Zadie Smith on Netherland vs. Remainder

Zadie Smith’s essay in the current New York Review of Books pits Netherland by Joseph O’Neill against Remainder by Tom McCarthy, using the books to represent opposing views on the state of the novel. She writes: 

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.

Smith lays bare the contrast between these novels in her account of how each uses cricket: 

In Netherland cricket symbolized the triumph of the symbol over brute fact (cricket as the deferred promise of the American Dream). In Remainder cricket is pure facticity, which keeps coming at you, carrying death, leaving its mark. Everything must leave a mark. Everything has a material reality. Everything happens in space. As you read it, Remainder makes you preternaturally aware of space, as Robbe-Grillet did in JealousyRemainder‘s obvious progenitor. Like the sportsmen whose processes it describes and admires, Remainder “fill[s] time up with space,” by breaking physical movements, for example, into their component parts, slowing them down; or by examining the layers and textures of a wet, cambered road in Brixton as a series of physical events, rather than emotional symbols. It forces us to recognize space as a nonneutral thing—unlike Realism, which ignores the specificities of space. Realism’s obsession is convincing us that time has passed. It fills space with time.

As you may know, I think Netherland is the best novel of the past few years. As many have noted, it evokes my favorite novel, The Great Gatsby. But is that a bad thing? To execute a form so well that it stands alongside the best of the genre (of lyrical realist fiction)? I’m currently reading Remainder, and it’s equally well-executed, but, as Smith notes, a different type of novel. However, why should that matter? Both novels fall into the realm of realism with one focused on consciousness and one on physicality or factness. Why we must choose one or the other—why one is more valuable than the other just because it’s a less popular book from a newer tradition, I’m not sure. Change in the novel is incremental, not sudden. So, yes, it will take more novels like Remainder to push the form in a new direction. And yes, that is less likely to happen if people aren’t reading and valuing Remainder. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I don’t think the balance is shifting in McCarthy’s favor, but it’s not because of a lack of awareness. Several of the readers I know have read McCarthy’s book, and those who haven’t are familiar with it. The nouveau roman has been around for decades, its principles available to any author with the willingness to pursue them. (For manifestoes, see McCarthy’s International Necronautical Society page.) I don’t have access to Nielsen to compare the sales numbers of the two books Smith cites. What I can say as a reader is that they’re both highly well-written, entertaining, funny books that deserve to be read. Anyhow, it’ll be interesting to see what Smith does next with her own fiction, and I’ll be eagerly anticipating it as I have her previous work. I will post more on this subject soon, including my recent reading of James Wood’s How Fiction Works, which argues for a realism’s large umbrella.

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