Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Douglas Mao reviews Strange Likeness

Dora Zhang. Strange Likeness: Description and the Modernist Novel. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2020. 246 pp.

Review by Douglas Mao

19 May 2021

In her consistently astute and beautifully written new book, Dora Zhang explores how three writers found ways to capture facets of experience that would seem to elude capture. In one chapter, Zhang focuses on Henry James’s rendering of atmosphere, “a medium of social information filled with innuendo, subtext, and the implicit” (p. 64). In the next, she illuminates Marcel Proust’s “strategies of likening,” in which analogies “point out parallels not between two substantives or objects (A is like B) but between two sets of relations (A is to B as C is to D)” (p. 33). There follows a dazzling elaboration of how Virginia Woolf’s similes convey complex states of feeling by means of “affective matching”—Zhang’s concept, which she adapts from Daniel Stern’s “affect attunement” (p. 23). A final chapter considers how some key Woolfian demonstratives (this, there) point to the limits of language’s capacity to communicate experiential particulars but also to a highly specific sense in which fiction transcends those limits.

As the foregoing might suggest, it’s possible to summarize Zhang’s discoveries, at least crudely, without mentioning description at all. Zhang herself refers to modernism’s concern with “phenomena—social and psychic dynamics like the atmosphere of a room or an affective state—whose limning might more readily be called expression, materialization, display, or even incarnation rather than description” (p. 7). One of the advantages of situating James’s, Proust’s, and Woolf’s inventions within problematics of description, clearly, is that it helps Zhang shake free of debates about mimesis, representation, and reference that have ground on since James’s time. It increases the likelihood, in other words, that her exhilarating answers will claim the attention of readers for whom the questions might, differently couched, feel shopworn.

Yet Zhang’s invocation of description is by no means merely strategic. Her introduction and first chapter offer a number of fresh perspectives on the descriptive mode, including an inspired note on how modulations of affect and intensity lend description a dynamism independent of narrativity. Moreover, as a study of description in modernism, Strange Likeness performs a number of important critical interventions. Perhaps the most significant intervention is to refute two assumptions about modernist fiction whose contradictory purport has prevented neither from obtaining the status of received wisdom. One is that modernist fiction rid itself of the temptation to overindulge in description; the other is that it succumbed to this temptation. In the first view, the foil is of course the nineteenth-century realist novel, whose accretions of detail were condemned by modernists themselves. “Balzacian pensions and Victorian parlors were rendered down to their last pouf,” Zhang observes, and James twitted Balzac, the conjurer of those pensions, for his delineative excess, as Proust twitted the Goncourts and Woolf twitted Arnold Bennett (p. 7). Zhang’s point in Strange Likeness is that modernists did richly describe, though the essential descriptiveness of their capture of the intangible has been obscured by sweeping characterizations of modernist practice such as “‘the inward turn’” (p. 10).

The second piece of received wisdom, which also contrasts modernism with realism, descends from Gyorgy Lukács. In Lukács’s celebrated account, realism’s narrative drive permitted a view of the social totality and admitted that totality’s capacity to be changed by human action, whereas modernism (which Lukács subsumes under a larger naturalism) fixated on static particulars whose endless describing did nothing to combat, and indeed symptomatized, reification in the social world. Against this critique, Zhang poses her construction of James, Proust, and Woolf as “relational modernists” who sought “to describe states of affairs without reifying them,” to say “how the world was by saying what it was like” (p. 6).     

Zhang’s brief for a reconsideration of description extends beyond modernism’s boundaries. As she notes, unchecked or autonomous description appears as a threat to textual integrity in “a long line of thinking derived from Aristotelian poetics, carried through eighteenth-century rhetoricians, and extended into the twentieth century”; Strange Likeness is persuasive on the need for a general rehabilitation (p. 37). It will also not escape readers that in making her case, Zhang might be arguing for the value of her own kind of scholarly project. Strange Likeness does, certainly, show how the relational modernists’ innovations bore on an array of philosophical and historical questions: including the very possibility of understanding the world in relational terms; period anxieties about social atomization and the inability to share perceptions; and masculinist privilegings of legible action over quieter forms of political work—paradigmatically in Proustian salons—that require a trenchant understanding of appearances. Yet while these discussions do, in the aggregate, give Strange Likeness a compelling reach, they’re relatively contained individually. It’s fair to say that describing key innovations in modernist fiction is the project to which the book is most extensively devoted.

It might be fair, too, to say that Zhang’s study is in a basic sense formalist; and some might discern in it a kinship with surface reading—though in acknowledging this apparent convergence, Zhang declines to champion (the fantasy of) a purely descriptive approach against other critical methods, observing lucidly that “describing is always already bound up with interpretive commitments that foil any attempt to posit it as an alternative” (p. 58). More to the point than identifying affinities of this kind, surely, is simply to note that Zhang puts front and center how a number of writers contrived—intricately, subtly, demandingly—to get particular dimensions of life onto the page. In this respect, her book reads as an appropriate, even emblematic, early entry in the Thinking Literature series, whose stated commitment is to the “exploration of how literature thinks, and to the refinement of literary criticism as a mode of reasoning in and about the world.”[1] But Strange Likeness seems to make a further, more specific wager: that literary study still has a place for, might indeed be energized by, a kind of book-length exploration that was once much more central to the discipline, in which the main concern is to describe how certain literary texts achieve what they achieve.


[1] Nan Z. Da and Anahid Neresessian, “Thinking Literature,” The University of Chicago Press: Books,