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Zadie Smith on realism and not-realism


Maybe I was distracted by real-world concerns like the economy or the election, because I am coming late to Zadie Smith's New York Review of Books piece on the current state of literary fiction, specifically, realism versus not-realism (postmodernism? metafiction?). With insight and acuity, she looks at "Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill and "Remainder" by Tom McCarthy and explains why they represent two different paths for the novel.

All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene.

These aren't particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done — in a sense that's the problem. It's so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.

"I have written in this tradition myself, and cautiously hope for its survival," Smith writes. But her faith in it is shaken. Lyrical realism uses beautiful language to describe emotions, desires and observations, integrating flashbacks to vividly evoked and deeply felt pasts that illuminate character and drive plot. What's wrong with that, exactly? Smith explains:

["Netherland"] wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?

She finds a tremendous energy in the very different "Remainder," which won The Believer's book award this year, despite -- or perhaps because of -- its anti-lyrical-realism tendencies:   

Remainder is not filled with pretty quotes; it works by accumulation and repetition, closing in on its subject in ever-decreasing revolutions, like a trauma victim circling the blank horror of the traumatic event. ...

For the first fifty pages or so, this is Remainder's game, a kind of anti-literature hoax, a wind-up (which is, however, impeccably written). Meticulously it works through the things we expect of a novel, gleefully taking them apart, brick by brick.

It is rare for an author working in one tradition to laud another, which I think makes Smith's piece -- entitled "Two Paths for the Novel" particularly interesting. It's long -- about 9,000 words -- giving her enough room to go into detail about each of the books and to shape and stretch her ideas. She left me thinking that realism is overrated.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo of a cricket match (cricket appears in both novels) by Talisen via Flickr.

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Both books are bourgeois. One happens to be better at appealing to young hyper-urbanites than the traditional uptown haute-bourgeoisie to which the other appeals. Ms. Smith doesn't know that, of course, so muddles an explanation, as is her talent, from half-knowledge of philosophy, literature and literary technique. She doesn't prefer one style over the other style, ultimately; rather, she exposes herself as an archetype of demography. Her style may be nominally distinct from Remainder, but both she and its author are from the same cultural network---a network that meshes only marginally with the network of which Netherland is articulated.

Beyond that, I find it quite amusing that she conflates Balzac and Flaubert with a single hyphenated compact of literary realism. If she is knowledgeable on the subject -- instead of merely riffing on the topic (with a few philosophical references gleaned from Google books for her own essayist's 'effet de reel') -- surely she would've been aware of Lukacs' remark:

"...which of the two, Balzac or Flaubert, was the greatest novelist, the typical classic of the 19th century? Such a judgement is not merely a matter of taste---it involves all the central problems of the aesthetics of the novel as an art form. ...These two aesthetic conceptions conceal the application of two opposite philosophies of history to the nature and historical development of the novel."

Balzac-Flaubert, indeed. With a knowledge of history like hers, I'm sure Ms. Smith can't wait for the 'end of history'.

Thanks for pointing that piece out, Carolyn. I always enjoy reading Zadie Smith, except in the case of the more turgid portions of "The Autograph Man".

But I kinda wonder about her contention, which you quote above, that "all novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies." I mean, I read plenty of books that don't seem to be trying to convince me they're pointing the way to the future of the novel. In fact, I might go so far as to say that I might really resent any novel that insistently implied it was the future of the novel.

I agree that some books do that, but not all. Not even, I would hazard, most. So while I like the essay, I'm not sure I believe the thesis. Am I an idiot?

The problem with Zadie's review/treatise being that you read it knowing too well it's just a hit-back at James Wood (via scrupulous condescension towards his middlebrowingly aglow review of Netherland); you're up for it, at first, but by the time you reach the Remainder half (the payoff) you find yourself wanting to do something else. Take a walk; read a book: something. Anything. It's very much like agreeing to go along to a wedding with an old friend who happens to be the jilted ex of the groom: promises to be just and wicked fun... until about an hour into the interminable shopping trip to help find your friend that killer outfit guaranteed to make the groom regret everything.

Zadie will forever kick herself for having bowed her beautiful big head like a chastized pupil in response to Wood's slam in the career-making nonsense of his Hysterical Realist episode (in which he patented the persona of the literary Fox News pundit). But warmed-over staircase wit like this here review from Zadie just doesn't hit the mark.

Kunkel did a better job of it in his shrugging diss of Netherland (because excoriation would have seemed too much like caring). I'm almost tempted to say it's a boy thing; boys are better at hitting back at other boys because they know what hurts a boy most. But it's probably more that Ivy League NYers are better placed to be lethally chilly snobs than ambitious expat Brits.


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