Monday, December 31, 2012

Tom McCarthy, Zadie Smith, and the 'Paths' of the Novel

This morning my wife said to me, "This tea is perfect [she's Irish, so tea in the morning]; it's the perfect temperature; it's just strong enough, and I put in exactly the right amount of milk."

 Late last night I fnished reading Tom McCarthy's remarkable novel Remainder, a book which is about the joy one has, or perhaps the madness one cultivates, in having things "just right."  I hestitate to write anything about this novel as Zadie Smith has already written a brilliant review of it for the New York Review of Books [] but I disagree with Smith's argument that there are "two paths for the novel" and would like to say something about her views as well as a few things about Remainder. In her NYR piece, Smith argues that the novel might--from this moment--2008--on--take one of two diverging roads: the old worn out road of traditional realism, as in Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, or the fresh macadam of--what?--experiment, surrealism, anti-realism, as in McCarthy's Remainder.  A great piece, bristling with ideas, references, provocations.  Smith is about as good a reviewer as any, in a class surely with James Wood, but this time around I wondered if her assignment--reviewing, in tandam, Joseph O'Neill and Tom McCarthy--wasn't a set up for a concocted face off between two different approaches to fiction.  Different, but not, in my view, incommensurable.

It seems to me that Smith offers a  false dichotomy.  She sets the two novels against one another in every way imaginable--the books are "one hundred eight degrees apart," but so are the authors (Oxford and Cambridge), and so, most of all, are the philosophical underpinnings of O'Neill's and McCarthy's fictional worlds.  O'Neill retains the old, and apparently outmoded, faith in the existence of the self, that Cartesian "mirror of nature," an entity that can sniff out meaning in the events of everyday life or in the colloquies of the mind or in relationships or language.  O'Neill's lovely book is fiction before Richard Rorty came along, before Derrida persuaded us that words aren't attached to anything, that selves are passe, or at least impossible to comprehend. Perhaps not worthy of comprehension, for what does the self tell us but that we yearn and are hopelessly inauthentic.  Authenticity is the overriding concern of Smith's review--who has it and who doesn't--and I couldn't help but think as I read her perfect sentences that concern about 'authenticity' must be a New York-London-Paris intellectual thing--honestly, have you ever felt inauthentic?  Do you even know what it would feel like to be inauthentic?  I confess to being at a loss.  Worrying about authenticity seems like the kind of thing Heidigger or Sartre might do, an existential concern with good faith, but nowadays, given the way the world turns, most of us worry more about making ends meet and finding time to read good books.  So: that was my first problem with the 'two paths.'

McCarthy, in spare prose that is encrusted with irony--and by 'irony' I mean what Rorty means, which is the sense that no vocabulary is final, that words are attached to states of mind and of being only provisionally, and detach themselves promptly in the face of life's ceaseless contingencies--and disdains fixed meanings, a prose that abjures the traditional conventions of plot, character, theme, and voice for a philosophical reflection on the nature on happiness.  Imagine what would happen if Slavoj Ziaek (heaven help us) were to write a novel. Things, unspecified, fall on the narrator's head; he is gravely injured, to the extent that he must learn all over how to perform life's simplest tasks (the description of relearning how to eat a carrot is brilliant and typical); the narrator is awarded a huge sum of money as compensation and is able to use this money to construst a repetitive, fanciful, banal, but utterly satisfying existence.  I can't imagine how McCarthy would have constructed a 'pitch' for this book:  Dear Mr. Sunny Metha: My novel is about a man who imagines a perfect life, one he has probably never lived, as consisting in smelling cooked liver and hearing a pianist flub passages from Rachmaninoff.....etc.  No, one can see why it took seven years for this great novel to be published by a mainstream commercial publisher.  The power of the book isn't in the 'story,' it lies instead in the tone, the absolutely affectless prose that is both funny and harrowing--yes, Kafka's Gregor Samsa comes to mind at once, and also Bernhard's endlessly circular sentences that play with theme and variation to the point of madness, and  the cool, mad prose of some of David Foster Wallace's stories from Brief Interview With Hideous Men

Anyway, Zadie Smith asks, in effect, which side are you on?  Do you like O'Neill's mainsteamy but smart story of immigrants and cricket in New York post-9/11, or McCarthy's manifesto-like riffs on the nature of detachment and joy?  And, in her intelligent review that almost persuaded me, Zadie found more to praise in McCarthy than in O'Neill--Remainder is, she thinks, the future of the novel.  In fact, I note that one line of her review to this effect made it on to the front cover of the Vintage paperback of Remainder.  So, Perhaps she is right. 

Or is she?  I find it difficult to make such a choice, or to find much validity the assumption that such a choice is required of readers.  One might read both George Eliot and Kafka in the same day with equal, if different sorts of pleasure. O'Neill's novel, which I found engaging and thoughtful and well-written (and it led me to learn a lot more about cricket),  didn't shake me up as McCarthy's did (I had dreams about Remainder, and I almost never dream about what I read) but my responses had nothing to do with the philosophy or future of fiction and everything to do with the fact that Remainder made different demands on me, demands that I was inclined to capitulate to and that were in accord with my frame of mind at the time I read it. Fictional meaning isn't Platonic, nor is it solely a function of the writer's intentions or of the novel's success in meeting them.  Fiction's power and 'greatness' is contingent upon the reader. It is the reader who appears to be missing from Smith's account of the future of fiction.  She writes on the novel as a writer, not as a reader, not as someone who would (as I do) hate the idea of narrowing the future of fiction to two possible 'paths.' Serious readers are, in my experience, promiscusous, requiring different forms of gratification at different times.  O'Neill's realism, its respect for the conventions of the novel as a mirror of life, might be just the ticket on days when the ground shifts beneath our feet; on the other hand, McCarthy's odd-ball repetitions of events, his refusal to  acknowledge normative rules of conduct or of expectation, his mordant wit, are qualities that might attract a reader who finds himself in a different frame of mind, perhaps more playful, maybe on vacation, or in love, or alone in Prague--who the hell knows?--in any case less attached to the bourgeois/realist conventions that Z. Smith professes to find confining (or does she?  She did, after all, write a wonderful conventional realist novel--after E.M. Forester--On Beauty).

Is it absurd to point out that there is no such thing as "the novel"?  That courses, articles, sections of bookstores, and blogs that purport to treat of the Novel are misleading--that books that call themselves 'novels' are as diversely constructed as human faces, variations on a theme that is as varieagated as life itself?  This past, lucky week, I was able to read Remainder, Tabucchi's Requiem, Jo Ann Beard's In Zanesville, and Michael Connelly's new Harry Bosch mystery, Black Box.  How could one begin to categorize these four diverse books using Smith's "whither the novel" framework?  And each book was wholly satisfying--I loved reading Connelly late at night and then waking up to fifty pages of the smart young woman who narrates Beard's lovely book; and at lunch reading  a dozen pages of Tabucchi's dream-like meditation on Portugal and Pessoa, and then late in the afternoon, after a walk, Tom McCarthy, CEO of the necronautrical society or some such.  I don't want one flavor--I want them all. When it comes to books, I don't want two paths--I want them all.

George Ovitt

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