Zadie Smith Looks at the Avant-Garde Novel

November 21, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 1 2 min read

In the current New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith dives deep into the philosophical frame of avant-garde novels in a review of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. The article is, generally speaking, written more for an academic audience than a casual reader (if you don’t have a precise working definition of “lyrical realism” it can be hard to gain traction in places), but overall it provides a provocative framework for thinking about the ways that postmodern thought has influenced the form of the novel.

McCarthy is the General Secretary for the International Necronautical Society, a group founded around a mash-up of postmodern thinkers and writers – Derrida, Heidegger, Dostoevsky – and fond of manifesto-esque statements about the “brute materiality of the external world.”

As an intellectual perspective, postmodernism is concerned with the untruth of systems, be they moral, metaphysical, or hermeneutic and in the realm of art it takes aim at the question of narrative authenticity – who exactly is the “I” telling the story. The result is the destruction of traditional form and the rise of the avant-garde. When false systems are stripped away – including the form of a story and the social constructions which gird a narrator’s identity – what remains is the “brute materiality” of the world. For this reason, Smith writes, “it’s not unusual for avant-garde fiction writers to aspire to the concrete quality of poetry.”

But poetry, as Auden famously put it, “makes nothing happen,” and something has to happen in a novel. Remainder is a search for authenticity, for the Real McCoy, and as Smith describes it, the novel finds it in the game of cricket (her review of Remainder appears alongside an equally rigorous review of Netherland) which is elevated, Smith writes, for its “pure facticity.” The game is an array of objects ordered in space: a ball, a batsmen, crisp white lines, and proceeds by a series of events that can be definitively known.

What has always perplexed me about avant-garde literature is why the writer conceiving a story does not receive the same high status as a wad of gum on the sidewalk or a cricket ball flying through space. For all the worry of avant-garde literature, I am convinced that a human being telling a story is every bit as real as a rock.

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.

One comment:

  1. lol wut in re egregious mistake: Smith cites cricket as Netherlands’ disingenuous solution to the problem of authenticity, which she opposes to Remainder

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