regress," Wright notes, "a problem that could easily haunt this book" (27) and which he always neatly sidesteps, by making sense and use of the vertigo, to show us that the grounds of the novel are no less solid for their peculiarities.

More slippery ground, however, emerges when Wright moves from interpreting these ontological metaphors in novels to essays by novelists about novel-writing. This slippery ground is best represented by the third chapter, on Henry James's ground metaphors in his New York Edition prefaces, although other chapters also examine essays by Woolf and Smith. There is characteristically much in play in this chapter, including the capacities of close reading, the experience of rereading, and the creative inception of fictions, but the aim and method remains largely the same as that of the book in general, of "using the techniques of close reading [...] to show how authors use metaphor to lay bare the ontological basis of their fictional worlds," with the difference being "perhaps only here I have taken as my object an exemplary work of novel theory rather than a work of fiction" (133). The argument remains persuasive in that it demonstrates how novelists gravitate towards a certain family of metaphors to think through ideas of foundation, inception, standpoint, and ontology, whether in novels themselves or in writing about novels.

Yet there is perhaps more of a difference than Wright acknowledges between theoretical and fictional metaphors of ground. As he argues throughout the book, ontological metaphors in novels use the literal or physical surfaces of their own fictional worlds to explore the metaphysical foundations of that same world; in his incisive phrase, "fictional being understands itself" (111). His examples frequently feature characters who are happily or unhappily pinned to their plane of existence -- Mrs Yeobright wishing to be "uncrushed" (62) from the earth, or Mrs Ramsay imagining her husband as a stake driven into the seabed -- and who therefore concretise abstract metaphysical speculations through their experiences of existing within those metaphysics. James, entering as an author from the paratext, walks not onto the grounds of the novel worlds to which characters find themselves rooted but ones metaphorically neighbouring, perhaps the worlds of novel theory or novel-writing as practices which can be the subject of their own spatialised metaphors. When James feels, for example, that in revisiting his early novels he wanders a snowy plain where his original tracks are partly lost, it seems to me that he walks not through The Portrait of a Lady (all the more because he does not specify a novel) and the kind of novel canvas Hardy exposes in his snow scene, but rather through the snowy plain of the experience of rereading. Where the close reading in other chapters move or flip vertically, through layers of figuration which specifically ground or unearth each other, this chapter feels more like a sideways movement into mixed metaphor, synthesising a "series of shifting metaphors that we find as we move from preface to preface" (120).

The metaphor of ground is nonetheless significantly, insistently attached to both novels' figurations of their own realities and novelists' figurations of their novels, ultimately bearing out Wright's argument of its ontological richness. It is a testament to the influence of The Grounds of the Novel and its intimate attention to detail that I gripe about one kind of metaphoric ground against another, because the book shows us so convincingly that there is something distinctly powerful and vital about the novel's own grounds.

Timothy Gao is Lecturer in English at the University of Bristol, UK.