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In the visual arts, a “lost edge” is a border that becomes perceptible to a viewer without becoming visible, exactly. No clear line distinguishes the right shoulder of Francisco de Goya’s coloso from the dark clouds above it, but the effect is not to diminish his bodily integrity (Figure 1).
On the contrary, the lostness of that edge gathers the force of the tempest into the figure of the giant, extending his reach indefinitely beyond the limits of the canvas. The villagers shrink by proportion on the landscape below, where their particularity dissolves into their collective untethering. They’re not stupid. They can see as well as I can that they don’t stand a chance unless the sky allows it.
This lost edge helps me as a visual metaphor to describe the historical specificity of a peculiar combination of literary form and content that is everywhere in the contemporary present, and more precisely, in the novels that circulate most widely and to the highest acclaim through Anglophone literary publics today. I’m talking about prolepsis and the ways it works for the representation of structural violence. Again and again, the novels that get marketed and sold to Anglophone readers as literature begin with a quick glimpse of some spectacular disaster in the fictional future, then narrate in past tenses the paths that converged to create it.
If you try to name a novel that works this way for this reason, you might think of one written by Anna Burns, for example, Paul Beatty, Roberto Bolaño, Octavia Butler, Don Delillo, Elena Ferrante, Gabriel García Marquez, Mohsin Hamid, Kazuo Ishiguro, Karl Ove Knausgård, Yiyun Li, Valeria Luiselli, Ling Ma, Fernanda Melchor, Emily St. John Mandel, Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, Tommy Orange, Ruth Ozeki, Orhan Pamuk, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, and Indra Sinha. There are many others.
This use of prolepsis is naturalized by its ubiquity in Anglophone literary publics today, so it seems as if has always been with us, but it has not. Prolepsis was a rarity in Western canons a half-century ago, when it was a province of high modernism in Europe, practiced most notably by Proust. Literary critics had no name for it until Gerard Genette defined it as a “narrative maneuver” for “narrating or evoking in advance an event that will take place later.1 But if it was as rarefied as it was rare a half century ago, prolepsis is everywhere today. It ranges freely across the registers of high and low in the narrative genres we consume in the lingua franca of global capital, which is to say, in English. And as prolepsis demonstrates this ability to speak to Anglophone readers as it has never spoken to any literary publics prior to ours, it demonstrates a peculiar talent for the representation of structural violence.
This is odd. A narrative form as empty as any other, prolepsis holds itself open to hold any content whatsoever, and it can in theory appear at any moment in the text. The next novel to become a sensation might deploy its quick inversions of chronological time at any moment, and that corollary opposite of a flashback could deliver any conceivable plot point in advance. It could give its readers foreknowledge of some happy ending that the characters want and more or less deserve. But it probably won’t. In its contemporary usage, prolepsis gravitates strongly toward the very first sentence, where it drops the worst possible endings on our protagonists’ horizons. It invites us to identify with the dummies who walk blithely into disasters anybody could see.
This proleptic ontology feels resonant to me, and it seems I’m not alone. But if the evidence testifies inarguably to the contemporaneity of prolepsis, it doesn’t explain how this narrative device meets the needs of Anglophone readers like me, or why, with what consequence for whom. Proleptic novels pile up around me as I ponder the question and hone this hypothesis in response. Prolepsis emerges as a dominant form in the latter half of the twentieth century alongside new discourses of institutional racism and structural violence, which become legible as inescapable conditions of life as we live it today: under threat of harm that is distributed with predictable inequality among us by the colossus-like structures that make global capital go.
Take, for example, How Beautiful We Were, by the Cameroonian-American novelist Imbolo Mbue. Published by Random House and selected by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2021, it narrates the ways a fictional African village falls apart after an American oil company dumps poison into its land, water, and air. The proleptic temporality of its narration begins with the title, which locates the notional “we” who tells the story in some moment after irreparable damage has been done. The prelapsarian past appears in the first personal plural in the opening sentences, whose verb tenses grow convoluted with conditionality that expands as it goes: “We should have known the end was near. How could we not have known?”2
This collective voice belongs to the village children, who see only in hindsight how their village was destroyed proleptically from the moment when oil was discovered under it. The passive tense of these verbs suggests the difficulty of naming the perpetrator of violence against the village, which is subject to a process of fossil fuel extraction that binds the villagers’ corrupt state together with a multinational oil corporation based in the United States. The children register a dawning awareness of their vulnerability to that extractive system that blurs the borders of their nation into something bigger. In the end, they see that sometimes an edge is hard to find, and sometimes we’re mistaken in looking.
Prolepsis works in this narration as it tends to do: to represent life as we live it under a perceptibly global system that dwarfs us by orders of magnitude. The sheer inversion of chronological time speaks to this condition by putting our protagonists at the mercy of structural forces that toss them willy-nilly. They see this, but only in retrospect. At the time, they thought they exercised agency over their fates, but we knew better. Prolepsis gives their ending away from the start, undoing the grand narratives of enlightenment that underwrite the realist novel as a genre. “The epic of a world that has been abandoned by God,” as Georg Lukács famously describes it, the novel naturalizes a story that begins when a “poetically necessary youthfulness” sends a person on a search that grinds them down as they grow old.3
That progressive temporality carries a reader chronologically through the protagonist’s life from beginning to middle and end, and it gives form to another novel about an African village that Anglophone readers know better: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958). Like How Beautiful We Were, it dashes any hope for a happy ending in its title and frames that narrative foreclosure as a historical effect of colonization. But where Mbue relies on the structuring authority of prolepsis, Achebe opens the novel by inviting his reader to identify with a protagonist whose possibilities stand open: “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond,” the narrator begins. “His fame rested on solid personal achievements”.4 An exemplar to his sex as surely as any other protagonist Anglophone readers know, Okonkwo appears here with a bright future before him. Achebe’s titular guarantee that things will fall apart is mitigated by the chronological form he uses to give his reader a quick minute to hope they might not fall apart entirely.
I can’t stop thinking about the ways these different narrative forms meet the needs of Anglophone readers in their respective historical moments, with what costs and benefits for what and for whom. As I write the question, I find myself invoking visual metaphors consistently, so I tried to paint them, noting the very different ways edges get lost in each. Things Fall Apart represents a gradual but negative and fundamentally biological progress. Like a biography, it proceeds sequentially from a promising youth to an eventual death.
That progressive decline takes bodily form in the figure of Okonkwo. He carries the promise of futurity as a feature of his narrative form if not its content.
That promise is nowhere to be found in the proleptic temporality of How Beautiful We Were, which casts the dark shadow of the end over the beginning. By contrast to the modern protagonists who lose their “poetically necessary youthfulness” only through the experience that the novel depicts in granular detail, contemporary protagonists appear “forced” from the start “to see the uselessness of the struggle and the final victory of reality.”5 They are always already old.
Death appears here as the precondition for life, and not only in a metaphysical or ahistorical sense of the word. The villagers’ quality and quantity of life is limited by the extractive forces that surround them, and their reader knows it as certainly as they do not. They believe in their ability to fight the oil company and win because they lack the foreknowledge that is the effect of prolepsis.
This use of prolepsis works readily with multivocal narrative structure that is so prevalent in contemporary fiction. With alternating narrators across chapters, How Beautiful We Were refracts the same events through the focalizing lenses of one character after another. The village children get a prime location in the novel’s first and last chapters, and they use that space to frame the rest of the story in a reflection on the certainty of the village’s end. Voiding the grand narratives of enlightenment that underwrite the modern novel as a genre, those chapters turn their readers’ attention away from answerable questions about what will happen next toward the unanswerable lament that Søren Kierkegaard attributed to Attic tragedy: “Why has this befallen me? Why can it not be otherwise?”6
But as the proleptic novel eschews questions about plot to ask questions about something else, it leaves a little remainder of plot to discover, too, some portion of the story that has yet to be told. In the case of How Beautiful We Were, that remainder lies in the question of how the villagers will survive the death of their village. The final chapter of the novel is narrated by the children as adults, reflecting from diasporic locations on the death of their village’s most exemplary character and their promise to live and tell her tale: “We wondered if Thula would still be fighting if she were alive,” they recall. “It’s at such moments that the children of our children come to us and say, please, Yaya, please, Big Papa, tell us a story.”7 Like the tragic chorus that promises to survive the bloodshed on stage, this collective narration ensures the longevity of the polis in spite of it all.
That affirmative ending derives from prolepsis, or from proleptic style as the critic Michael Dango uses that term. “Style is not form,” Dango argues, “but a coordination of form and content, a particular kind of action.”8 Using the language of crisis and repair, Dango develops the theory that style works in the contemporary to fuel our survival through an age of ongoing and overlapping crises. I’m not so sure about repair, but I feel the crisis, and I see how it lends itself to representation in the lost edges among beginnings, middles, and ends. This is the proleptic style that has become endemic to the twenty-first century, and it has nothing necessarily reparative about it. At its best, it cultivates the solidarity we need to live collectively with the knowledge of structural violence. And its worst, it shores up the enervating suspicion that every political action has become futile, because we are so tiny, and the colossus is so big.
This is part of the cluster Hard/Soft/Lost: The Edges of Contemporary Culture. Read the other posts here.
- Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Janet E. Lewin. (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1983), 40.
- Imbolo Mbue, How Beautiful We Were. (New York: Random House, 2021), 3.
- Georg Lukács, Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977), 89, 85.
- Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. (New York: Penguin, 1994), 5.
- Georg Lukács, Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977), 85.
- Søren Kierkegaard, “Ancient Tragedy’s Reflection in the Modern,” in Either / Or: A Fragment of Life, trans. Alistair Hannay, ed. Victor Eremita. (New York: Penguin, 1992), 142.
- Mbue, How Beautiful We Were, 360.
- Michael Dango, Crisis Style: The Aesthetics of Repair (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022), 8.