Lara Choksey, Narrative in the Age of the Genome: Genetic Worlds

Lara Choksey, Narrative in the Age of the Genome: Genetic Worlds (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021) 232 pp. £85.50 Hb. £26.99 Pb. ISBN: 9781350102545

Lara Choksey’s Narrative in the Age of the Genome: Genetic Worlds makes the striking argument that the genome is one of the last grand narratives of modernity. Given the rapid pace of biotechnological development, Choksey’s opening statement conveys urgency regarding the major developments and concerns of the postgenomic age. At first, her claim most clearly ties to base-pair language of DNA and its infinite arrangements: A, G, C, and T, the narrative basis of life. Yet this strong statement is further backed through the chapters’ varied texts, and she reveals how genomic narratives emerge across different chronologies, populations, and genres. For Choksey, narratives do not just express genomes; genomes are narratives.

Genomes and narratives are increasingly linked in scholarship. Choksey’s project complements the work of other scholars in the medical humanities and social sciences on genetics, genomics, and literature, including work by Alondra Nelson, Priscilla Wald, and David Kirby. Choksey’s attention to temporality evokes Jay Clayton’s consideration of genome time, and her analysis builds on attention to Josie Gill’s work on contemporary biofictions, genomics, and race. Everett Hamner similarly considers the relevance of contemporary fiction to biological advance and human nature. The analysis of speculative fictions, memoirs, and other texts in Narrative in the Age of the Genome is a welcome and well-researched contribution to the emerging discourse about genomics, narratives, feminist interventions in science, and health humanities.

Choksey’s chronological chapters increase in scalar units of calculation: she begins with ‘genes and families in the 1970s, groups and communities in the 1980s, data bodies in the 1990s, ancestral lineage in the 2000s and ecosystems in the 2010s’ (16). The chronology allows readers to consider the progression of genomic and biotechnological advances, especially as it directs readers to the historical contingency of Choksey’s selected texts. Her linear and scalar chronology organizes what could be overly capacious textual categories, especially since her analysis includes fiction, memoir, film, and their derivatives. Roughly catalogued as speculative fiction, many refuse traditional plot structures and include ruptures, silences, and irresolution. Choksey’s choice in irresolute narratives is not only a feature of post-1970s speculative fictions—it also challenges the reductive, biotechnological drive towards fragmented data collection and unit thinking that defines the postgenomic age.

The first chapter focuses on a critical transition during the 1970s, in which genomic sequencing began to break down individuals into data-driven, trackable entities. The chapter updates the metaphors of genomics during this transition from ‘discipline and punish to military surveillance’ (23) in Doris Lessing’s The Memoir of a Survivor (1974) and Samuel Delany’s Trouble on Triton (1976). Choksey analyzes city infrastructures as a surveillant backdrop in Lessing and Delany’s consideration of natural selection, genomics, and inheritance through ‘new forms of social organization’ (25). Surveillance and infrastructure pairs with her attention to grammar, which shows how language’s ruptures and silences mimic and encode genetic expression. The chapter concludes with a compelling analysis of Delany’s experimental prose, including parentheticals that mimic the silencing, bracketing, and expressing of genes (48). This grammatical exploration sharpens the parallels between genomics and narratives, a maneuver to which Choksey returns throughout the book.

The second chapter broadens the narrative focus by turning to community conceptions of genomics and infrastructural concerns in Soviet Russian science fiction: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1972) and Kir Bulychev’s Another’s Memory’ (1985). Choksey situates the Soviet’s distinctive perspective on eugenic, racial thought, especially regarding the Soviet theory that humans might be genetically cultivated—like plants—into collectively healthy and productive lives. Enclosure and laboratory spaces in ‘Another’s Memory’ are read as representative of the general Soviet project, one that briefly considers the negative implications of private, scientific spaces separated from the community. This brief incursion to the laboratory as a private space is taken up again in the next chapter.

The third chapter offers an excellent consideration of data bodies through memoir and first-person perspectives of the self, which proliferated in the 1990s and beyond. Memoirs form a fascinating ‘crossing place of aesthetic and political formations of the subject. . . tied to economies of property and genealogy’ (85). The self—newly shaped by genomic perspectives and the proliferation of first-person, purportedly factual works—provides Choksey with a particularly rich analysis. Perhaps surprisingly, she does not use nonfiction memoirs in her main analysis: she looks instead at fictional first-person as memoir in Never Let Me Go and the film Gattaca. The self-portrayal of fictional subjects—especially those reduced to sub-human status by ‘genetic inferiority’—makes Choksey’s first-person reading compelling. The claims in this chapter intersect with disability studies, neo-eugenics, and the speculative fears about postgenomic futures.

The fourth chapter challenges the categorization of data bodies through diasporic literature. While data bodies and the compilation of genomic data drive self-knowledge in the third chapter, erasure and diasporic silences characterize the fourth as Choksey draws upon Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother (2008) and Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing (2017). When placed in context of the Middle Passage, Hartman and Gyasi consider the absences, erasures, and exclusions of genomic sciences. Choksey deftly draws upon Black feminist theory, including Hortense Spillers’ differentiation between flesh and the body, to interpret the narratives’ persistent concerns regarding genetic exclusions and belonging. Hartman’s well-known text briefly mentions her use of a direct-to-consumer genetic testing, which revealed her Ghanaian heritage. Hartman’s resulting journey to Ghana reveals the complications of genetic testing and temporality for non-European, diasporic people, especially given a medical landscape rife with racialized science, eugenics, and unethical conduct.

Choksey’s final chapter analyzes Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer (1997) and Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (2014). Like chapter two, Choksey’s focus returns to communal and systemic issues but now turns towards issues posed by imminent ecological collapse. Metaphorical infrastructure—a framework that builds upon the first chapter’s interest in city infrastructure—is used to interpret broader environmental disasters like Chernobyl, especially regarding its effects on communal caregiving, responsibility, and relationality. Her final chapter culminates in an appropriately wide environmental view, and her consideration of epigenetics is especially timely given her interest in the feminist interventions of science.   

Lara Choksey’s text builds upon the feminist scholarly interventions devoted to literary and narrative studies of genetics and genomics. Her case for genomics as a grand narrative of modernity is built through the gradual widening of her scope, one that is attentive to the broader and more integrated aspects of genomics, human nature, and biotechnology. Her initial claim—that genomics is one of the last grand narratives of modernity—does not veer towards biological determinism and essentialism since Choksey clearly contests the normative human subject and temporality. Her chapters instead reveal that both specificity and universality signify the kinship between narratives and genomics.

One thread could have benefited from further development—the briefly invoked process of reading genomics: ‘What is reading what, and how?’ (21). The role of readers in interpreting textual silences and exclusions is addressed in chapter five, but I believe more could be theorized by considering how reading publics interact with the fragmentation, silences, and textual ruptures. The dexterity of narrative seems to lead towards this capacious interaction with texts and could strengthen its role as one of the last grand narratives of modernity. Still, Narrative in the Age of the Genome: Genetic Worlds offers a robust commentary on a broad range of compelling speculative fictions and nonfictions and makes a compelling case for the role of narratives as a critical aspect of emerging biotechnologies and genomics.

Sarah Hagaman, Vanderbilt University