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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.”

Chasing the Whale: Banksy, Obsession, and the Sea

1.
There is nothing positive about the dictionary definition of “obsession” – it haunts, is abnormal and persistent, like a bad rash. Tossing the word into a conversation typically indicates some form of criticism about a person and that person’s particular pursuit. Obsessions can lead to stalkers, delusion and great creations (the last two are not mutually exclusive); they can limit and restrict you to minutia or endow a unique vision that changes how you and others view the world at large. People indulge obsession in different ways – live it like a lifestyle or stir it into a creation like a minor but crucial recipe ingredient where it doesn’t overpower anything and complements everything.

Ideas of obsession had been needling me after reading James Hamilton-Paterson’s Seven Tenths and Peter Handke’s Slow Homecoming. Both books obsess over their loosely shared theme – the natural world’s mystifying grandeur – and after reading them back-to-back it was impossible not to link them. While thinking about these two titles I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Exit Through the Gift Shop, a feature-length film directed by stencil-art maverick Banksy. The film’s real lynchpin is Thierry Guetta a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash, the ultimate knock-off artist. But before he became an overnight art world sensation his obsession was filming everything he did. The cousin of French street artist Space Invader, during a vacation to France Guetta got his first exhilarating taste for joining, and filming, street artists on their illicit missions. Over time, Guetta infiltrated the graffiti and street art scene in Los Angeles, befriending Shepard Fairey and other prominent figures. He and his camera became fixtures and his desire to document the scene, in his own words, became more of an obsession than just filming the boring details of everyday life. He met everyone and went everywhere, but like Captain Ahab chasing his White Whale, Guetta would not be satisfied until he achieved his ultimate goal: filming the notoriously anonymous Banksy.

2.
Of course, no greater tale of obsession exists in American letters than Captain Ahab’s in Moby-Dick. Ahab’s epic ego-driven quest to recover the impossible has inspired and influenced countless artists who tap into as many ideas as the ones explored in the novel: myth, America, commerce, astronomy, conquest, sexuality. As part of a series of multimedia responses to American novels, the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco assembled “Moby-Dick,” a show and accompanying catalogue. Designed as homage to the vaunted 1930 Rockwell Kent illustrated Lakeside Press three-volume deluxe edition (later released as a Modern Library edition), this lovely book glosses Melville’s novel and features the thirty-two artists whose works was on view from September 22, 2009, until last December.

Interestingly, it was Kent’s black ink illustrations, reproduced here in a dark, brooding sea-blue, that helped resurrect the novel from obscurity (the edition did not even include Melville’s name on the cover). In this catalogue, pieces like Richard Serra’s lithograph study for his sculpture “Call Me Ishmael” or Brian Jungen’s iPod scrimshaw, connect directly to the narrative; the inclusion of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s large-scale ocean view photographic prints, which a book of this size cannot do justice, is fitting since they express boundless uncertainty. But many of the pieces strike more abstract poses, like Angela Bulloch’s algorithm-simulated celestial views that use “technology to expand our perception of space and the possibilities of perception.”

At first blush, connecting contemporary art to the heyday of seafaring might seem incongruous, but sailors were the eyes of the world for landlubbers, returning home with tales of what mystical, depraved and wondrous sites and cultures existed just beyond the horizon. Of course, for all of the spoils these men brought back with them, their stories were filled by imagination and hearsay, changing like the seas. “Melville’s book,” writes the catalogue’s editor Jens Hoffman, “is like the living ocean: vast, potent, and hugely indifferent to human troubles and ambitions.”

2.
James Hamilton-Paterson has a very similar view about the ocean, and with good reason. He has lived on desolate islands in the Philippines; accompanied deep-sea salvage missions, scientific expeditions, commercial fishers and sea scavenging locals; encountered murderous pirates; gone for many a solitary midnight swims; and read countless historic oceanic travelogues and scientific treatises. When it comes down to channeling philosophy, economics, politics, history, ecology and art through salt water, Hamilton-Paterson gives Melville a run for his money.

The updated Europa Editions release of Seven Tenths, a collection of Hamilton-Paterson’s writings about the sea, is the passionate result of a poet’s eye making sense of rigorous research and humanity’s impossibility. Running through the essays divided into thematic chapters is the tale of a free diver who has lost his boat, the cord he had tied around his ankle loosed from the tiny vessel’s prow. Resurfacing, the boat is nowhere to be found, and the swimmer considers being stranded in a “conspiracy of waves.” The umbilical connection between salt water and our lives is literal and figurative. But when the ocean claims a ship or a person or even disproves earlier scientific findings it does so by shutting off that object from what Paterson-Hamilton calls the “continuity of vision.” For him this is a sublime quality.

The author’s obsessing over oceans and seas is fueled by the fact that we know so little about them, especially beneath the surface. Of course, throughout time the curious have ventured. Alexander the Great had a special glass cage made so he could be lowered into the Mediterranean; salvage missions attempted to resurrect sunken valuables; and Scandinavians tried to correlate fish supplies with tidal currents. But, according to Hamilton-Paterson, “until the late eighteenth century the average European’s mental image of the sea was literally superficial, of a navigable surface above an abyss.”

Today we have a sense of the depth but very little experience of it. Seven Tenths is not so concerned with reasons and answers, but a greater more profound unity that resides in the unknown depths, and not even sonar, electrically belching through cold, lightless water, can give us a real sense of what is down there, and this has been realized for time immemorial: “The Greeks’ idealisation of a static universe full of fixed entities, faithfully reflected in their mathematics, underpinned all that could be thought. The sea was a positive insult to this metaphysics, a naked opposition to it… How did one represent an absence of topography?”

One solution was to name these places with colonial and imperial pageantry, and familiar names like Mount Mozart and Beethoven Ridge in the Musicians Seamounts north of Hawaii. They exist on a map, and in theories of science, surveyed down to the centimeter. What we know is something we have hardly explored, hardly experienced. This wanting for the impossible is why it compels obsession, at least as Hamilton-Paterson sees it: “[B]ut the seething waters of the middle distance have something wordless and unpitying to say to the dullest minds. It is as if the ocean, in certain lights and weathers, were the lair not of monsters or malevolent downward-dragging spirits, but of the fat blank which squats beneath all happiness, flicking out its tongue.”

3.
Nature’s taunting evasiveness is the conundrum at the heart of Peter Handke’s Slow Homecoming. The novel consists of three parts, a middle section in which Handke interjects a first-person rhapsody about his process bookended by third-person narratives of wandering and wondering. All three parts obsess over what I think of as the intimate pattern, the visual echoes that reverberate and ping between our whorling fingerprints, the way light playfully daubs a riparian setting and the brittle and broken elements of decay.

Here again, the natural world prompts all of the questions and holds all of the answers but reveals nothing, which propels the obsession. Hamilton-Paterson offers a primer for how to look at the ocean, how to appreciate and cherish it for how it resolutely resists humanity. But Handke’s characters are like a collective Captain Ahab afloat in the world, searching. Their focus is singular, all others – wives, lovers, children – seem to exist only by virtue of these men determining how these others exist in proximity to them.

Benjamin Kunkel, in his introduction to Slow Homecoming, informs us that in German the surname of the first part’s subject, Sorger, means “one who takes care or has cares.” In an Alaskan-like wilderness, Sorger, a foreigner and outsider, studies the landscape and its inhabitants at such detail that everything becomes a likeness of his creation. There is not much naming, but that’s because Sorger’s dedication, certainly the book’s dedication, is to the propensity for naming because all such names are a function of these intimate patterns: “They were unmistakable signs implicit in nature itself . . . and had the power, regardless of who the observer might be, to convert themselves into great and diversified happenings in space – delusions only at first glance, then welcome as metamorphoses in the deeper area of vision.”

The novel’s final section reunites an unnamed father with his young daughter, raising her for periods of time in different countries, separated from her at times when the daughter stays with her mother. He sees her as a component, a piece of the puzzle that when completed will symbolize truth, something he chases: “Still the wayfarer makes his way across the high plateau toward the blue-veiled mountain chain, still busy with the thought that can never be carried to a conclusion: I am working on the secret of the world.”

4.
All of these obsession-driven projects blur fiction and nonfiction. Melville’s pedantic descriptions of whaling can remove readers from the plot, making the novel feel like a manual. Hamilton-Paterson concedes that certain of his details might only be true to him and Handke’s narrative conceit intentionally calls into question where to draw the line between fiction and nonfiction. In a statement, Banksy declared that everything in Exit Through the Gift Shop is true, except that parts that aren’t.

Like Ahab, Thierry Guetta indeed found his White Whale, and while not fatal it was significant. Guetta and Banksy became friends. But the obsessive filming, it turns out, was not part of any great vision. Banksy ends up making the movie everyone had assumed Guetta was working on; Guetta begins to focus on art, churning out painfully derivative work, its boring qualities enhanced by his delusional ego and the fact that he sold a million dollars worth in a few days. In this transition, Guetta’s obsession comes into question – he simply does what people expect him to do, as if by rote. The actual extent of his obsessions is what makes for a biting portrait of the consumer environment that turns Guetta into a hot-shot artist, as opposed to a documentary about street artists and their critical and commercial success. It’s this sly self-awareness – Banksy, Shepard Fairey, et al are in on the joke – that makes Exit Through the Gift Shop brilliant, calling into question what validates certain obsessions. Whether a forever linking double helix of associations and patterns, a tidal ebb and flow or the marketplace, obsessive activities strive to unlock an answer or bring closure to the issue that has caused the obsession, or in the case of Guetta provide an illusion that the activity serves a purpose. This might be the greatest message of them all: obsessions are illusions.

Hamilton-Paterson appreciates the ocean’s indifference as its greatest virtue, the reality check that human ego needs and should pay heed. Handke’s characters want to find a place within the indifference, but only because they think it their duty to do so. The daughter in Slow Homecoming, simply by being in the right place at the right time, at last drives home to her father that the ultimate secret is perhaps one kept forever, that these obsessions make us human and we should be happy to leave it at that. Or as Ishmael says: “It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

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