Zadie Smith on Joseph O’Neill

(Cross-posted at Plasma Pool.)

After reading Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland, I took a look at Zadie Smith’s fascinating take-down — “Two Paths for the Novel” in the NYRB — of O’Neill as a representative of what she calls “lyrical Realism,” a review which might be characterized as an indirect attack on the brand of Realism most commonly associated with James Wood — lyrical, (apparently) apolitical, overly committed to models of deep subjectivity as the marker of the Real. The problem with O’Neill, for Smith, is perhaps that he writes too well; he is a too-perfect embodiment of what we want from what we sometimes take to calling Realism. Every time a political question comes up, he artfully diverts his narrator’s attention to the beauty of cantilevered clouds or some such aesthetic thing.

I am of two minds regarding this review. One mind is satisfied that Smith conducts a relatively sharp reading of the many ways O’Neill defers his novel’s — potentially hackneyed — theme and materials through various forms of mediating irony and self-aware qualification. Rather than have Hans, his narrator, come out and say that he wants to use cricket as an allegory of assimilation into the U.S. (we all learn the rules of the game! rah rah democracy!), he places such choice declarations into the mouth of the character of the self-consciously “post-colonial” (to use James Wood’s term, though he is perhaps better described as merely cheerfully colonial) Chuck Ramkissoon. Smith is, additionally, very smart when describing the ways political material gets startlingly excised from the realm of the Real. Hans wonders: “Did Iraq have weapons of mass destruction that posed a real threat? I had no idea; and to be truthful, and to touch on my real difficulty, I had little interest. I didn’t really care.” Worried about the Iraq war? Well, let’s take a moment to reflect on the beauty of clouds… Was there something about a war you were discussing? Though Smith doesn’t say so, the novel also fails — more grievously in my view — to build a compelling narrative justification for Hans’ interest in Chuck by its end, and so — I think — fails even on its own highly aestheticized terms. There are plenty of pretty sentences, though. Hundreds of pages’ worth. Overall, I actually really liked the novel, though my opinion of the book is not my subject here.

Says my other mind, Smith’s attack on this mythical beast, capital-R Realism — and her celebration of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder as one of its most promising anti-types — remains underdeveloped (though I do come away from her article very eager to read McCarthy’s novel). What, in Smith’s view, prevents a thriving Realism from coexisting happily with forms of anti-Realism? The answer is, as Smith has to acknowledge, nothing: “In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene.” What’s the real problem with Realism, then? I’d argue that Smith is not really attacking “lyrical Realism” as a theoretical approach to getting at what’s real — deep subjectivities or infinitely nuanced personalities or whatever the real happens to be constituted by this week — but rather is expressing her frustration with a set of established literary-critical institutions — publishers, reviewers, readers, (some) scholars — that lavish too much prestige upon it (Realism) at the expense of more experimental modes, institutions that moreover assign authenticity to certain identities at the expense of others. The literary pie is small, she seems to be saying, and we’re all scrounging around for whatever crumbs we can find.

But, as Fredric Jameson has pointed out, the term Realism uncomfortably conflates an epistemology with a genre. Genres have histories — they rise, they fall, sometimes they rise again — but epistemologies, though historically constrained, must by necessity claim to have an objective, if still contingent, character. Smith’s claim against lyrical Realism is based on an assessment of the failure of the literary marketplace to sustain multiple roads, but the particulars of her attack grow out of an assessment of the particular epistemic failures of focusing on deep subjectivity and hypercomplex personalities as the expense of the political, the existential, and other dimensions of the Real.

And yet by admitting that in fatter times we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, Smith admits in essence that there is no theoretical reason why O’Neill can’t write a Realist novel today, lyrical or otherwise. Indeed, individuals are free to write pretty much anything they want whenever they want, from whatever epistemic vantage point they prefer. There are only institutional barriers to his doing so, and a system of publishing — and power — that values what he does a certain way. Ditto for McCarthy’s anti-Realism. Smith’s failure to distinguish clearly — or rather her rapid oscillation — between epistemic and literary-institutional definitions of Realism and her assertion (without evidence) that literary publishing is in straights very dire indeed seem to me to be the biggest weaknesses in an otherwise good overview of some pressing representational choices facing writer folk today.

I’m not quite sure what we’re left with once we’ve made that distinction. A call to reform the publishing industry? A reeducation of the reader? An expansion of minds of critics? All of these would be worthy goals, but would have little to do with Realism as such and everything to do with the structures (political, economic, social, etc.) that value it. And: What reforms? What reeducation? What precise sort of mind-expansion?