When I think back on my reading life to date, there are maybe a couple dozen writers who stand out from the rest as the true friends of my mind: Woolf, Bellow, Proust, Dostoevsky…And the weird thing is that none of these—well, none except the poets—were love at first sight. I remember staring blankly at the first page of DeLillo’s Mao II at 15, when I still believed I was a poet myself. I remember struggling with the Constance Garnett version of The Brothers Karamazov by our apartment-complex pool the summer after freshman year of college, before switching translations and falling into it utterly. And I remember (this is embarrassing) tripping over the sprung rhythms of the opening of Augie March and being like, this is what all the fuss is about?
The experience of suddenly gaining new ears for an author is one I can perhaps best compare to the effortless French fluency I sometimes achieve in dreams. Or to the way Douglas Adams described the workings of the Babelfish in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One minute, I’m bumbling along with furrowed brow, nodding in feigned comprehension, Oui, bien sûr, the beach is which way again?; the next minute, the barriers melt and I’m immersed in a clear sea.
And this is the experience I had this year with the late Canadian genius Mavis Gallant—which is odd, because I already liked Mavis Gallant. In fact, I recommended her anthology Paris Stories in this space a couple years back. Some time in June, frustrated with much of the new fiction I was reading, I picked up the companion volume Varieties of Exile, confident that I at least knew what I was getting: a certain standard of craftsmanship. What I found instead was rapture. In the wry, daring, tender, and ruthless prose of stories like “The Chosen Husband” and “The Concert Party,” I was suddenly hearing secret harmonies. How many such stories had Gallant published in her lifetime? I decided I had to read them all, post-haste.
I turned to her Collected Stories, an 850-page feast recently reissued by Everyman’s Library. Starting with the pieces published in The New Yorker around what seemed her annus mirabilis, 1979, I read my way forward and backward with growing astonishment: “In The Tunnel,” “The Pegnitz Junction,” “An Alien Flower,” “Potter”… the stories only got deeper, richer, funnier, sadder. I limited myself to one a day, so that each would have time to steep in the back of my brain; soon, my daily hour with Mavis Gallant became the thing I most looked forward to. From “The Remission,” possibly the greatest of Gallant’s stories:
“When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera. The time was early in the reign of the new Elizabeth, and people were still doing this—migrating with no other purpose than the hope of a merciful sky.”
Collected Stories was the best book I read all year—one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever read—and as the remaining pages dwindled, I began to feel the sadness of impending loss; never again, barring amnesia, would I get to read these stories for the first time. Happily, Collected Stories turns out to be a wild misnomer; by July, I’d found an equal number of Gallant’s masterpieces lurking in unconscionably obscure volumes like My Heart Is Broken, Home Truths, and The Other Paris; on microfilm at the NYPL; and in the anthology of “uncollected work” The Cost of Living. Nearing now the true end of the Gallant oeuvre, I felt as if certain engines of perception had been restored to their factory settings; even books plucked from the New Release shelf at the bookstore carried a Gallant-like charge of clarity and depth. Or perhaps, afraid to break the spell, I began choosing them more carefully.
I found myself loving, for example, Max Porter’s short novel Lanny, with its tender English domesticity and bursts of wild, magic-realist collage. And Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of My Youth, an easygoing autofiction of Mumbai life that stealthily opens into something deeper (like all of Chaudhuri, really). And Sergio De La Pava’s Lost Empress, the daft and incendiary follow-up to A Naked Singularity, centering on mass incarceration, Joni Mitchell, and an off-brand football team called the Paterson Pork. I loved, at length and for the record, Ben Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School. And much of Ocean Vuong’s debut, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Cautiously, I turned this polyamorousess, or mania, or whatever it was, to some older fiction I’d been meaning to start or finish for a while now. The problems with Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow are well-documented, and probably inevitable—the whole thing is told backward, for God’s sake—but in my state of generalized receptivity, I found myself marveling more at its eclipsed discoveries (that guilt is the corollary not of sin but of fear; that suicide is impossible in reverse). One could certainly point out problems with Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, too—it’s no one’s idea of tightly constructed—but I found the narrator’s lusty openness to happenstance so vital and persuasive and charming that I went ahead and read The Black Album, too. Charmed isn’t quite the right word for what I felt about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything; its longeurs put even My Struggle to shame. But having set it aside a couple years ago, I now pushed on to one of the strangest and most indelible conclusions in literature.
It is only by comparison with Knausgaard that Vivian Gornick’s intense memoir Fierce Attachments can be called a palate-cleanser—it will haunt you, too. But this is a flawless piece of writing, born of a kind of intoxicating New York astringency I associate with Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Paula Fox. (What a pleasure it would be to teach a class on these four writers.)
I should say, in the interest of accuracy, that all was not totally hopeless before my Summer of Mavis Gallant, though the best books I read in the first part of 2019 were mostly classics, consecrated by time, or satellite works orbiting around them. Some years ago, a publisher from the Netherlands gave me a list of her country’s greatest novelists, and this spring I finally got aroud to reading Max Havelaar by Multatuli (a.k.a. Eduard Douwes Dekker). I had thought of it as a proto-muckracking work about the evils of the 19th-century coffee trade—the thing it’s famous for—but Multatuli is also an extraordinary writer and literary architect, hurling thunderbolts of satirical and polyphonic prose, as much Sergio De La Pava as Ida B. Wells. Encouraged, I decided to try W.F. Hermans as well, mainly because his just-translated war novella An Untouched House, from 1951, was shorter than Gerhard Reve’s The Evenings. I was pleasantly surprised to find Hermans’s writing beautiful and devastating as well as misanthropically furious—the thing he’s famous for.
And then, wrapping up an introduction to Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per, I picked up Niels Lhyne, by Pontoppidan’s fellow Dane and rough contemporary Jens Peter Jacobsen. The fact that I’d been barely aware of it seems insane to me now, both because Niels Lhyne forced a reassessment of my maps and calendars of literary modernism and because of the insane beauty of Jacobsen’s sentences (in Tiina Nunally’s exquisite translation.) Wanting to know more, I read the young critic Morton Høi Jensen’s 2017 book on Jacobsen, A Difficult Death, and found it a wonderful tutorial, in the vein of Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov. This reminded me in turn of how much I love the genre of popular criticism, and sent me toward David Bellos’s The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables—far more worth your time than the borderline-unwatchable BBC remake of Les Mis with Phil Collins’s daughter and McNulty from The Wire.
This was a wonderful year for new criticism as well (shout-out to James Wood’s essay on Pontoppidan, and to Patricia Lockwood’s incandescent rereading of Updike in the LRB). I’ll admit to having lumped Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker pieces in with some of the more fleeting hot takes that seem to have crept into that magazine via its website. But in August, as I traveled up to Maine for vacation, a friend urged me to give Tolentino’s Trick Mirror a chance, starting with the essay on ecstasy. I’m grateful for the advice. Tolentino’s decision to write nine original pieces for this book, rather than recycling from the magazine, is a sign of courageous seriousness—and serious courage. Moreover, Tolentino is a gifted memoirist and a brilliant reader, and her take on our digitally damaged culture, however warmly felt, is also about as definitive as we’re likely to get at present. I found a similar balance of thinking and feeling in the criticism of the poet Hanif Abdurraqib, which I’d started reading a few months earlier. There are some gems tucked into the gallimaufry They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, but his book-length essay on A Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain, seems to push the whole genre of music writing forward.
Of the narrative nonfiction I read this year, only Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe’s tremendous account of Ireland’s Troubles, counts as new, strictly speaking. But the lowercase troubles depicted in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers remain urgent news, and I’d recommend any of these without reservation, not least for the effortless way they smuggle analysis into their storytelling. I’d also put in a plug for Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, neither narrative nor criticism, exactly, but all in all the Lipstick Traces of hip-hop.
Back to Mavis Gallant, though, through whom my whole year in reading flowed. I finished the last unread piece of her writing, the novel Green Water, Green Sky, on the first day of that vacation in Maine. For an encore, I went with a friend to the nearby house of Marguerite Yourcenar, whom Gallant had praised in her wonderful essay “Limpid Pessimist.” Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian had been stalled out for years now in the lower hundreds of my to-read list, but the experience of walking through her study, browsing her bookshelves, and of Gallant’s beneficent influence on my reading more generally, meant that I would give it another look. I found it as advertised: a singular masterpiece, an almost spooky inhabitation of the Roman imagination.
And then I turned to The Bluest Eye, in memory of Toni Morrison, one of the very first friends of my mind, whose writing had in a very real sense, made a novelist of me. It had been years since I’d read her, and I felt a little trepidation. How real were they, really, these ecstasies and deep sympathies? Was it possible they were just figments of my own imagination, like my ability to speak flawless French? Or of someone else’s, like the Babelfish? Or something in between?
“Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel. Rosemary Villanucci, our next-door fried who lives above her father’s café, sits in a 1939 Buck eating bread and butter.”
Nope. I can’t begin to understand, much less explain, what these lines do to me, but as we turn the collective page into 2020, I feel certain it doesn’t get any realer than that.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
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.
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.
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.
[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.”