Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Santiago Ospina Celis reviews Dwelling in Fiction

Ashley R. Brock. Dwelling in Fiction: Poetics of Place and the Experimental Novel in Latin America. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2023. 295 pp.

Review by Santiago Ospina Celis

4 April 2024

How can we engage in an ethical practice of dwelling without falling into the sentimental fetishization of place or promoting nativist, nationalist politics? What can literature teach us about such a practice? Ashley R. Brock aims to address these questions in a remarkable transnational and comparative study that draws on architectural theory, Theodor Adorno’s negative dialectics, Heideggerian phenomenology, and Latin American literature and thought. Through insightful readings of three twentieth-century Latin American authors (José María Arguedas, João Guimarães Rosa, and Juan José Saer), Dwelling in Fiction argues that readers of “critical regionalist texts” can hone their attention to learn how those who dwell in a particular place experience it from within (p. 23).

Brock posits that radical formal experimentalism was a “vital political tool” that allowed these authors to write challenging fictions about peripheral areas of Latin America while avoiding a common pitfall others from the same period often encountered (p. 19). By developing a “critical regionalist poetics,” Arguedas, Guimarães Rosa, and Saer found a way to explore the embodied and linguistic dimensions of local worlds without creating a commodified and universal idea of Latin America that could be absorbed by the global literary market. Moreover, while earlier regionalist traditions in Latin America were often criticized for their lack of formal originality and “primitivism,” Brock does not read critical regionalist poetics as a complete break from this tradition.[1] Instead, the book casts such a poetics as a critical continuation of an existing experimental vein in Latin American regionalist literature. But what is critical regionalist poetics according to Dwelling in Fiction?

We owe the development of critical regionalism to the architect and critic Kenneth Frampton. In a seminal essay, Frampton condems the trend in modern architecture that prioritizes universal techniques of production and is distinguished by a hollow postmodernist aesthetics that produces vacuous, yet visually spectacular, buildings that have no relation to the conditions of the site.[2] In response, Frampton argues that architectural practice should be critically rooted in the phenomenological experience of the site, prioritizing structures that engage with the full spectrum of human perception.

Dwelling in Fiction works out the equivalent of a critical regionalism for literary studies. Chapter 1 offers a comprehensive theorization of critical regionalist poetics as a distinct literary aesthetic that seeks to communicate the multisensory, embodied, and temporal experience of dwelling. Threading Frampton’s thought with the work of thinkers such as Alberto Moreiras and Ángel Rama, Brock cleverly resolves the apparent tension in her argument, namely that critical regionalist poetics is as much a pedagogy (as such, it must impart something to the reader) as it is a poetics of opacity (insofar as it withholds or denies something from the reader). In other words, it asks how a poetics that centers on formal difficulty and stresses the gulf between metropolitan audiences and local perspectives, also has the potential to educate an outsider.

Brock’s explorations of what is gained through such a pedagogy—not knowledge per se, but rather the “dwelling perspective”—are both keen and subtle (p. 62). The three chapters discussing these Latin American novelists’ work illustrate the critical force of Brock’s approach. For example, in chapter 2, Brock argues that Arguedas’s posthumous novel The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below (1971) casts belonging not as something fixed but as something that “can be learned and unlearned depending on how one attends to the natural and social landscape” (p. 114). This argument displays a utopian vein, as Brock reads Arguedas in order to articulate how aesthetic education can contribute to the development of forms of community freed from seemingly stable markers like birthright, nation, or language.

In the following chapters, the clear, nuanced reasoning of Dwelling in Fiction remains consistent. Each chapter builds on a term taken directly from the authors’ work. Brock uses the original concept in Portuguese or Spanish rather than looking for an English translation, an interpretive approach that is much appreciated. In this way, chapter 3 analyzes Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas (1956) to investigate the notion of travessia, an immanent experience of ceaselessly traversing a landscape to know it from within. Chapter 4 addresses Saer’s la zona, the fictional space where much of his work unfolds. As Brock argues, la zona allows Saer to articulate a spatial domain “that resists geographic or ideological definition and, instead, opens itself up as a site for aesthetic experience” (p.176). While scholars have previously highlighted aesthetic affinities between Arguedas and Guimarães Rosa, these writers have not been read alongside Saer, who is often read as the opposite of a regionalist writer—a modernist who was critical of the label of rural literature.

Straddling between seemingly unrelated topics (the poetics of dwelling and South American fiction from the twentieth century), Dwelling in Fiction sets for itself the difficult task of achieving thematically dissimilar goals. One of these goals is to offer novel interpretations of Latin American authors whose work has been subject to scholarly attention, and Brock convincingly achieves this. The book also expresses an interest in the “formal strategies . . . that might impart . . . an aesthetic education” (p. 21). In certain instances, however, one would like Brock to tease out further how these formal strategies operate to engage the readers’ senses. Still, Dwelling in Fiction is an impressive study that lends urgency to the questions it raises: What does a critical regionalist poetics look like in the twenty-first century and across media? How do we carry out the unending task of learning to dwell in the world?


[1]  See Mario Vargas Llosa, “Primitives and Creators,” Times Literary Supplement 3481 (1968): 1287–88.

[2] Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster, (Seattle, 1983), pp. 16–30.