‘Rethinking the Monstrous: Transgression, Vulnerability, and Difference in British Fiction since 1967’ by Jim Byatt (Lexington Books, 2015).
Significantly, this book probes the medicalisation of different bodies, with its concomitant management of impairments and medical conditions. The book explores the treatment of the non-normative. The interactions of carers and healthcare staff with their charges and patients come under scrutiny. Unsettling notions as to who has the right to sexual freedom and to reproduce are unpacked. The importance of age as a determinant in what is marginalised; what is appropriate in childhood, old age and the transitions to adulthood are investigated.
The book sets out to find the intersections of academic and popular conceptualizations of ‘monstrosity’. It explores the politics of identity formation in a series of novels selected on the basis of their treatment of the troubling other- the disabled, mentally impaired, paedophilic, incestuous, and dying. The novels examined in this study make visible transgressive identities normally hidden from view. Rethinking the Monstrous appraises the presentation of these identities, and the extent to which the authors engage with the universality of desire. Fictional narratives are explored in the context of anthropological, sociological and cultural theories.
With the central attributes of monstrosity being designated as transgression, visibility and vulnerability, the narratives documented take place in domestic, intimate spaces. It is in the household, the family unit and care home, away from public scrutiny, that these stories of normality challenging behaviour occur. To this end, there is some pertinent discussion of spatial conceptualization, drawing in particular on Gaston Bachelard and teasing out architectural metaphors. Its significance would have benefited from a wider range of reference, perhaps drawing upon Henri Lefebvre’s work on the social production of space.
Monstrosity’s fluidity as a category is acknowledged from the outset. Serving as a foil for ableist high status social identities, monstrosity is a shifting taxonomy which destabilises social constructions of normative. A spectrum of positions, ranging from the sacred to profane, the human to animal mark it out. Byatt draws on Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s theories of looking and being looked at (p. 5; p. 13), and Margrit Shildrick’s conflation of monstrosity and vulnerability (p. 9) to unpick the terminology. Yet despite acknowledging the rich and fruitful field of academic theories of monstrosity he does not expand upon their contribution to our understanding of monstrosity. Furthermore, he uses the categories of ‘monstrous’ and ‘monster’ as a means of marshalling the troubling identities with which the study is concerned. These disparate subjects can be termed monstrous in that they fail to achieve legitimacy (pp. 8-9).
The significance of portrayals of otherness under scrutiny, which is foregrounded in this account, is their ‘social realism’ – they do not present their material through the prism of myth, cartoon or fantasy world. Neither the novels, nor this study, shy away from transgressive controversial and troubling subject matter. Indeed, the narratives have courted controversy and marginalisation as a consequence.
Byatt begins his appraisal of identity with an insightful questioning of perceptions of disabled protagonists, considering the wresting of narrative from Peter’s silent body in the Comforts of Madness, despite his endeavour to erase his presence, and the reading of Crying Out Loud in the light of contemporaneous studies such as those of Georges Canguilhem and Daryl Paul Evans.
This is followed by a consideration of incest through the frameworks of the house and family unit, where there is a ‘localized system of order’ (p. 94). In the two fictional cases presented the personal is privileged over the societal, with one marked by consolidation of the family unit and the other its dissolution.
The final two chapters give voice to paedophilia, geriatric coupling and the sexuality of the dying, played out in familial and professional settings including those of consultation rooms as well as the care home, which is described as a ‘holding zone between life and death’ (pp. 146-7). Rethinking the Monstrous does not provide answers as to what is monstrous or other, but it crucially raises debate concerning what is liminal and its multifarious nature.
Although the author’s perspective is clearly established in disability studies, the book’s thought-provoking account of diverse identities will be of interest to those engaged with monstrosity, gender, the health care system, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies and identity formation more widely. It engages with both popular and academic conceptions of otherness, dealing with difficult, emotive issues, bringing under the lens not only themes often perceived as taboo but less well-known texts. It is not a literary critique per say; instead it provides a nuanced account of marginalised heterogeneity uncovered in private spaces, explored in their cultural and social contexts, linking their concerns with academic theories and debates.
Rethinking the Monstrous renders visible many troubling concerns, the stories of diverse marginalised others which demands us all to rethink who should be confined to the borders of society and why.
Reviewed by Bonnie Millar (PhD), who holds degrees from Trinity College Dublin and the University of Nottingham. She joined the NIHR Nottingham Hearing Biomedical Research Unit in 2014 to work on the QUIET-1 clinical trial, co-ordinating recruitment and trial activities for the Nottingham site. She has authored a critical study of the Siege of Jerusalem, and publishes on alliterative poetry, medieval romances, gender theory, medical humanities and sound studies.
Correspondence to Dr Bonnie Millar