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A scholar probes subtle shifts in stories told through genes

Narrative in the Age of the Genome: Genetic Worlds

Lara Choksey
Bloomsbury Academic
232 pp.
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“If the double helix is an icon of the modern age, then the genome is one of the last grand narratives of modernity,” writes Lara Choksey in her new book, Narrative in the Age of the Genome. Hybridizing literary criticism with a genre-spanning consideration of a dozen distinct literary works, and imbued throughout with deep concern for the peripheral, the possible, and the political, the book seeks to challenge the “whole imaginative apparatus for constructing the self into a coherent narrative, via the lexicon and syntax of the molecular.”

To a reading of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976) as a repudiation of class struggle and E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975) as a defense of warfare, Choksey juxtaposes another kind of ambiguous heterotopia in which genetic engineering is “a tool of neoliberal self-fashioning.” In Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble on Triton (1976), Bron, a transgender ex-gigolo turned informatics expert, is caught “between sociobiology and the selfish gene, between the liberal developmentalism of progressive evolution, and the neoliberal extraction and rearrangement of biological information.” Even the “undulating interruptions” and parentheticals of Bron’s thoughts “[mimic] the description of the activation and silencing of genes,” she suggests, tying together gene and genre in a way that encapsulates neoliberal alienation.

Choksey next explores the ways in which collectivist fantasies of biological reinvention under Soviet Lysenkoism fused “code and cultivation” through a close reading of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1972) in which cultivated utopian dreamworlds become contaminated by alien forces, resulting in fundamental ecological transformations beyond the promised reach of human control. The novel brings to light not forgotten Soviet utopias but literal zombies and mutations. In a world where planned cultivation fails entirely in the face of the unfamiliar, even as new biological weapons are being developed, Earth itself viscerally reflects a fractured reality of lost promises—a world in crisis with all meaning gone, and survival itself a chancy proposition.

As the promise of precision medicine emerged, so too did new forms of memoir. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) and the film Gattaca (1997), for example, the traditional aspirational narrative of a pilgrim’s progress is subverted: As the unitary subject disappears into data, algorithms, and commodities, “a new grammar of existence” emerges, albeit one in which the inherited problems of the past—racism, ableism, and the “fiction of heteronormativity”—remain ever-present.

In Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother (2006) and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016), Choksey sees a “reorientation” of genomics away from the “reduction of self to code” and toward new forms of kinship and belonging that offer a “reckoning with the histories of brutalization and displacement upon which liberal humanism is founded.” Even as genomics seeks to locate “the trauma of enslavement at the level of the molecular,” communities seeking reunion and reparation know that technology alone “cannot do the cultural work of caring for history” that narrative can offer.

Reading Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) as “a biography of Black horror which tries, time and again, to resolve itself as family romance,” Choksey identifies the perils of narratives unable to recognize their own genre. She argues that by blurring the lines not between fact and fiction but between “horror and family history,” the dehumanization of Black lives as “experimental biomatter” echoes inescapably with larger histories of “the extraction of Black flesh for the expansion of colonial-capitalist production.”

What emerges as most compelling out of this entire tapestry of readings is the author’s interpretation of the limits and failures of the extraordinary “cultural power of the genome.” Concluding that genomics has “privileged a particular conception of the human that is in the process of being reconfigured,” Choksey ventures that the uncomplicated subject, the Vitruvian Man of the Human Genome Project, has reached its end. What is left is neither dust, stardust, nor a face erased in the sand (as Foucault would have it) but rather whatever might emerge next from the “unwieldy kaleidoscope of possible meanings.”

About the author

The reviewer is secretary of the History of Science Society and regents’ lecturer in the Department of History, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131, USA.