Thursday, December 11, 2008

Losing the Paths, Riding out the Currents

I mentioned in my post on Remainder that I had some more to say about Zadie Smith's NYRB essay titled "Two Paths for the Novel." My post on McCarthy's novel used Smith's analysis to question what kind of "avant-garde" McCarthy wants the novel to be, if he even cares about "avant-gardism" per se. Smith's concern with Remainder's avant-gardeness is bound up with her deeper concerns about the problematics of authenticity. Smith also reads Netherland with this issue in mind, and while I will not deny a place for the subject in either novel, it would appear to me that Smith's own interest in authenticity overwhelms whatever the authors' interest in it may be, a sort of sublimation that allows Smith to have her way with either novel.

's "worries... revolve obsessively around the question of authenticity" and yet the novel is sure enough that "in Netherland, only one's own subjectivity is really authentic." As for Remainder, Smith allows that McCarthy believes that "one does not seek the secret, authentic heart of things" yet she seems to prefer his narrator, who holds (with no apparent reconciliation to the writer's views) "one of the greatest authenticity dreams of the avant-garde" and is indeed "a true avant-garde spirit; he wants to become... the only truly authentic indivisible remainder." Both writers want "to destroy the myth of cultural authenticity" because they can't shake "the frustrated sense of having come to the authenticity party exactly a century late." Smith goes so far out of her way to place authenticity at the center of both novels that she even fudges a reference, making it seem as if the description of cricket in Remainder which she excerpts is part of the "expressionist moment" found "in its finale." The cricket passage occurs on page 185-6; the book has 308 pages. This absence of contextualization is important because she interprets cricket (in Remainder, not Netherland) in absolute terms. It is "pure facticity, which keeps coming at you, carrying death, leaving its mark." Death, as we saw some lines up, makes possible "the only truly authentic indivisible remainder, the only way of truly placing yourself outside meaning." She italicizes "indivisible," but that's only because the essay is so focused on "authenticity" that it doesn't need graphical emphasis.

The reason why I find this objectionable is not because I'm bothered by what I think is a bad reading. What I'm more irritated by is the use Smith makes of her bad reading. The question of authenticity is largely about policing the positions other people are permitted to take and speak from—restricting who they can say they are when they speak as themselves or whom they can speak for if they speak in any other person than the first singular.

Clearly, there are very necessary instances where this discourse is absolutely required—medicine, say, and the law. But when this becomes the overriding criterion for the coherence or even value of a fictional work, I think the discourse become very detrimental. And when we begin to use our judgments of a work's authenticity to peg its position—on a certain "path" or in a certain "current" or "camp" or any other spatial metaphor you care to hazard—I think the detriment is doubled.

What I don't mean by this complaint is that works shouldn't be categorized or classed—many categories have very solid uses. What I object to is using authenticity as a stick to beat novels into the positions we want them to take, and then to praise or find them wanting for slipping out of or reaching beyond those positions. When Smith can say "If Netherland is a novel only partially aware of the ideas that underpin it, Tom McCarthy's Remainder is fully conscious of its own," you know something has been lost completely—namely, the sense of balance that is aware that no novel is fully conscious of the ideas that underpin it. To say otherwise is simply to affirm that a novel spoke only from the positions you were comfortable with—a strange feature for Remainder, the "avant-garde" novel.

That loss of balance is constant through this essay, and its absence necessitates the opposition of one novel to the other to re-order things. (Substituting opposition for balance is about the oldest trick in the book by now, but hey.) Smith opposes "Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow" (the Establishment) to "Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard" (the avant-garde), and though she allows the existence of a "crossroads [where] we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov." What are we going to do, pick teams?

Ultimately, though, the question is not about writers at all—Smith begins with a submerged critique of the reading public, not of the scribbling set.
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.
The constructions of the first few sentences are crucially inconsistent: "novels cut" leads to "convince us," and "us" seems to refer to readers, but then there is "we cut" which should refer to the same "us" (readers) though in just the previous sentence it is the novels (or metonymically the writers) doing the cutting. Do readers cut neural routes by reading a variety of novels, or do writers cut neural routes for us by writing in divergent modes? Well, clearly Smith faults the reader for not being receptive to a variety of fictions, although she allows that we have been trained into this rut. But I think this essay remains a critique of a readership whom she believes is adverse to reading a novel as anti-lyrical realism as she believes Remainder to be.

It seems to me that the real "two paths" she is describing are those available to the reader: either continue reading lyrical realism and keep trying to ignore the inauthenticity of its artifices (and the racial/class/gender matrix that underwrites those artifices); or read Remainder and other books that eschew lyricized clouds and other toys of realism, and salvage just a bit of authenticity. I'm just not convinced those are our only options, or that authenticity should even be a concern of the reader.


Walton Muyumba said...

Andrew, I started to write you a really long note to converse about several ideas flowing throw your entries. It started to become an essay so I'm going to work on that piece. Your stuff always gets me going. By the way, really liked your piece in n + 1. Did you know I grew up in Terre Haute? I guess we're just two Hoosiers trying to make a lives in books.

Andrew Seal said...

I had no idea you were from Terre Haute--it's always great to find fellow Hoosiers.
I'm looking forward to reading your post!