Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Long Zadie Smith essay on Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and Tom McCarthy's Remainder. I'm reading the O'Neill as slowly as I can. Smith seemingly read a different novel than the one I'm reading, and I don't agree with her claim that

Netherland sits at an anxiety crossroads where a community in recent crisis—the Anglo-American liberal middle class—meets a literary form in long-term crisis, the nineteenth-century lyrical Realism of Balzac and Flaubert.

Critiques of this form by now amount to a long tradition in and of themselves. Beginning with what Alain Robbe-Grillet called "the destitution of the old myths of 'depth,'" they blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism's metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental the metaphor, 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. They all of them note the (often unexamined) credos upon which Realism is built: the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.

The "literary style" that offends Smith is easily observed in many recent Canadian literary bestsellers. It infests Ondaatje's Divisidero, Adamson's Outlander, and Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault, and these books are almost unreadable because of it. Every object -- tree, river, rock, notebook, card game, W.H.Y. -- is relentlessly allegorized, transmuted from a thing-in-the-world to a literary device. The world becomes text, endlessly embroidered by the novelist. But I disagree with Smith's assertion that this kind of writing has any relationship to the realism of Balzac and Flaubert. Such writing is better described as a species of mannerist prose, whose ostensible realism is easily distinguished by the baroqueness of its description, lapidary detail so thick that you could cut it with a knife.

Smith carefully parses Joseph O'Neill's prose, and pounces on sentences that sidle toward mannerism. "Even the mini traumas of a middle-class life are given the high lyrical treatment, in what feels, at its best, like a grim satire on the profound fatuity of twenty-first-century bourgeois existence. The surprise discovery of his wife's lactose intolerance becomes 'an unknown hinterland to our marriage'; a slightly unpleasant experience of American bureaucracy at the DMV brings [the protagonist] (metaphorically) close to the war on terror. . . ." But when Smith extrapolates from these "high lyrical" sentences in order to claim that the whole book is founded upon a kind of lyrical Realism, she does a disservice to the plain style in which most of Netherland is written. O'Neill's descriptions of cricket grounds, or the more obscure commercial corners of Brooklyn and/or Staten Island, or the list of attendees at a cricket club party, are not lyrical at all; they are prosaic and matter-of-fact, and operate largely through the accumulation of small discrete details, much in the manner of Barth, Pynchon, Foster Wallace and DeLillo: writers who, at least in Smith's version of American literary history, have never been given a fair shake, have "been relegated to a safe corner of literary history, to be studied in postmodernity modules, and dismissed, by our most famous public critics, as a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart."

As the LOLcats say, O RLY? Contra Smith, it seems to me that these writers, like Smith herself, have enjoyed both popular and critical success, and have been mostly praised by "our most famous public critics." (B.R. Meyers, who once went after DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy in the Atlantic, is neither famous nor significant and can't be who Smith is thinking of).

I admire Smith's own writing; I once drove non-stop to Seattle through some of the worst fall weather I have ever experienced in order to get to meet her and to get my books signed (ZADIE [noticing dustjackets wrapped in Brodarts]: Oh. Are you a book collector? CJB: No, I'm a book reader. And I like yours a lot.) Her essay is well written and granular in its analysis of O'Neill's and Tom McCarthy's prose. But she's wrong about Netherland's quality, wrong about American postmodern writing's success in the marketplace, and totally wrong about realism's continuing relevance as an artistic mode.

<< Home

Powered by Blogger

.post-title { display: none!important; }