English, Department of


Date of this Version

May 2008


Paper read at International Conference on Narrative, Austin TX, May 1–4, 2008. Copyright (c) 2008 Guy Reynolds.


With no-doubt foreseen timeliness, the German social theorist Ulrich Beck argued in 2000 that a new era had begun. Describing a ‘Second Age of Modernity,’ he stated that ‘towards the end of the twentieth century the condition humana opens up anew… A new kind of capitalism, a new kind of economy, a new kind of global order, a new kind of politics and law, and a new kind of society and personal life are in the making, which both separately and in context are clearly distinct from earlier phases of social evolution.’ Beck pointed to an explosion of ‘empirical indicators of cosmopolitization’: dual citizenship, international travel, transnational ways of life, and an increasing awareness of global ecological crisis. This age of ‘liquid modernity’, to use Zygmunt Bauman’s phrase, is an era where the ‘contact zone’ now spreads throughout the world. If, in the classic age of exploration, the contact zone could be located on the margin, on the beach where Captain Cook met the indigenes, then in the contemporary world contact takes places regularly, all around us. In contemporary fiction, the streets, airports, public squares and downtowns of the world have become loci for narratives of contact with strangers. And the globalized world, often celebrated in the dizzying futurism of business and political pundits, takes on a very different aspect when looked at through fiction’s prism or through the skeptical passages of recent travel writing. The strangers are now amongst us; the distance of empire, of metropoles and their far-flung colonies, has given way to the death of distance, and an era of mass nomadism. Writers and literary intellectuals, themselves usually products of this world, have charted over the past twenty years the emergence of this global ‘street’: new spaces of mingling and co-existence, but also suspicion and hostility. Words such as ‘stranger’ and ‘strange’ have taken on a new significance.

My focus here is on the emergence of a globalist fiction during the last thirty or so years, an English-language narrative that radically- reconfigured Henry James’s ‘international theme’ in the 1970s and thereafter. Unsettlingly, there is no shortage of contenders for a recent literary genealogy (spread across nations, spilling over from any single locus) focused on Manuel Castell’s ‘Fourth World’: works set amongst the global underclass, amidst the Civil Wars and refugee camps that make up a large part of ‘liquid modernity.’ A whole recent literature – one thinks of works by Edwidge Danticat, Nuruddin Farah, Abdulrazak Gurnah – focuses on refugees, civil wars, resettlement camps. In this paper I want to suggest some initial readings of this writing by looking at two of the best-known Fourth World narratives: Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost and Eggers’s What is the What.