John Wray’s fifth novel Godsend is both a culmination of his magpie approach to fiction writing and a complete departure from his work thus far. The premise—a young American woman joins the Taliban in the summer of 2001—is so straightforwardly narrated, with such unerring control, that Wray’s ambition and achievement only dawned on this reader in the days after finishing it. This is partly due to novelty. Godsend is the kind of go-for-broke political novel that’s rarely attempted and almost never succeeds. A writer would have a better chance of turning a eulogy into a wedding proposal than maintaining Wray’s high-wire act. Godsend supplants traditional elements of the political novel—a large cast of characters, thesis-driven monologuing, signposted symbolism—for an intimate approach: We’re positioned just over the shoulder of 18-year-old Aden Sawyer on her journey of inexorable destruction.
The novel opens in suburban California, where Sawyer is saying goodbye to her alcoholic mother and philandering father (who happens to teach Islamic Studies). She’s off to a madrasa near Karachi—toting her Pashtun boyfriend Decker, who oscillates between ambivalence and sarcasm—to study the Koran. In Pakistan she passes as a teenage boy by shaving her head and binding her breasts; she calls herself Suleyman. Soon she is recruited into the Taliban by the charismatic, reluctant Ziar (the madrasa elders repeatedly advise against this). As James Wood pointed out in The New Yorker, Aden’s coming-of-age narrative is intertwined with greater radicalization, a cruel hyperbole of the old “loss of innocence” trope: We know Sawyer will commit greater and more terrible acts of violence. We also know we can’t stop reading.
Wray has previously received a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007. I expect Godsend will bring a few more accolades to his CV. We conducted this interview over email as he traveled for his book tour.
The Millions: First things first: I understand the novel came out of a chance aside during interview research for a nonfiction piece on John Walker Lindh?
John Wray: That’s right. I was in Afghanistan on a journalist’s visa, looking for people who’d known Lindh during his time as a soldier in the Taliban’s infantry. At one point, in a small, half-destroyed village north of Kabul, we were delighted to find an old man who claimed to have known the boy soldier, Suleyman, which was Lindh called himself. Then, to my amazement, the old man mentioned, in passing, that he’d also known the girl. That’s how he put it: “the girl.” He couldn’t tell us her name, or much about her at all. That’s when this novel began.
TM: How did you come to Aden Sawyer’s voice? The novel places a heavy burden on her, which she wears lightly: She must be credible as an 18-year-old American, with knowledge of Islam, who is deeply rebellious but must operate within an order and religion which prizes submission (no pun intended).
JW: That’s always a slow and mysterious process, arriving at the voice of a book’s central character. In this case, it could be argued that Aden’s voice is the book’s voice—we’re always with her, always seeing the strange world she moves through with her eyes. I think I found the voice of the story—how it would sound, how it would feel, the somewhat stark, ominous mood it should have—and Aden’s voice came out of that.
TM: I would say it’s a departure from your previous work, but every one of your novels is quite different from the others. The Lost Time Accidents was a 500-page, century-spanning novel on metaphysics written in a kind of comic high-European register. Godsend reminded me of a line from Philip Roth: After he wrote a long book, the next one was inevitably an act of rebellion. Was that true for you? I gather there may be more an element of chance to how you begin each project.
JW: I couldn’t agree more with that quotation from Roth. In my case, every new book is an act of rebellion against the last. It takes so damn long to write a novel—for me, anywhere from two to seven years—and I couldn’t imagine sitting down afterward and beginning something similar, either in tone or subject matter. I’d jump off the nearest bridge.
TM: That’s a risky way to write though, isn’t it? No temptation to pen a Lowboy sequel? (Kidding. Kind of.)
JW: It is a risky way to write. But not as risky as jumping off a bridge!
TM: There’s also risk in tackling the subject. A cursory glance at the acclaimed books of the past few years shows an interest in autofictional inwardness (Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard), historical settings (Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan), or multigenerational portraits (Jesmyn Ward, Min Jin Lee)—though in truth that last group is a perennial for writers. Terrorism and Muslim extremists are such third-rail subjects; did you approach the writing differently because of this? Related, are you nervous about being misread along these lines?
JW: You can’t court acclaim. The third rail has always been the one with juice in it, at least for me, at least so far. The best writing is the most urgent writing, I think. By which I mean the writing that matters most to the writer. I suppose that’s common knowledge, but it’s important to remind myself of it from time to time. Because of course the pressures to write acclaimed (not to mention marketable) books is considerable. And it only gets heavier with every book you publish.
As far as being misread—well, that’s another thing altogether. I did have that fear, and to some degree I still do. But it’s that fear that keeps me honest. It makes me work harder.
TM: The book’s surety and evenness of tone is a great strength here: It’s apparent on close inspection how much work went into its seeming effortlessness.
Sawyer’s early line, “Not a girl, not a boy. Just a ghost in a body” signals her growing desire for self-effacement, which called to mind Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Were there texts in the Godsend constellation you read as research or saw as touchstones?
JW: I read Hunger in my early 20s—luckily, or unluckily, before I’d found out what a Nazi its author was—and it impressed me, though I can’t remember why. It wasn’t a touchstone for Godsend, though of course many other books were. A Farewell to Arms comes to mind, and Shirley Hazzard’s novels, and All the Pretty Horses, and The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke. I’m not exactly sure why those are the books that I’m mentioning—others were maybe more important. But there you go. My memory is terrible.
TM: I’ve heard you enthuse for Shirley Hazzard before, and lament she’s not better known or read widely. I haven’t read her work yet—tell me what I’ve been missing.
JW: Finally an easy question to answer! Shirley Hazzard is one of the masters. No one writing now has her eloquence, it often seems to me, or her intelligence, or her judgment. In an era in which the writer’s identity and persona are the industry’s main marketing tools, it’s no wonder that she isn’t better known—she had no interest in inserting herself between her readers and her books. The idea of letting one’s work stand for itself seems almost quaint these days, and Shirley’s “profile” no doubt suffered as a result; the fact she often took a decade, or more, to write her deceptively slender novels most likely didn’t help, either. But The Transit of Venus is one of the great novels in English of the 20th century.
TM: This is your fifth novel. Taking a step back: Are there ideas or concerns you see across your work?
JW: It’s so hard to take stock of one’s own work in this way—it’s like trying to study the back of your head without a mirror. A perceptive reader told me recently that my books tend to feature protagonists who carry belief to extremes—political radicals, religious fanatics, the mentally ill, lovers in way, way over their heads. I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but I do like the sound of it.
TM: It sounds accurate to me. There are often protagonists of great conviction, and of course a strong narrative voice.
In terms of structure, Godsend has an accumulating momentum, a kind of awful, inexorable feeling of doom (in a good way). It’s so rare to read something for 230 pages without a moment of friction. How does that come about for you? Are you drafting with an outline in mind? Or rearranging and cutting in the revision stages? Or—and I would believe this—is the muse just dictating into your ear while you exclaim, “Yes, yes! Bingo!”
JW: I never use an outline, strange to say. Outlines feel too much like school. I’ve always operated under the assumption, rightly or wrongly, that if I’m excited by what I’m working on, the reader will be too. An advance plan would certainly speed things up a bit. But whoever claimed that the easiest books to write are the most gratifying books to read? Not this cowboy.
TM: The New York article about your place in Park Slope looks like a midwestern undergraduate’s fantasy of life as a Brooklyn writer. Do you debate autofiction while playing ping pong? Read Proust to each other over corn flakes? And more seriously, how’s NYC for novelists these days? Gary Shteyngart said in an interview all his friends have left for Berlin or the Hudson Valley.
JW: Life for novelists—or for any kind of artist—in New York these days is bitter. I had the great good luck to have been tipped off to something affordable almost 18 years ago, an apartment with low maintenance the down payment of which I could afford with my very first advance, and to have been pushed into taking that terrifying leap by someone who had a clearer sense of what the future held. It was dumb luck, basically. So it’s given me real pleasure, possibly the greatest satisfaction of my adult life, to be able to open up the place I now live in to people doing good work. What the fuck is this city going to be without its artists? The prospect makes me sick.
TM: Your books operate within sets of constraints, as if each was a challenge you’d set yourself (apart from the natural challenges of writing novels). What does your cutting room floor look like? Are there half-completed projects? Abandoned epics set in the German countryside?
JW: I actually cut very little from my manuscripts. That fact surprises me as much as anybody. I’m a firm believer in the dangers of regarding one’s own writing, especially at the early stages, as some kind of precious and finite commodity; so I’m very willing, and even excited, to trim the fat whenever I can—but writing is also like pulling teeth to me, so I tend not to over-write. I’m not as loose as some—I’d like to be, but I’m not. I guess you might say I value economy. I don’t like to waste stuff.
TM: Reviews have noted Godsend’s straightforward, nuanced treatment of religious belief (another third rail in contemporary fiction). I wonder if you could speak to how you approached it, and your thoughts on religious belief in novels in general.
JW: I’d say that some kind of passionate belief is crucial to the central character of any novel—without a degree of fanaticism, or at the very least fiercely held and defended points of view, it’s hard to generate enough conflict for a book, or even a conversation, to be genuinely suspenseful. I’m not a religious person myself, in any conventional sense, so diving head-first into the intricacies of fundamentalist Islam was pretty daunting. But Aden, my protagonist, arrives in Afghanistan knowing next to nothing about the life she’s chosen. Her ignorance helped me to feel more at peace with mine.
TM: Last question! Forgive me for beating a dead horse, but it should be noted how unique this novel is in the current landscape, at least with respect to a gigantic leap of empathy and artistic imagination across gender, faith, geography, etc. What’s your impression of books being published these days? Do you wish more writers would take leaps like this? I swear I’m not trying to set you up for a clickbait response—I’m curious about your read of the scene and if you had advice for emerging writers…
JW: There are always worthwhile novels being published, if you search hard enough. I’m looking forward to Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive at the moment, and to Marlon James’s experiment in speculative fiction, Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The appeal of fiction—both for the writer and for the reader, it seems to me—lies in escaping one’s socially-dictated point of view. Fiction is about looking out at the world through someone else’s eyeballs. It’s about getting strange, in every available sense of that word. That’s how a novel should feel: It should make you, however fleetingly, a stranger to yourself. Everything else is just memoir with fictional frosting. I’ve had quite enough of that.
It was during the summer of 2009 that I first read the opening paragraph to German novelist Peter Handke’s 1970 novel, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. It remains the most tantalizingly confusing paragraph I’ve ever read:
When Joseph Bloch, a construction worker who had once been a well-known soccer goalie, reported for work that morning, he was told that he was fired. At least that was how he interpreted the fact that no one except the foreman looked up from his coffee break when he appeared at the door of the construction shack, where the workers happened to be at that moment, and Bloch left the building site. Out on the street he raised his arm, but the car that drove past — even though Bloch hadn’t been hailing a cab — was not a cab. Then he heard the sound of brakes in front of him. Bloch looked around: behind him there was a cab; its driver started swearing. Bloch turned around, got in, and told the driver to take him to the Naschmarkt.
In this paragraph, the reader finds a narrative method that feels like a double-negative, with all those nots. Bloch’s been fired, but only in his head. And yet he seems to lose his job anyway when he walks out of the construction shack. Termination happens without the pink slip. Except that it doesn’t. If that doesn’t feel like a true crossing of narrative wires (since Bloch might be “crazy” and therefore delusionally imagining the events of the story), it gets weirder. On the street, Bloch raises his hand, but not to hail a cab, and though the car he seemed to be hailing wasn’t a cab, a cab arrives anyway. When Bloch gets in, he immediately has a place in mind, a place he seems to have wanted to go. What I’m thinking is this: arrive early at a concert, and there’s a soundcheck—or, better, when I come early to an orchestral performance, I hear the violins and the cellos tuning up. The musicians test out notes. They try out their bows, adjusting the tension. They try out the gestures of musicians before performing. Handke’s opening salvo in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick seems like a tuning-up. The gestures get tried out and then mean something a second later. The hand shoots into the air. Then it becomes a hand hailing a cab. The opening paragraph of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick throws a little touch of rehearsal into its performance.
That can’t be right. The book stays weird. Near the end, it uses simple, word-sized pictures instead of words to describe Bloch’s actions. So, Handke doesn’t eliminate the sense of a rehearsal’s effort, but it doesn’t feel like effort. The novel’s opening paragraph is stone-faced. Its confidence has no air of practice. A point of comparison seems in order. The end of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel, Breakfast of Champions, features a hand-drawn picture — a cartoon, really — of Vonnegut himself, with a single tear running down his cheek. Just a few pages previous, the novel has concluded with a meeting between Vonnegut and his own character, Kilgore Trout. He grants Trout free will — he wants to free all the characters who have served him “loyally” over the years, but is only telling Trout — but as the narrator/Vonnegut disappears into the void, he hears Trout exclaim, desperately: Make me young, make me young, make me young! This is the opposition that exists in an unstated fashion between Handke and Bloch, right? And if so, what does that mean?
Characters, it seems, are pawns. They are creatures raised to the status of automatons by “acting” the way their creators want them to. In one sense (the classic analytic sense by which literature is held to be mimetic, i.e. imitative of actual life), this state of affairs leaves characters in one hell of a pickle. Supposedly, their emotional lives resemble the emotional lives of readers, but characters have been programmed. In a weird way, then, all literary characters are undead. Imbued with the qualities of life (certain kinds of movement), but lacking the autonomy of real people, they stagger through the landscapes of the novels and stories they appear in, following the paths laid out for them like idiot zombies cornered in a dead end. What Vonnegut suggests is that this is abuse. Characters, were they really free, would want the chance to have back what Trout wants back: to start from the beginning on his own. At the beginning of Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, this is why there isn’t any true sense of practice. When Bloch raises his arm, the narration begins to say But the car that drove past wasn’t a cab, but then has to quickly add that Bloch wasn’t hailing a cab. It’s as though Bloch is resisting the position he’s been put in. After all, he seems to decide he is fired all by himself. Reversing the usual relation between character and narrative, Handke seems to find Bloch slippery in his grasp. There’s no practice, just trouble.
For part of May and June in 2009, I was living in Iowa City, attending a summer writing program at the Iowa Writers Workshop. It was a relatively short commitment, just three weeks, and I rented a tiny bedroom in a strange apartment complex on a hill near the university’s campus. On the complex was a house where, I was told, Vonnegut had once lived. There was no bed in my room, though there was an ugly green couch. I slept on an air mattress that deflated every single night, slowly lowering me to the ground as I slept. It was like those cartoons where someone’s spirit-self settles carefully back into the sleeping or dead body so that the person can get up, except that I would wake in the morning at roughly eye level with the ugliest bluish carpet I had ever seen. The mini-fridge in the room had swirls of brown stains that I tried to clean, but couldn’t scrub into the proper degree of oblivion. For some reason, I bought a package of bologna at a corner store, thinking that this time and place was the exact moment in my life when I should finally try bologna. As I sat in that hot room, trying to be in physical contact with as few surfaces as possible, I read a series of books, including The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. My living situation at that time is fun for me to write about now, of course; it has the touch of squalor that makes the writing I did at the time seem grounded in a kind of discomfort that’s stupidly perfect for a wannabe writer. Except, that’s all a sham. The second weekend, I retreated back to Minneapolis for two days, mostly so I could sleep with the woman I was seeing at the time. What I like about Bloch is his apparent flashing between different intentions: now he means one thing, now another. What I dislike about myself when I look back at a strange period of desperation in my mid-twenties is that I was so remarkably consistent. Must remain in relationship, no matter the cost may very well have been my motto. If I had accidentally hailed a cab back then, I wouldn’t have told it to take me anywhere at all.
These are questionable conclusions. Sure, my loneliness at the time felt a bit impressive to me. It always feels unusual to go multiple days in a row without speaking to anyone. It wasn’t glum, however. Yes, the room was small enough that I could feel my laptop making it hotter. No, there was no internet. But, the communal kitchen was surprisingly clean. The kicker was that the word “DEAD” was stenciled backwards on the thin, wood-paneled wall of the room and through the wall I could hear my immediate neighbor, who seemed to be a permanent resident, watching MacGuyver. This is the key to Bloch’s situation at the beginning of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick: it’s really very silly.
Handke’s novel is a murderer’s tale. Bloch goes out and kills a woman within the first few pages of the book. His homicidal actions have the same disconnect as that double-negative spirit that sweeps through the first paragraph. What is Bloch’s role, then? What’s his responsibility? Murderers sometimes have alibis, but not really. Since the killers are the ones who did the killing, their alibis — if they even have them — are inevitably false. If Bloch had an alibi, though, it would feel true even when it was a lie. Handke puts the question to the idea of Bloch’s responsibility in a peculiarly uncomfortable way. A man who hails a cab by waving randomly at a car that is not a cab seems caught in the teeth of some machine that liberates him even as it clamps down. So it’s not that the first paragraph of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is silly haha; it’s silly because the idea that Bloch works his way through the world in this fashion, with the alibi of his own irresponsibility, puts us back in a naïve reading of Handke’s novel, the reading that says Joseph Bloch is crazy, that he’s a psycho, a jangled weirdo who decides he’s been fired and accidentally hails a cab before deciding, I’ll go to the Naschmarkt. If he’s crazy, and if the book simply wants to convey that keyed-up insanity, the opening paragraph is silly because it doesn’t seem to tell us we should be laughing. It’s not funny.
Laughter is not the only kind of funny. In his short essay on Kafka, David Foster Wallace comments that part of what makes it difficult for his students to appreciate the humor in Kafka’s stories is that “the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle” — and that, Wallace writes, is comical. The trouble is that trouble is our only business: ha! ha! Handke’s paragraph on Bloch has the same sense of comedy. I can think of no other piece of writing that so simply and richly conveys that sensation where one feels both deeply responsible for and irresistibly forced into one’s actions. For example, imagine how funny it would be if Death came to you and said, Hey, it’s time for you to die, sorry and you said, Haha, not this time, Grim Reaper and then ran straight off a cliff, Wile E. Coyote-style. Obviously, that’s completely hilarious. And so is Joseph Bloch.
It’s not until the ending of Handke’s novel that the book’s opening paragraph seems to be explained. By tale’s end, Bloch is intently watching a penalty kick. He rehearses in his head all the thoughts that must be nagging the goalie, who doesn’t know where the kicker will try to put the ball. Then:
The kicker suddenly started his run. The goal-keeper, who was wearing a bright yellow jersey, stood absolutely still, and the penalty kicker shot the ball directly into his hands.
Apologies, I know I’m jumping ahead; these are the last sentences of the novel. The suspense of consideration — the goalie wonders whether he should dive this way or that and whether the penalty kicker will be counting on his diving this way or that — was all for naught. If the problem in the opening of the novel was that Bloch’s gestures didn’t line up with clear intentions, the gesture of the penalty kick is perfectly in sync with a hoped-for meaning. The ball goes right into the goalie’s hands. The gesture of kick and catch line up exactly. There is no lag between kicker and goalie, character and author. What a wonderful world. But it is not Bloch’s world at all.
We only have words for things that bother us. Language is anxiety given material form. Or, rather, words designate those things about which it is possible to think, those things we have to deal with. If things were inert, not worthy of notice, we wouldn’t mention them and wouldn’t be able to. There’d be no words. That there is a word indicates a snag, a hitch we have to consider. In the opening paragraph of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Handke’s narration presumes the meaning of Bloch’s raising his arm before really understanding the intent. Bloch was, after all, just raising his arm. What does anyone know about what that gesture means? What is the word for it? “Hailing”? But, of course, Bloch ended up hailing a cab anyway. The point is: what do Bloch’s intentions matter? Language doesn’t care about us. Conventional meanings are always at the ready. Perhaps it is not so much that the narration is lagging behind Bloch’s actions as lagging around Bloch’s actions. The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, being a novel, will record the forward momentum of a plot in which Bloch goes some “where,” does something, murders someone, wanders some “where” again. But even if a fictional narrative is the case and the context, Handke’s opening paragraph suggests Bloch’s alienation from the plot in which he’s helplessly snared. He tries the gestures for reasons other than their meaning. It’s a stretching of muscles. But it’s raising your hand or opening your mouth that gets you in the worst kinds of trouble.
Image courtesy the author
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.”