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Zadie Smith on realism and not-realism

November 12, 2008 |  9:58 am


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.