Zadie Smith, writing a piece in the NYRB entitled Two Paths for the Novel about Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and Remainder by Tom McCarthy, seems to be groping her way to an understanding of Establishment Literary Fiction. This is very interesting:

From two recent novels, a story emerges about the future for the Anglophone novel. Both are the result of long journeys. Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill, took seven years to write; Remainder, by Tom McCarthy, took seven years to find a mainstream publisher. The two novels are antipodal — indeed one is the strong refusal of the other. The violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland is, in part, a function of our ailing literary culture. All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene.

These aren't particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done — in a sense that's the problem. It's so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait (more...)

"It seems perfectly done — in a sense that's the problem." Yes! Exactly.


Readers Comments

  1. I wonder if she has been reading some of the blogs around here where these instincts and ideas have been debated quite insistently of late.

  2. Thanks for this link, Mark, which is indeed intriguing.

    When Smith denounces the adjectival mania of contemporary fiction, & Netherland in particular, she is spot on, capturing the deadening effect of creative writing courses on contemporary fiction very aptly. Netherland is, without question, dully over-written. More than that, however, it's endless fascination with the interior life & subjectivity of its protagonist - as dull an example of a dull, middle class, male passing through an entirely un-engaging, & dull, mid-life "crisis" as it's possible to imagine - confirms its comfortable location in the midst of the over-written dullness that passes for contemporary English fiction.

    However, Smith also reveals the risks attendant on those who seek to promenade their little gobbets of 'learning' too egregiously:

    "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."

    What has Husserl got to do with any of this? Why is Zadie Smith name-dropping Husserl, of all people, here? The only thing more risible than the spurious introduction of Husserl into her article at this point, is the complete travesty of his thinking which her remark represents.

    Would this Husserl whom she mentions as "eschewing the transcendental" be the same Husserl who wrote Formal & Transcendental Logic? & for whom the transcendental subject played such an important role in all of his, er, transcendental phenomenology?

  3. Hi Jay -- well, if Zadie's been reading, I wish she'd comment!

    Hiya Robin -- agree with you about the oddness/wrongness of the Husserl mention. It does seem simply to be a name-drop. If you brush past it, like I did, it doesn't change the nature of the piece at all, so goodness knows why she bothered to invoke him. Regardless, the piece as a whole is a good one...

  4. Steven Augustine Friday 14 November 2008

    The problem with Zadie's review/treatise being that you read it knowing too well it's just a hit-back at James Wood (via scrupulous condescension towards his middlebrowingly aglow review of Netherland); you're up for it, at first, but by the time you reach the Remainder half (the payoff) you find yourself wanting to do something else. Take a walk; read a book: something. Anything. It's very much like agreeing to go along to a wedding with an old friend who happens to be the jilted ex of the groom: promises to be just and wicked fun... until about an hour into the interminable shopping trip to help find your friend that killer outfit guaranteed to make the groom regret everything.

    Zadie will forever kick herself for having bowed her beautiful big head like a chastized pupil in response to Wood's slam in the career-making nonsense of his Hysterical Realist episode (in which he patented the persona of the literary Fox News pundit). But warmed-over staircase wit like this here review from Zadie just doesn't hit the mark.

    Kunkel did a better job of it in his shrugging diss of Netherland (because excoriation would have seemed too much like caring). I'm almost tempted to say it's a boy thing; boys are better at hitting back at other boys because they know what hurts a boy most. But it's probably more that Ivy League NYers are better placed to be lethally chilly snobs than ambitious expat Brits.

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