Thursday, November 13, 2008

Two paths for the novel?

In her recent essay in The New York Review of Books, "Two Paths for the Novel", Zadie Smith says some important things about fiction, things that are rarely discussed in mainstream venues such as the NYRB. In the essay, Smith discusses two books that have been widely praised: Joseph O'Neill's Netherland (unread by me) and Tom McCarthy's Remainder (my review here). For Smith, with these two novels "a story emerges about the future for the Anglophone novel." She writes: "The two novels are antipodal—indeed one is the strong refusal of the other":
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.
It may be too-perfect, but Netherland is also formally aware of the problems with "lyrical Realism" and its effects, effects it wishes to traffic in anyway. Smith spends some time showing how the book does this, how class and formal anxieties are packed into the book's narrative, both its content and its mode. Smith again: "It's a credit to Netherland that it is so anxious. Most practitioners of lyrical Realism blithely continue on their merry road, with not a metaphysical care in the world, and few of them write as finely as Joseph O'Neill." Thus one path. McCarthy's Remainder represents for Smith, then, the other path, the refusal of Netherland, the refusal to traffic in the effects of "lyrical Realism".

Some have cluelessly read the piece as a "critique of Realism", which it is not. Others, such as the newly resurrected Rake, reduce the essay to merely another salvo in the "Realism v. Not-Realism debate". (And, though he is generally on the not-Realism "side" of this tiresome battle, the Rake is able to say he couldn't quite get on the Remainder bandwagon because its narrator is unpleasant, its repetition tiresome, its sentences not pretty enough. Thus, in my view, affirming the values represented by "lyrical Realism".) In a sense, Smith encourages this sort of reading of her essay by positioning the two novels in one of two "paths" the novel might take or have taken. In fact, this is my main quibble with what is an otherwise excellent, much-needed essay. For there is only one path, the well-worn one. The other so-called path is in fact an "anti-path". Just as there are no models, there is no path for the real writer.

Let's look at what Mark Thwaite has to say about this well-worn path, in a post addressing some of the responses to Smith's essay:
The Victorian novel with a few Jamesian knobs on (lyrical Realism, [Establishment Literary Fiction], call it what you will) is not the only path the novel can take. Its dominance means that each year a flood of Booker-ready novels in the sclerotic genre of literary fiction are declared masterpieces. Some of them are near-perfect embodiments of the genre which their near word-perfect amanuenses have bodied forth, but that perfection pushes them far away from literature itself.
A few Jamesian knobs, perhaps even some techniques devised originally by the Modernists, for we are not complete reactionaries, certainly not. And some may fetishize these Modernist techniques, or writers, to the point that others can comment that, "[t]here was something about Modernism that seems to have hypnotized people who liked it into thinking that there never had been anything else ever." Except that in this view the Modernists are reduced to innovators, ground-breakers--and one may simply "like" or "dislike" them--for it all comes down to entertainment, does it not? Indeed, all narrative is rolled in as part of "the novel", with occasional deviations from the accepted norm effectively reinforcing the view of what the novel really is. It is simply taken for granted that writers, as Gabriel Josipovici puts it, "are now free to plunder from all traditions, selecting what we want and dismissing the rest." But, without worshiping them as Gods (for how much would that miss the point?), what the Modernists were concerned with cannot be just swept aside, cannot be truly absorbed into the main stream of literary history. For it seems to me that the forgotten, ignored (or possibly just not understood?) meaning of Modernism is writing as an event, art as an event, where writing in the old, accepted, "conventional" ways are simply not suitable, not justified. This is language echoing what McCarthy himself has had to say on the matter: "Modernism is not a movement, nor even a way of thinking, but an event: an event with which any serious writer has, in some way or another, to engage, and to which they should respond." Whereas for most, Modernism was a moment in time, its "advances" duly absorbed into the body of the novel in the name of progress, what if we look at it, instead, as this event, an event that is ongoing, "eternal, interminable", in Steve Mitchelmore's words? (I've taken Steve's words from this highly suggestive post from last year, in which he names Dante as one of the top European Modernists. What might it mean to include Dante in such a grouping? What if we thought about literature in these terms? The implications of this are staggering.)

The question as to why there might be something wrong, suspect, unjustifiable about the "traditional" novel is a topic for a forthcoming post.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is tangential, but Has anyone read the French author Jules Romains lately; his novel from 1914, THE DEATH OF A NOBODY, does an end-run on all stories of first person narration. The story of the aftereffects on others of a man who dies on page 11. His masterpiece MEN OF GOOD WILL abolishes all narrators by employing a group consciousness point of view.

Discussions spawned by literary critics only select what fit their own categories, thus creating a sub-genre on their own. Meanwhile, the category busters, both historical (in the sense of waiting to be rediscovered) and contemporary (waiting to be read and written) go on.