Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Zadie Smith's two paths for the novel

Zadie Smith has written a fascinating article in the New York Review of Books, which I’ve just come across. In it, she states that, in literary terms, these are ‘not particularly healthy times.’ There is, she says, a ‘breed of lyrical realism’ which she considers now to be unproductive and which has held sway for too long. In developing her argument she cites two novels, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which I have reviewed here and here, and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which is new to me.

Lyrical realism, she argues has remained the dominant force in literature, and modern writing still bears the traces of Balzac and Flaubert. It’s hard to disagree and I’ve bemoaned the fact on here before. She goes on: despite the modernist surge, as exemplified by, say, Finnegans Wake, realism has remained dominant, and O’Neill’s Netherland is a fine example of it. Quoting a passage of description from the novel, she suggests that if it were inserted in a nineteenth-century novel ‘you wouldn’t see the joins.’ Similarly, I would argue, my own bete noire, Coetzee.

Nonetheless, Smith argues, ‘if literary Realism survived the assault of Joyce, it retained the wound.’ Netherland, with its ‘narrative nostalgia,’ its use of ‘voracious image’ and its ‘adjectival mania,’ ‘bears this anxiety trace.’ Indeed, anxious is a word she repeatedly uses to describe the novel. But, in the end, despite this anxiety it falls short of really examining the unknowable, of understanding the brute realities of life. This is, she seems to be suggesting, a failure of nerve: the novel ‘doesn’t really want to know about misapprehension.’ Thus, whenever it tries to probe into the darkness, the impact is dissipated by the literariness, even the prettiness of its language. O’Neill, she says, ‘knows the fears and weaknesses of [his] readers’ but rather than confronting them, he ‘indulges’ them.

She contrasts O’Neill’s anxious literary realism with the approach in Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, in which an unnamed main character has suffered mental trauma from a blow to the head which means he has no memory of the events he is describing. What ensues is, Smith says, a ‘kind of anti-literature hoax’. In Smith’s opinion it is ‘one of the great English novels of the past ten years and offers a glimpse of what is possible if, instead of marching down the adjective-lined avenue towards the middle-brow inheritors of the mantle of realism, we travel, instead, towards ‘constructive deconstruction,’ towards a less complacent territory where the novel might develop in extraordinary ways.

I do agree about the sway of the realist tradition, with its use of symbolism and a kind of romanticised authenticity. However, although I am a great admirer of Barth and Barthelme and Gaddis and DeLillo and the other 1960s metafictionists who, as Smith notes, have been ‘relegated to a safe corner of literary history,’ I wouldn’t necessarily argue that their relegation is a bad thing. Those writers pursued a vision of literature that was fascinating but, ultimately, flawed. It led nowhere. That is not to say they are of no worth and it is absolutely not to say that new writers shouldn’t be pursuing their own madcap, unstructured, unorthodox visions. Quite the contrary.

It’s probably just my individualist nature but I get suspicious of movements, or styles, or manifestos. It’s all just words. I guess my view is – and it’s an entirely unliterary view – that the point of writing is to be read. As SR Ranganathan said, in a different context, To every book its reader, to every reader his book.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

But isnt it true that one someone copies an original style/structure, you have the beginnings of a 'movement'?

Don't the publishers actively create 'movements' because the known is a safer bet than the unknown. Truism.

Mind you even the word sounds bad. Reminiscent of orders to 'go' from some heavy-bosomed nanny.

Tom Conoboy said...

Yes possibly, but nonetheless aren't 'movements' more a construct of a. critics and b. as you say, publishers? Not necessarily the writers.