Joseph O'Neill and the new cosmopolitan novel
by Joseph O'Neill
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During the late 1990s, we saw the rise of a new literary subject: the postcolonial immigrant. In the metro-poles of the North Atlantic—in London and New York, Paris and Toronto—the protagonist emerged: a parvenu, an outsider with a sturdy work ethic, a grocer or taxi driver seeking to make it in his or her new home. There were geographical variations—the Dominicans of Junot Díaz’s Drown, the East Indians of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, the Soviet Jews of Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and the African refugees of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah—but central to these narratives was the direction of movement. The postcolonial subject moved from the outside in, from the former colony to the metropole, from beyond to the imperial center. Gatsby-like, he or she often tested the outer limits of the American dream—that still-regnant myth about capitalist self-making. The narrative arc was that of the arriviste: a story not only of assimilation and the arduous passage toward citizenship but also of accumulation and the trials of “making it.”
Today, however, we have something of a body double floating around, a doppelgänger novel. While the parvenu novel was a study of citizenship, of the ways in which former colonial subjects found success in the imperial capital, we now see a new kind of migration: that of the cosmopolitan, the emigrant, the exile pushed out into the world, spreading away from the imperial center, roots from a tree.
Unlike the parvenu novels, these new works of fiction are about the process of disintegration. Their protagonists