Heather Houser, Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect

Heather Houser, Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (New York: Columbia University Press 2014) 328pp. $30 Pb, $65 Hb. ISBN: 9780231165143

Heather Houser’s Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction seeks to explore the connection between environmental change and human illness through the under-represented lens of affect. Her study looks exclusively at contemporary novel, and dubs texts concerned with the above ideas as ‘ecosickness fiction’. For Houser, affect ‘is at the root of our social, political, and ethical being’ and, due to the reliance of the human race on the planet, at the epicentre of the discourse that surrounds ecology and environmental studies as well (3). The underlying argument in Ecosickness is that through deploying affective narratives concerning sick bodies, there is an increased awareness of environmental change; the central assumption being that in ecosickness narratives ‘it is impossible to approach somatic and ecological inquiry as isolated phenomena’ (224).

Houser’s central authors are made clear in the opening pages: Jan Zita Grover, David Wojnarowicz, Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, Marge Piercy and Leslie Marmon Silko. Each of these authors and their texts, Houser argues, while all very different in terms of their own central novelistic themes, substantiate her argument because their portrayal of illness and the environment resonates with a particular affect, complicating the feeling and moving past an essentialist view of human emotion. Houser addresses a notable omission from her study – Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1984) – because it does not fit the nuances of her argument: yes, there is a sickness caused by an ‘airborne toxic event’ but, as she puts it, the sickness is not ‘lived by the characters’ (6). Instead, Houser is interested in the relationship that an environmental change has upon the body in terms of both sickness and a resulting ‘narrative affect’ – affects that are ‘attached to formal dimensions of text’ (3). She is determined to not think in terms of causality, because for her the obsession with an ultimate origin is futile. The focus on affect, then, forces the discussion to concentrate on literary aesthetics, allowing the central elements of Houser’s study to be synthesised effectively.

In a strong second chapter, Grover’s North Enough: AIDS and Other Clear-Cuts (1997) and Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991), as well as Abraham Verghese’s My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story (1994), are brought together in order to examine the change in affect when an HIV/AIDS experience is removed from the city space. Houser’s argument builds out of queer theory, specifically the ideas of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and develops to recalibrate the memoirs’ epistemological concerns of environment, body and affect. The affect in question here is that of discord, and Houser succinctly penetrates the idea that such a disposition is inherently negative: instead, she successfully harnesses discord as inherent to the narrative structure, the infected body and the ‘spaces and social milieus those bodies inhabit’ (64).

Houser’s developing examination of Powers’s The Echo Maker (2006) is perhaps the most knotted in her study. Examining Powers through the affect of wonder is useful, and initially seems to set out a pertinent development of her non-essentialist view of emotion by not immediately depicting wonder as an intrinsically ‘positive’ force. The difficulty here is that Houser does not interrogate the relationship between the environments and the narrative affect of the novel as she claimed she would during the book’s introduction. Instead, this chapter seems to place the two – that is, environment and affect – in parallel, with only fleeting connections between them. Her claim that The Echo Maker is essential to her argument to ‘determine the ways in which narrative affects establish the interdependence of vulnerable earth and soma and shape environmental investment’ at the start of the chapter unfortunately never fully comes to fruition (81).

The central premise of Ecosickness returns though with Houser’s argument surrounding David Foster Wallace and the affect of disgust. It is the strongest chapter in the book, not least because Infinite Jest (1996) is probably the most well-known and well-documented literary work that Houser examines (with perhaps the exception of Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time in Chapter Five), meaning that her argument is situated in a well-grounded critical discourse, but also owing to the way that Houser defines the parameters of the study. In opening the chapter by presenting WWF’s print and television campaigns, she brings pop culture and Wallace together through a nuanced, post-ironic aestheticism. Such is the case in her Fredric Jameson-inflected discussion on postmodern detachment that focuses not only on the novel’s defamiliarisation of the human body through this technique, but also highlights Houser’s own need for a removal from previous affective contexts when analysing ecosickness fiction. As such, Houser’s own writing brilliantly enacts the same enigmatic affect of disgust that it itself is examining in Infinite Jest.

The final two chapters continue in a similar vein to the Wallace chapter, and Houser’s most compelling moments come with regards to her examination of anxiety in novels that present ever-expanding technological advancement. Houser’s analysis is good, and her interplay between Piercy’s seminal novel Woman at the Edge of Time (1976) and Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991) is sharp. This section, especially, reads as an effective starting point for further study: there is certainly room for development into the relationship between the posthuman and ecosickness – especially as Houser briefly cites Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles and Cary Wolfe at various point in Ecosickness. Such an inquiry would allow for a greater understanding of ‘ecological, social, and psychological systems’ (199).

Houser’s book is a useful introduction into the relationship between the environment and affect in the contemporary novel. There is room for development in the areas of the posthuman, and perhaps there can be further development into the specific American-ness of these novel that Houser analyses, be that through analysing the colonial subject or by looking further into the socio-political structures that Houser begins to tease out in her fifth chapter. Ecosickness’s theoretical first chapter, as well as her Wallace study, arguably represent essential reading for the contemporary ecocritic.

Carl White, University of Leeds