The New Atheist Novel: Fiction, Philosophy and Polemic after 9/11

February 25, 2010

Authors: Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate

Edition: First

Publisher: Continuum

Pages: 160

Price: £50.00 and £16.99

ISBN 9780826444295 and 4629

A character in Sebastian Faulks' novel A Week in December expresses doubt in the Islamism he has hitherto embraced: "Where was the voice ... of God that the Prophet had heard in the desert? It was all so fantastically, so risibly improbable." With its scepticism towards religious faith, reliance on Orientalist commentators such as Bernard Lewis in analysing Islam, and lauding of the novel as a space where different world-views conflict non-violently, this text fits well into the subgenre of the New Atheist Novel that is identified by Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate in this paradigm-shifting book.

Faulks' novel was published too recently to be considered here and Bradley and Tate confine themselves to discussion of four leading British writers: Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Philip Pullman and Salman Rushdie. They argue with clarity and verve that these writers are influenced by New Atheist non-fiction writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, share an impatience with organised religion and believe that transcendence can be found in nature, art and relationships. However, like the controversial Hitchens and Dawkins, these novelists often provoke storms of outrage, as seen in the public spat between Amis and Terry Eagleton over the former's apparently Islamophobic remarks in the The Guardian and, of course, the infamous Rushdie affair.

It is perhaps disappointing that the authors do not train their penetrating gaze on Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, which they intriguingly refer to as "the first New Atheist Novel", but this is a post-9/11 textbook, and one of the most interesting yet to be published. Its even-handed assessment of these celebrated writers is unafraid to identify their blind spots, such as an irrational extolling of the virtues of literature, insular references to the same few sceptical thinkers, and inability to enter the mindset of the truly religious.

The book is more convincing in evaluating the New Atheist Novel than in its brief attempts to identify a New Theist or Post-atheist Novel. In Britain, Bradley and Tate describe the predictable triumvirate of Hanif Kureishi, Monica Ali and Zadie Smith as offering "more complex and variegated pictures" of our multicultural society than do the New Atheist novelists. In fact, Kureishi, Ali and Smith - like McEwan, Amis and Rushdie - are preoccupied with the sensational (and marketable) figure of the Muslim extremist and pay little attention to religious people who have no truck with violence. Nor do they engage in sufficient depth with the genuine political grievances that drive extremism, or the way in which Anglo-American foreign policy may itself be viewed as a form of terrorism.

A new generation of less well-known Muslim writers, such as Robin Yassin-Kassab, Nadeem Aslam and Leila Aboulela, are producing more nuanced accounts of religion doubt and multicultural politics.

Who is it for? Undergraduates and postgraduates studying the contemporary British novel; scholars interested in the relationship between religion and literature.

Presentation: Divided into four chapters, one on each writer, with an introduction and conclusion, the text is also notable for its brevity.

Would you recommend it? A timely and important work examining four of our most lionised novelists with an appropriately aporetic eye.


Postcolonial Literatures in Context

Author: Julie Mullaney

Edition: First

Publisher: Continuum

Pages: 168

Price: £45.00 and £14.99

ISBN 9781847063366 and 3373

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