Barry McCrea’s In the Company of Strangers: Family and Narrative in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust is one of the more engaging works of literary criticism I’ve seen in some time. And while I’m interested in McCrea’s subjects (the weird lines between the Victorian era and modernism, family and marriage plots, Dickens and Joyce, etc.), it’s the clarity of his writing that I find most impressive. Clear, frank writing is too rare in current literary criticism. Here’s McCrea describing his project—
This book argues that the formal innovations of the high-modernist novel are inseparable from a fundamental rethinking of how family ties are formed and sustained. Genealogy was thematically and structurally central to the English nineteenth-century novel. In the Company of Strangers shows how the formal strategies employed by Joyce and Proust grow out of an attempt to build a fully coherent narrative system that is not rooted in the genealogical family. Modernism’s rejection of the familiar and cultivation of the strange, in other words, are inseparable from its abandonment of the family and embrace of the bond with the stranger as an alternative to it.
[In the Company of Strangers] offers a reassessment of the relationship between the modernists and their Victorian predecessors, suggesting that the key precursor to this queer model of narrative can be located, paradoxically, in the genealogical obsession of the English nineteenth-century novel. Far from representing a clean break with the Victorian family novel, the radical narrative formalism of high modernism exploits the potential of an alternative queer plot that was already present as a formal building block in the nineteenth-century novel.
McCrea’s queer theory lens is keenly attuned to the homoerotic content present in the novels he examines, but his critical gaze is ultimately more interested in how “queer time” functions as an organizing principle throughout the structure of these narratives. McCrea argues that this queer model of time is a central and defining characteristic of literary modernism. The agent (or one agent) of queer time is “the stranger,” the character who figuratively threatens (and paradoxically defines) the family. McCrea points out that the typical Victorian marriage plot resolves the problem of the stranger by incorporating him or her into the family as a point of narrative resolution. In contrast, in “the queer modernist narrative strategies of Ulysses and the Recherche, the stranger rivals and ultimately usurps the family plot.”
McCrea sifts through family plots (and the strangers who would challenge or queer them) in Dickens (Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Great Expectations), Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Ulysses (“a queer family epic”), and Proust’s big book. In the Company of Strangers constantly scrutinizes the ways that family organizes narrative (and narrative organizes family). The book also analyzes what “urban literature” might mean, examining what it means to live in proximity to one’s fellows, and the ways in which urban living necessitate ad hoc families.
In the Company of Strangers does a lovely job of tracing the strange currents that run from Victorian lit to modernism and beyond—currents that extend from our conceptions of family itself, and indeed, our conceptions of life and an end to life. McCrea’s writing is precise, supported by a close textual readings, and if I didn’t always agree with his conclusions, he achieved what every critic ought to aim for: he made me want to read the books he was writing about again.
In the Company of Strangers is new from Columbia University Press.