Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

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A Year in Reading: Kamil Ahsan

It’s been a great year for reading! Or, at least, every year is a great year for reading, and I’ve never done as much as I’ve done this year. Strange as it seems, the year in which I’ve worked hardest is also the year I’ve read the most, by every metric. The majority of it was probably to offset the noise around me—but a not-insignificant minority was for inspiration, and for optimism.

But as I look back at my year of reading, I find some odd themes. For one, whenever I’ve been utterly bewitched by a writer, I have gone to the bookstore and bought as much of their oeuvre as possible (I know this because one, and only one, aspect of my expenses has been driven up). For another, when I think of what I’ve read—particularly nonfiction—it’s often not because of what the book is ostensibly for (insofar as books have singular purpose, which they do not), but because of something else entirely. So let’s take a gander:

1. EpistemologyI’ve spent much of this year daydreaming about how people seem to know things with such certainty. Every year is like this, obviously, but this one far more than others. Imagine my frustration at the knottiness of the answer. What is Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies about? For me, it was a demonstration of an idea that simply the act of constructing fictions about oneself (within an act of fiction) makes the fictive more real. So, of course, when Florida came out, I threw myself at it as if it were my last allowed love affair with a book—and found something very similar, because I went looking for it. Many other things satisfied the same itch. Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Camille Bordas’s How to Behave in a Crowd were more like works of philosophy than fiction.

This was probably not altogether helped by the fact that I was simultaneously reading Seneca’s Consolations, Montaigne’s Essays, Plutarch’s Fall of the Roman Republic, and Lucretius’s The Way Things Are, and all manner of skeptical philosophers. I say this not to give myself a pat on the shoulder for being oh-so-academic: I quite literally went back to the source, so to speak, whenever things seemed even the tiniest bit off, both in real life and in literature, only to return far more confused. That, then, let me down a rabbit hole of “post-structuralist” literary theory. What that really means is: I’ve been hearing some names over and over for years now, and finally felt embarrassed enough to actually read them. And so I read Roland Barthes’s S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text, Jacques Derrida’s Writing & Difference, and although I likely understood the bare minimum, I understood enough to feel deeply suspicious that anything I subsequently read could have some actual import towards understanding the world or myself. Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, like the other two books in the Outline trilogy, then furthered the case for literature bearing no relation to reality. I wondered if I’d ever get away with a book fashioned out of a series of transcripts for every one-sided conversation I had with another person.

2. BafflementMy active search for all things baffling probably started after I read Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels, Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, and Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In. I loved them all, and I spent enough time with NDiaye to be somewhat confident about what I was reading, but mostly they made me feel very inadequate, in the way that ‘intelligent’ books often do. Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital made me feel ill, and I’m pretty sure I skipped a doctor’s appointment because I was slightly afraid I’d land up in purgatory. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet induced my first ever existential crisis (or, at least, what I think was an existential crisis), and then Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier made it worse. Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter didn’t really help me be less baffled—though inhabiting their fractured, Brexit-era semi-narratives certainly helped to distract me.

Notably, as reprieve from all this, I read Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, and then sat and thought for a while; soon, I had finished Feel Free as well and was caught between the twin sentiments of annoyance at her seemingly-tepid politics and awe at her ability to make me doubt everything nonetheless. In other words—a reprieve it was not. Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel swooped in a bit dramatically; inasmuch as it helped me feel my ambivalence wasn’t necessarily a problem. Also, it made me feel warm and fuzzy by helping with a bit with my imposter syndrome.

All this coincided with the fact that my patience, as with many others nowadays, was at an all-time low this year. I’ve been tired of liberal narratives for quite some time, and narratives set at maximum moral outrage that insist that this age of Trump is, for the first time in human history apparently, some unique assault on truth. So imagine my surprise when—having rolled my eyes through the first story—I found myself admiring the high-wire circus tricks on display in Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, and simultaneously irritated with the far more radical and experimental My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. The stories in Charles Johnson’s Night Hawks felt taut and sparse like Sittenfeld’s, but with fewer surprises, a lot more Buddhism than I could fathom, and fewer bourgeois settings. I liked them. The prose in Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood stories was lyrical and very bourgeois, but less searching than it seemed to think it was. Anyway, my collision course with all things bizarre all came crashing down when I read César Aira’s The Literary Conference. It was more ludicrous than anything I had ever read. So naturally, I bought all the translated books by Aira, apparently one of the most baffling of all living writers. By about book 8, I began to understand his ways, and felt grateful for his unapologetically-leftist bent. Then, for every subsequent book, I started to take notes on details that I found baffling, to see if the writer ever returned to them. I avoided Karl Ove Knausgaard all year, on purpose. The day before I wrote this, I devoured Amparo Dávila’s collection The Houseguest in one sitting. Once, my flat-mate knocked on my door, and what he probably saw was me: bug-eyed, and furiously turning pages which screamed sometimes like newborn children, crushed mice, like bats, like strangled cats.

3. TraditionOne of the other things I did most this year was think about what kind of writer I wanted to be. Having read some avant-garde horror novels (above), I read a little Gothic literature. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and finding in it new things to love, turned to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The latter weaseled its way into a story I wrote which almost scared me to death—and then made me wonder how awful I must be to have written something like that. Still, by the time I had to read Mohammad Hanif’s Red Birds for review, I had read enough stuff to wonder why in the world South Asian writers kept writing such hackneyed stories when so many other possibilities existed, and unleashed a bit of a tirade on some very famous South Asian writers for the Chicago Review. I went back to Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which I hadn’t liked at all the first time, and forced myself to pick out some things I did like. Somewhere in the middle, I read Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us with some amount of glee, because it felt nothing like the reflexively Orientalist prose I’d gone off about. That made me very happy.

4. HistoryIt doesn’t feel right at all to talk about the books that had a major impact on my year without mentioning some of the amazing nonfiction, most of which satisfied historical curiosities whether they were meant to be historical or not. Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland and Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States were expert antidotes for my irritation with tired Trump-era (ugh, even that term) tropes, and expanded my understanding of this very strange country in all sorts of empathic ways (and with O’Gieblyn, some unsettling ways, too). Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock was fascinating—though I knew in her case she had a small, not-insignificant luxury. After all, how far back one can construct one’s own family tree seems to be at least one measure of freedom. I read one very expansive history of the U.S. in Jill Lepore’s These Truths, and one over a far shorter period of time in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies. One is enormous, the other skinny—but both are a little unsatisfying. I suppose These Truths should have satisfied my itch for epistemology too; but as it turns out that—for this American history dilettante—meeting the standards of one Howard Zinn is nigh-impossible.

So: on to kinds of history. I read Henry Gee’s Across the Bridge—about the evolution of vertebrates—and talked about it at work (my laboratory) daily. It proved infectious. Ursula Heise’s Imagining Extinction was magnificent. I didn’t want it to end. Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World was fascinating—who knew there was so much to know about the global matsutake mushroom trade!— and on a craft-level, a lesson for academics: see, you don’t have to be boring at all! Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know was utterly convincing in the way things one is already convinced about can be made even more convincing simply by becoming encyclopedic. Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm and Deborah Coen’s Climate in Motion had equal and opposite effects: the first made me progressively more enraged and confused, the second made me progressively calmer and clearer. Essentially, environmental historians still haven’t quite figured out precisely how pessimistic they ought to be about climate change; but I suppose, in the Trump era, we should be happy they’re writing at all.

5. CryingI don’t prepare to cry when I read (who does?) But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the books that made me stop in my tracks and sob. Most times it had very little to do with the book and everything to do with my day or week. But sometimes it was most definitely about the book.

There is one particular moment in my editor Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State where the reader, just like the protagonist Daphne, has to process what has just occurred and cry. Anybody who has read it will probably know which moment this is (I’m not exactly being subtle), but that cry was one of the best cries I’ve ever had all year. Other similar stop-and-cry impulses happened during R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries and Porochista Khakpour’s Sick—both cries were probably more about me than the people I was reading about, but both were beautiful and cathartic and only one happened in public. Again—sometime in the middle of the year—I went to a philosopher to figure out all this crying business. The fact that I chose Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy for this task is pretty stupid when I think about it, because it didn’t make me cry at all, and I had thought it could teach me something about verisimilitude, but it did not. Anyway, that is what I did. Regardless, I read a whole lot after that to make myself cry, but nothing worked. Or at least, nothing worked as well as one particular book did; Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. I have one theory that explains why: I realized that the number of books I had read was directly proportional to how lonely I was. So take that, Barthes! Books may not resemble life, but the act of reading does.

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A Year in Reading: Parul Sehgal

My professional reading life is fairly regimented — I have to be attentive to new, newsworthy books to assign for review or to write about myself — and my personal reading habits have become suitably random in response, subject to mood as much circumstance, which, this year, meant the purchase of a new coat. Said coat, a voluminous and awful garment — moss green, somehow both pilly and prickly — has, to its credit, pockets like wells. Which meant that I, who do most of my reading on the Q train to and from work, fell in with a group of regular traveling companions. Four books (or rather, 3 and 3/4), whose slenderness was, at first, their chief qualification, took up permanent residence upon my person: a new Picador edition of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping that’s about the size of a pack of cards; my friend Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2012 collection of poems Our Andromeda, a book I worship; my husband’s high school copy of Macbeth minus an act or two; and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.

I read and reread many books in 2015 (my favorite books of the year can be found here and here), but these are the books I kept in orbit, the books I wore out. Desperate Characters, in particular, I couldn’t stop rereading. It’s the type of novel it’s become so fashionable to deride — one of the “quiet” books about middle-aged women staring out of windows, enjoying quiet epiphanies — when it’s really a wallop of a book, a barbed portrait of a marriage, not to mention a brilliant take on gentrification, white fears of black and brown people, the hostile insularity of the nuclear family, and how power reproduces and how power conceals itself. And from time to time, sure, the heroine stares out of a window.

(It occurs to me now that these books are more connected than not — they’re all about paralysis and ambition, about moving through trauma, trying to move past it. Reading choices can seem so random, but aren’t we always just digging deeper and deeper grooves into old obsessions?)

But it was also a year of discoveries — the late Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal was one, the poet Anne Boyer another — and rediscoveries. I taught a class in criticism, which allowed me to go back and reread a few favorites — The Sight of Looking at Death by T.J. Clark, Zona by Geoff Dyer, Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith, My Poets by Maureen N. McLane, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig Seligman.

Most of all I was grateful for the number of writers finding fresh and intelligent ways to think about family life — I’m thinking of recent books like The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, On Immunity by Eula Biss, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, 10:04 by Ben Lerner — but also older books, beloved books I returned to as I wrote about these issues in an essay for Bookforum, including Zami by Audre Lorde, The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. These books position the family not in conflict with creativity but an extension of it, not a way of retreating from our obligations to our communities but a reaffirmation of them. It’s a lovely thought — that what tethers us, burdens us can somehow also set us free — especially to one in a coat bogged down with books, standing on a subway platform too early in the day.

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A Year in Reading: Haley Mlotek (The Hairpin)

I’m suffering from that complete lack of perspective that afflicts us when we try and enforce a strict linear timeline on our lives; that is to say, to borrow a dumb driving metaphor, that objects in my figurative rearview mirror are closer than they appear, and the books I read at the beginning of 2014 and throughout 2014 have all blended together in that grey matter soup sloshing around my skull, and so I’m now going to name my favorite book of the year as one that just happens to be a book I read very recently, but so what, this is my entry and I can do what I want.

I found Artful at my favourite book store in Brooklyn and put it down because I had already spent too much money that weekend, a rare exercising of willpower. Three weeks later I went back to that same bookstore, after having tried to navigate a delayed flight and a city shut down by a marathon and a friend who had left me his empty apartment and yet had failed to leave me either his keys or his Wi-Fi password; I thought about weeping, but instead dragged my suitcase to buy the book I wanted because I thought it would make me feel better, which it did not. I was on edge and paranoid and convinced, once I got the keys, that I wasn’t alone inside the apartment. If I had known Artful was a ghost story I might not have read it. When I got to the part of the book where the narrator’s dead lover shows up in her living room to steal her teacups I felt compelled to get up and check the closets for, I don’t know, ghosts? As though they were perhaps just waiting in my friend’s linens for me.

Ali Smith’s collection of four essays, ostensibly about time and form and literature and art and film and trees and the Greek language, but actually the story of a woman grieving her recently deceased partner, put me on watch for ghosts and relaxed some weird tension I hadn’t even known I was holding until I read it: “Books,” Smith writes early in the book, “need time to dawn on us.” We wouldn’t listen to a piece of music just once to fully understand it, she explains, a fact anyone who has heard “Anaconda” can relate to. “[W]e tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once…it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them, because books are produced by books more than writers; they’re a result of all the books that went before them.”

I mean, it’s not exactly rocket science, but it’s not really common sense either. Since childhood, I’ve clung to books the way babies cling to their preferred blankets, believing in their soothing or restorative properties, even if I knew how they would end. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite book of the year because I sometimes think I only have favorite books, full stop, and they are books I’ve been reading and re-reading for years with a really high level of guilt about it; like, do I really need to read I Love Dick for the 16th time? I know how it ends. I need something else, I suppose, the rhythm of something I’ve heard before.

This year, I read and re-read my favorite books like it was a guilty pleasure, ashamed to be shunning all the new books that had come out, books that probably would’ve expanded my worldview or taught me something useful, but fuck it, Ali Smith gave me permission to take some time to understand the book in front of me. In 2014, I read Bluets twice in the same plane ride and Zadie Smith’s essay collection, Changing My Mind, four times in five months. I read Kate Zambreno’s reissued novel Green Girl six times as I wrote a very long article about it, Over Easy by Mimi Pond twice, The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit four times. I read the same two pages of Susan Sontag’s journals as many times as it took until I thought I understood what she was saying even though I’m still not entirely sure I do. It’s the books I read just once that are probably a sign of doing something wrong, either on my part or the books’ part, because I haven’t found a way to make them part of this linear narrative of books I keep circling back on, the books that follow me as I try to turn the peripheral objects of my life into symbols of some sort of meaning or permanence or ratings like “best” and “worst.”

All of this is to say: I really don’t know what my best book of 2014 was, but since that terrible weekend in Brooklyn, I’ve read Artful cover to cover three times.

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How Avant Is It? Zadie Smith, Tom McCarthy, and the Novel’s Way Forward

1. “Two Paths for the Novel”

It was late October, 2008, and Robert Silvers had earned a victory lap. The New York Review of Books, which he’d co-founded with the late Barbara Epstein during the New York printers’ strike of 1963, was about to observe its 45th anniversary. And equally improbably, after the tumultuous reign of Bush fils, the country seemed poised to elect a president aligned with the social-democratic politics for which the New York Review had provided life support. Interviewed by a reporter at a San Francisco restaurant, though, Silvers, 78, sounded less like an eminence grise dining out on past accomplishments than a hungry young editor on the make…or maybe the cat who ate the canary. The end of the conversation found him talking up “‘an ambitious essay’” slated to appear in the Review’s anniversary edition, “‘a daring and original piece by a brilliant mind’”—a “dismantl[ing]” (in the reporter’s paraphrase) of the literary “status quo.” “‘Some people will be slightly shaken,’ Silvers said with delight,” before “grabbing a handful of smoked almonds and making a dash for the door.”

The mind in question was the English novelist Zadie Smith’s, and the dismantling turned out to be a 9,000-word essay on two well-received recent novels: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Or perhaps “essay” isn’t the right word; as the title “Two Paths for the Novel” suggested, it was closer in spirit to a polemic. The rhetorical embroidery was dazzlingly multiform, but the gravamen ultimately rested on that old workhorse, compare/contrast. As Smith saw it, Netherland—at that point well on its way to bestsellerdom and President Obama’s nightstand—represented the excesses, the exhaustion, of “a breed of lyrical Realism [that] has had freedom of the highway for some time now.” McCarthy’s Remainder, meanwhile, was “one of the great English novels of the past ten years,” “an avant-garde challenge” meant to
shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.
In the event, I’m not sure anyone apart from Joseph O’Neill was actually “shaken.” Manifestos are a dime a dozen these days—to borrow a line from Dale Peck’s manifesto-infected Hatchet Jobs, “that and $2.50 . . . will buy you a skinny mochaccino” (with adjustment for inflation)—and even before David Shields’ Reality Hunger, obsequies for “lyrical Realism” had been performed at length by Ben Marcus, the editors of N+1, David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann…not to mention a whole host of Continental theoreticians.

Then again, to measure the success of a literary manifesto by whether or not the status quo stays mantled is fundamentally to misapprehend the genre. Its prime object and beneficiary is not “the novel” but the critic herself, and in this sense “Two Paths for the Novel” was a triumph. To other polemically minded reviewers (particularly the vicar of capital-R Realism whose name Smith had worked into an uncharacteristically juvenile pun (see above)), the essay served notice: Your boy’s club’s been breached. “Two Paths for the Novel” (with a slight adjustment of title) would constitute the longest piece but one in Smith’s first essay collection, Changing My Mind, published in 2009.

Now ascended (or condemned) to the post of New Books columnist at Harper’s, Zadie Smith will no doubt have discovered the limited and erratic scope of the authority to which she’s laid claim. On one hand, her elegant dressing-down of Netherland seems to have had approximately zero effect on the novel’s reception, aside from giving people who didn’t like it something to point to. On the other, “Two Paths for the Novel” does appear, several years out, to have shifted the literary landscape in one very particular way: it’s positioned Tom McCarthy, who as late as 2005 couldn’t find a publisher for Remainder, as the English language’s leading avant-gardist. Indeed, so subtle were its powers of persuasion that no one seems to remember he was ever anything but.

This was most visible last summer, when Knopf published with great fanfare McCarthy’s third novel, C. Jonathan Dee, writing in Harper’s, adjudged it “an avant-garde epic” (adding, somewhat bewilderingly: “the first I can think of since Ulysses.”) “An avant-garde masterpiece,” proclaimed Meehan Crist, in The Los Angeles Times. The redoubtable Adam Kirsch went so far as to borrow Smith’s technique, putting C. in conversation with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. “[McCarthy] is the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel,” he decided, “of fiction consumed by its own status as fiction, and of the avant-garde writer as an unassailable provocateur.” Aside from eagle-eyed Scott Esposito, who posted a sharp take on these reviews at Conversational Reading, no one seemed to question the idea of McCarthy as the keeper of the avant-garde flame.

The “Two Paths” effect even persists, albeit subtly, in the long McCarthy retrospect Amanda Claybaugh, an English professor at Harvard, published last month in N+1. Claybaugh seeks explicitly to engage with “the claims made on behalf of McCarthy: that the problem facing the contemporary novel is the persistence of realism, and that the solution is to be found, with McCarthy, among the avant-garde.” As that last phrase suggests, though, Claybaugh leaves mostly intact the claim that underpins the others: that McCarthy himself is to be found among the avant-garde. This hints at both the brilliance and the weakness of “Two Paths for the Novel”: several of its conclusions are actually smuggled in as premises, which become ours as well. Accepting “the violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland” is the price of admission.

This is probably the place to declare for the record that I’m half in love with Zadie Smith’s critical voice. Also that I think Remainder is a terrific novel. But, thanks in no small part to Smith’s advocacy, what’s at stake in assessing McCarthy’s burgeoning reputation is something much more than that: “the future of the avant-garde novel.” The artistic avant-garde is, Adorno would remind us, one of the few free spaces we’ve got left. (That’s assuming there is one.) And because its future is so important—and because, if we’re lucky, we’re going to be reading Smith’s criticism for a long time to come—I think it’s worth revisiting her premises and treating them as open questions. How, specifically, is Remainder avant-garde? And also: how avant is it?

 

2. Language + Matter = Death…Or Something.

To the first question—how is it avant?—Smith offers one clear answer. Remainder challenges “the essential fullness and continuity of the self” that is the soul of Realism. McCarthy’s unnamed protagonist is literally discontinuous; he awakens at midlife from an unspecified accident unsure of who he’s been. This might, in run-of-the-mill amnesia fiction, inaugurate a quest: Hero Seeks to Recover Past.  Remainder’s “hero,” though, mostly shrugs off concerns about identity, to subversive comic effect. Here, the comparison with Netherland is illuminating. Joseph O’Neill, too, knows better than to present his hero as a unitary psyche; one of his chief effects is the subtle altering and re-altering of perception that attend the passage of time, and the narrator, Hans van den Broek, seems troubled by a nagging lack of “fullness” in his character. Still, the debt is more to Fitzgerald and Hemingway than to Deleuze & Guattari, and so the difference between the two novels’ approach to the “self” is one more of kind than of degree. Hans van den Broek seeks communion; Remainder’s “Enactor” (as Smith calls him) seeks to secure for himself, through industry and cash on the barrelhead, those depthless sensations Frederic Jameson calls “intensities.”

Here we encounter a wrinkle, though. Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism” dates to 1984, and even then, the deposition of the Realist self was well underway. Smith’s essay is liberally sprinkled with examples from the field of literature. Just the B’s: Blanchot, Bataille, Ballard, Burroughs…. In the “Two Paths” schematic, they populate a “skewed side road.” But think of another B: Beckett. Hasn’t the postwar period more or less widened the side-road of “self”-sabotage to a superhighway?

Two novelists in particular, Alain Robbe-Grillet (whom Smith names) and Peter Handke (whom she doesn’t), seem to have anticipated Remainder’s characteristic “intensities.” Even decades on, though, each seems more genuinely “violent” in his rejection of the Realist “self” than does McCarthy. Robbe-Grillet is willing, unlike Remainder, to sacrifice the continuity and escalation of plot on the altar of a philosophical apprehension. And The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick finds Handke strategically discarding the continuity of language for the same reason. Of course, Handke himself has umlaut-ed antecedents in Döblin and Büchner, and I wouldn’t want to define “avant-gardism” as “that child which has no parents.” Instead, it might help to think of the avant-garde as what still has the power to disturb the settled order of things. At which point it becomes apparent that the schizoid depthlessness of postmodernism ain’t it. Think of Bret Easton Ellis. Play it as it Lays. Tao Lin. As with the Realist plenitude Netherland draws on, “our receptive pathways” for the discontinuous self “are solidly established.”

There’s another way in which Smith believes Remainder to be avant-garde. It’s apparent in the word “trace,” which is to “Two Paths for the Novel” what descriptions of clouds are to Netherland: almost a nervous tic. In short, Smith feels McCarthy to have assimilated the destabilizing linguistic insights of Jacques Derrida in a way O’Neill hasn’t. (Isn’t “remainder” just a synonym for “trace?”) But whenever she turns to theory as such, Smith’s native lucidity gives way to an undergraduate overeagerness. Critiques of Realism, we are told,
blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go “back to the things themselves!”; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy.
Then again:
The novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry the trace of the real.
But:
Remainder’s way turns out to be an extreme form of dialectical materialism—it’s a book about a man who builds in order to feel.
And:
[Remainder] tries always to acknowledge the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can’t understand or control—the ultimate marker of which is Death itself. We need not ever read a word of Heidegger to step in these murky waters.
Smith seems to be following the pronouncements McCarthy has promulgated as General Secretary of a “semi-fictitious” avant-garde network, the International Necronautical Society (INS). She offers an excerpt:
“If form…is perfection itself, then how does one explain the obvious imperfection of the world, for the world is not perfect, n’est-ce pas? This is where matter—our undoing—enters the picture. For the Greeks, the principle of imperfection was matter, hyle. Matter was the source of the corruption of form…. In short, against idealism in philosophy and idealist or transcendent conceptions of art, of art as pure and perfect form, we set a doctrine of…materialism.”
The syntax of these sentences is easy enough to follow, but, in their mingling of metaphysics, materialism, and aesthetics, these are, I think, far murkier waters than Smith realizes. I confess to being on shaky ground with Derrida; the failure to find rigor in Smith’s use of the “trace” may well be my own. But the materialism here is “dialectical” in only the loosest sense, and Smith’s gloss on being-towards-death seems reductive, even hedged. At any rate, we’d do well to read more than a word of Heidegger, for whom the kind of being “the things” have – especially in the broken, obtrusive, or useless state Remainder finds them in (e.g., the “gnarled, dirty and irregular” carrot) is most important in adumbrating the kind of Being we have…which is precisely where the Necronauts are at their glibbest.

Moreover, it’s difficult, reading Remainder’s handling of things qua things, to find anything more disruptive than what Viktor Shklovsky was doing in 1925, or William Carlos Williams in 1935, or Georges Perec, quite differently, in 1975. In fact, the hospitality of Remainder to allegorical readings might just as easily be read as a failure of its ability to resist metaphor, or to foreground language’s inability to do so—to capture materiality in the sense of “thingness.” And again, notwithstanding the artful stammerings, elisions, and self-corrections of the first-person narrator, the linguistic subject these objects encounter is still a consistent, confessional, Cartesian (if unusually estranged) “I.”

In general, then, Remainder’s formal choices seem less troubled by its theoretical convictions than Smith makes them out to be. The novel’s ideas may be novel enough, but McCarthy dramatizes them the way Cervantes did it: embody them in a character, launch him into a plot (albeit one that ends in a Borgesian loop). We might, if so inclined, read this as a conscious rejection of another of Realism’s credos: “the transcendent importance of form.” More likely, though, Remainder, like Netherland, is simply drawing on the formal vocabulary of Realism to “enact” the philosophical agenda Smith can’t quite pin down. (C. may well be another matter. I haven’t yet read it, but in Claybaugh’s account, it seems to go a step further toward assimilating theory into language and, especially, structure, with mixed results.)

That philosophical agenda may itself be somewhat incoherent; even Claybaugh doesn’t entirely clarify it. I’m struck by the possibility, which Smith only glances at, that the garbled quality of the INS’ transmissions is intentional—that the avant-garde to which McCarthy is authentically the heir is not Existentio-Deconstructo-Dialectico-Materialism, but the Situationism of Guy DeBord. As I’ve got it from Lipstick Traces, the Situationists (who their mark on the near-revolution in France in 1968) sought to expose the gaps in the seemingly solid bourgeois political and aesthetic order through acts of play and imposture—of “détournement.” You can see their legacy in attenuated form in flash mobs and Improv Everywhere and Exit Through the Gift Shop.

I don’t want to suggest that McCarthy isn’t thinking in earnest about “the melancholy impasse out of which the…novel has yet to work its way”; this weekend’s New York Times Book Review cover story on The Pale King was lucid and engaged, and, notably, offered no answers. But the iron-fisted theorizing of the General Secretary may be less a way forward for the novel than a way of having us on for the baggage we bring to it—and for the ease with which even the messiest “remainder” gets assimilated into the cultural order (Remainder the novel having been picked up for a movie deal by the U.K.’s Film4.) McCarthy alluded to these slippery possibilities in a recent essay on the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint: “Will he turn out, ultimately, to have been deconstructing literary sentimentalism or sentimentalizing literary deconstruction?” It’s likewise possible to see Remainder’s avant-gardism as purposefully “semi-fictitious.” By positioning his novel as a work of violent rejection, rather than of pop accomplishment, McCarthy may have insinuated into the bookshop a kind of Trojan-cum-Morse horse—a container that encodes something quite different from what it is.

 

3. I’ll Be Your Mirror

Internally, though, Remainder is less the “antipode” of Netherland than its photo-negative.  That is, each stands in exactly the same relation to its respective tradition as does the other. This is not to accuse either of mannerism, exactly, but in each case, “the obvious imperfection of the world” is brought under the government of a familiar aesthetic reflex. In Netherland’s case, the potentially meaningless gets redeemed by fine writing, in the mode of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. In Remainder, the potentially meaningful gets reduced to the narcotic flatness we enjoyed in the nouveau roman. Each is exactly as “aestheticized” as the other; it’s just that Smith likes one aesthetic better.

Borrowing her own key terms, “identity,” “authenticity,” and “anxiety,” it’s possible to reconstruct why this might be so. The “identity” reading points to the evident seduction Continental Philosophy holds for a Cambridge alum. In the heady world of literary theorizing, Derrida opens doors. But Smith thinks like a novelist, not like a philosopher. (Indeed, she may think more purely like a novelist than any other writer we have.) Consequently, her keen attunement to the nuances of Forster and Woolf, the playfulness with which she approaches Kafka and Hurston, go rigid whenever her thoughts tend toward academe. The false notes in Changing My Mind—I’m thinking here of the essay on Nabokov and Barthes, and parts of the essay on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—are almost always a product of her desire to force the play of her intelligence into some theoretical scheme.

The “anxiety” reading points elsewhere. Smith’s shadowboxing with a certain unnamed “lapsed high Anglican,” and the NYRB’s positioning of her essay hard on the heels of a review of How Fiction Works, would seem to suggest that “Two Paths” grows out of what one blogger has called “the James Wood neurosis.” Certainly, Smith is entitled to feel that she acceded too quickly and too publicly to Wood’s criticisms from the pulpit of Realism of her own first book, the multiethnic social novel White Teeth. And it was Wood whose rapt review launched Netherland, unbothered by the considerably more conventional uses to which it put its multiethnic milieu.

But the “authenticity” reading is the most revealing. In her mid-30s, Smith is still “changing her mind,” working through what kind of novelist she wants to—and can authentically—be. As she herself has suggested, here and elsewhere, her considerable gifts for characterization, irony, description, and dialogue fall squarely within the Realist tradition. But perhaps she feels, rightly or wrongly, that even her most accomplished novel, On Beauty, sits too tidily on the bourgeois bookshelf. She channels E.M. Forster, but wants to be David Foster Wallace. “Anything, anything at all, that doesn’t sound like me,” she wrote in her response to Wood’s “Hysterical Realism.” “Sick of sound of own voice. Sick of trying to make own voice appear on that white screen. Sick of trying to pretend, for sake of agent and family, that idea of putting words on blank page feels important.” It’s as though the “existential crisis” or “nervous breakdown” she sees O’Neill’s “perfectly done” novel inflicting on “what we have been taught to value in fiction” is her own.

Fortunately for her and for us, Smith labors under a misapprehension about what it means to be avant-garde. To borrow a metaphor, she can’t quite see the forest for the “dead wood.” Here are the rhetorical questions she throws at the feet of Netherland:
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?
These are, of course, the very mimetic questions that animate canonical Realism, from Austen to Dostoevsky to Proust. Smith’s avant-garde is a gradual convergence on what she insists doesn’t exist: the one true and transcendent Real. But look at the “disturb and disrupt” mandate I sketched above—hell, look at Smith’s essay—and you’ll instantly see that avant-gardism, like its dark twin kitsch, is always situational.  In the mid-Nineteenth Century, Wagner’s innovations are disruptive; by the mid-Twentieth, they’re the soundtrack for Triumph of the Will. 

The enemy to be rebelled against today is hardly “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Rather, it is a world order that reduces form, language, and selfhood to mere options in the supermarket of aesthetic choices. And insofar as it presents an aesthetic binary—write like this tradition, rather than this other tradition, and you’re on the right path—Smith’s conception of the avant-garde is woefully insufficient. Coke or Pepsi? Mac or PC? It amounts to a game of Distinction, whose logical end is to deny that the kind of avant-garde Adorno champions is even possible.

Then again, in a less theoretical mood, Smith once wrote these sentences: “We can only be who we are…. Writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.” What we need, as readers and writers, is not to side with some particular “team,” and thus to be liberated from the burden of further thinking. Rather, we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning. We need to look beyond the superfices and cultural hoopla that mark books as mainstream as Netherland and Remainder as “violent rejections” of each other, and to examine the deep places where private sensibility and the world as we find it collide. A true path forward for the novel—Zadie Smith’s or Tom McCarthy’s or anyone else’s—will run through those trackless spaces, and we must follow it there. Otherwise, we give the status quo the victory, no matter how ardently we might wish to dismantle it.

Vive la différance.

From Our Archives:

Obsession, Obsessively Told: A Review of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.”
The Great New York Novel?: A Review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.”
Bulletin: Interview with Tom McCarthy, General Secretary, INS.”

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