Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Zadie Smith on Two Ways for the Novel

My friend and colleague, writer Sam Thorp, alerted me to this which to my shame I missed, an insightful article by Zadie Smith for the New York Review of Books, in which she compares Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and Remainder by Tom McCarthy, and the ways in which they represent two warring strands in what she calles 'our ailing literary culture':
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...)

To my mind this article is spot-on. Thanks to Mark Thwaite for the link.

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