Grotesque (New Critical Idiom): A Review

Posted by Laura Kremmel on March 28, 2013 in Reviews tagged with

Edwards, Justin and Rune Graulund. Grotesque (New Critical Idiom). Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2013.

With preoccupations with the body—body horror, the abject, disability studies, medical themes, etc—prevalent within the contemporary Gothic and Gothic studies as a whole, it is little surprise that one of Routledge’s upcoming New Critical Idiom books is devoted to the grotesque. This volume by Justin Edwards and Rune Graulund highlights the importance and potential of locating the power of bodies (and the literature that features them) in the vehicle of the grotesque and its many manifestations: from the manipulation and transgression of boundaries and rules to a critique of institutions and classifications, from the embrace of uncertainty and contradiction to a reinstatement of new boundaries and (ab)norms.

One of the strengths of the New Critical Idiom series is the ability to take such an extensive theory as the grotesque and break it down into core concepts that apply to a wide range of interests, while at the same time delving into the specifics and complexities of the topic through examples. As a versatile educational tool, this volume includes basic background, theories, and subcategories but also explores these aspects through focused readings of texts from many literary periods and media, guiding both beginner students and more advanced scholars by modeling how theories of the grotesque can be applied and their implications. As an academic interested in both, then, I found myself taking notes on passages that might help my students as well as important points for my own work.

The first chapter jumps right into Patrick McGrath’s aptly named novel, The Grotesque in order to explore the different definitions of the word, including literary demarcations and character comments to dictionary definitions and historical meanings. More than once, the grotesque nature of the concept itself and the way it has distended and mutated itself to adapt to different contexts seems to allow for the inclusion of so many different texts and connections. Yet, this book stresses that it is also this adaptive feature and its slippery refusal to retain one single category or character that gives the grotesque the ability to perform important work. Early on, Edwards and Graulund state that “the grotesque offers a creative force for conceptualizing the indeterminate that is produced by distortion, and reflecting on the significance of the uncertainty that is thereby produced. This means that the discombobulating juxtapositions and bizarre combinations found in grotesque figures in literature and the other arts open up an indeterminate space of conflicting possibilities, images and figures” (3). With this as a guiding principle of the volume, they then locate how these possibilities work within more specific frameworks and areas of study.

The first section expands on this idea and discussing the grotesque’s relationship to the uncanny and the development of normal/abnormal as well as briefly outlining the progression of literary studies of the grotesque. Chapter two gives an overview of four of the most important theorists of the grotesque who have developed its concepts according to their historical moments but who have remained critical for current scholars and texts: John Ruskin, Mikhail Bakhtin, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva. Edwards and Graulund highlight the key similarities and differences among them as well as their unique contribution to the concept and its implications.

Each subsequent chapter, then, opens like the first: with a literary example that exhibits the core concept of that chapter before going into its facets, what they mean, and what they can do. Chapter three turns from the somewhat abstract grotesque discussed by the theorists to the embodied grotesque of the monstrous figure, picking up the crucial components of hybridity, otherness, and consumption by tracing the classical grotesqueries of religious history and antiquity, referencing legends, medieval art and texts, and ending with Shakespeare’s Caliban. The next chapter picks up again with Shakespeare’s Richard III, but shifts away from the fantastical to the corporal, quickly moving to Frankenstein and to the bits and pieces and body horror of contemporary film. Each new reading brings in slightly different nuances to the definition of the grotesque and who or what is included in it. In their reading of The Human Centipede, Edwards and Graulund talk about the combination of human and animal features of the characters within the film as well as melding body parts and individuals, but they also extend the bodily effects of the film to the audience in the form of laughter, disgust, etc. They talk more about this kind of expansion beyond the borders of texts, politics, and definitions in the next chapter on exaggeration, extravagance, and excess. In this, they touch on the expansive body, the power of camp, transgressive texts, and the ways in which all three can attract and repulse (the theme of chapter six).

Chapter six, “Attraction/Repulsion,” focuses on one category of the grotesque, the “freak,” and shows how such a limited classification is inherently inadequate for its ability to open up “a space in which the notion of humanity itself, and the distinctions between the human and the inhuman, are fundamentally unsettled, thrown into question, discombobulated” (86). The chapter begins with Flannery O’Connor’s depictions of freakishness, naturally leading to a pairing of Geek Love and Tod Browning’s Freaks and the different types of freedom the grotesque provides and/or denies. The fine line between exploitation and agency in terms of the relationship between the freak and the norm leads to the next chapter about deformity and laughter: the grotesque, in many ways, features rich elements of comedy. The who, what, and why of that laughter can present unsettling questions about hierarchies dealing with the body, such as those distinguished by disability, race, class, and sexuality. Chapter eight turns from the thematic approach of these previous chapters to specific theoretical categories that engage with these body issues. It delves into queer theory with the fiction of Carson McCullers, the paintings of Francis Bacon, and the novels of Dennis Cooper. Edwards and Graulund say of Bacon’s work, “The queer grotesque, then, allows the artist to subvert the socially constructed ‘norms’ of essentialist sexuality and to seek out new sites for same-sex desire through the sexual unease engendered by grotesquerie” (118). In all three treatments of queer desire, the grotesque disrupts and unsettles taboos in order create new forms of queerness beyond same-sex desire: amorphous, uncontrollable, and difficult to define.

The last sections expand the grotesque geographically to encompass postcolonial depictions of transgression and excess (chapter nine) and global directions in the most current thought (conclusion). In chapter nine, the grotesque renditions of difference span both positive and negative effects, from remnants of a history of colonization to methods of “[undermining] former colonial ontologies and [challenging] the power dynamics of binaries… to rewrite the centre” (124). This discussion includes readings of Salman Rushdie, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Shani Mootoo, and Grace Nichols in the ways in which their texts work with types of expansion and eruption that challenge and recreate boundaries. The brief conclusion on “Global Grotesque” then confronts the twenty-first century’s concerns with globalized capitalism, contagion (real and metaphorical), media power, and it asks important questions along the way, opening up this comprehensive volume to the mutations of the grotesque in our own contemporary political, economic, social, and academic narrative.

Each individual section includes key concepts as well as representative texts and pertinent sources so as to give readers an introduction and a direction for further study. To this end, the text concludes with a glossary of terms and an extensive bibliography. Engagingly-written and accessible, this volume will be a significant teaching tool for students, instructors, and scholars of the Gothic as well as of political, economic, and social bodies that transgress their own classifications through this literary concept.

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