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Part 2: Netherland, Lyrical Realism, and the flip flops of Zadie Smith

Image from here.

In a recent NYRB article, Zadie Smith praises what requires criticism, and criticizes what deserves praise, erects straw men in order, simply, to blow them over, and presents arguments, which, when valid, are so for the wrong reasons. Her thinking is convoluted and self contradicting. Of course, the ‘real’ world is like this. Writing, non-fiction at least, shouldn’t be. And so, we strive here for clarification.   

 

Flip

Smith starts off her highly touted review/treatise by disingenuously calling Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland too perfect. “ 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.”

So, the painted portrait busts an artery because it can’t replicate ‘reality’ as perfectly as the snap shot? …Like the photograph, O’Neill’s book transcends all that literary, painterly nonsense…cuts through and eliminates the phony looking baroque brushstrokes? Thanks to superior new technology, or superior use of what exists, we get the real world? But…a real world that is too close a reflection of real life…such that it makes writers who use archaic adjectives go crazy? Want to kill themselves? Netherland so precisely follows established rules, creates a fictive world so attuned to what the establishment says fiction should produce, that it achieves something so close to reality…that it makes everything which precedes it look fake?

This really is a messy breakfast, though, very much in line with the rest of Smith’s article. This, for example, looks good:

Flop

Most practitioners of ‘lyrical’ Realism blithely continue on their merry road, with not a metaphysical care in the world, and few of them write as finely as Joseph O’Neill. I have written in this tradition myself, and cautiously hope for its survival, but if it’s to survive, lyrical Realists will have to push a little harder on their subject.

Flip

This doesn’t: Everything must be made literary. Nothing escapes. On TV "dark Baghdad glitter[s] with American bombs." Even the mini traumas of a middle-class life are given the high lyrical treatment, in what feels, at its best, like a grim satire on the profound fatuity of twenty-first-century bourgeois existence.

Flop

But Netherland we are told is not ‘lyrical’ realism perfectly cooked, if slightly over done, but a "meditation" on “identities both personal and national, immigrant relations, terror, anxiety, the attack of futility on the human consciousness and the defense against same: meaning. In other words, it’s the post–September 11 novel we hoped for.”

Flip

Really? Well, no. Because Netherand isn’t about this. It’s about authenticity. It sits at “ an anxiety crossroads where a community in recent crisis—the Anglo-American liberal middle class—meets a literary form in long-term crisis, the nineteenth-century lyrical Realism of Balzac and Flaubert.”

Flop

The sit is however, short lived, for, from this crossroads, Smith drives the book directly down Robbe Grillet boulevard; Netherland is a novel, she informs us, in which objects are nothing but “ vague reflection[s] of the hero’s vague soul, the image of his torments, the shadow of his desires; filled,[ it is], with adjectives which unite all the inner qualities, the entire hidden soul of things,” and random details conferring authenticity which nonetheless in a strange way “makes you wish for [Duchamp’s] urinals;” Grillet’s bette noir, it’s a too perfect example of dominant, establishment [read James]-condoned and celebrated [Wood]writing…

Flip

But wait, we’re now back crediting Netherland for being so anxious. Netherland recognizes the tenuous nature of a self, that "fine white thread running, through years and years," and Hans flirts with the possibility that language may not precisely describe the world ("I was assaulted by the notion, arriving in the form of a terrifying stroke of consciousness, that substance—everything of so called concreteness—was indistinct from its unnameable opposite").

Flop

…but in the end Netherland wants always to comfort us, to assure us of our beautiful plenitude, despite, Smith says, flirting with one of Philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s ideas, who, in his Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, passes quickly and dismissively over exactly this personal fullness we hold so dear in the literary arts ("You know…the wealth of human personality and so on and so forth…"), directing our attention instead to those cinematic masters of the anti-sublime (Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, David Lynch) who ‘look into the eyes of the Other and see no self at all, only an unknowable absence, an abyss.’

Flip

…but the ghost of the literary burns Zizek’s idea away, Smith suggests, leaving only its remainder: a nicely constructed sentence, rich in sound and syntax, signifying (almost) nothing. “Netherland doesn’t really want to know about misapprehension. It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?”

Flop

Evidently not, but still, according to Smith “In the end what is impressive about Netherland is how precisely it knows the fears and weaknesses of its readers.”

Flip

“What is disappointing is how much it indulges them. Out of a familiar love, like a lapsed High Anglican, Netherland hangs on to the rituals and garments of transcendence, though it well knows they are empty.”

***

So, to summarize, if Netherland hadn’t been so damned flowery, hadn’t gone spiraling off with sentences plieing about in the clouds and fields all the time; had drawn a character less interested in such silly items as love and fatherhood and security, more interested in self destruction, nullity and meaninglessness…and finished off with a suicide, described monosyllabically, and free of adjectives, then perhaps the book would have signified something?

***
I agree that dousing Netherland with the accolades it’s been receiving only perpetuates the production of more of the same…which in turn discourages experimentation. But to equate Netherland with truly great ‘realistic’ (lyrical or otherwise) novels; to say it is too good to be true… and then use it to condemn the entire genre, is disingenuous.

Netherland is not too perfect. It isn’t ‘so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction.’ As stated in a previous post, not enough is done to establish a connection with the novel’s characters to make the reader care, and the plot is weak. The book lacks complexity in my opinion. Moral dilemmas are missing.   

This book has received juggernauts of praise. Some justified, because it clearly has merits, much not. Just as Trogus wasps gut the innards of Swallowtail Chrysalids, so, unwarranted adulatory praise eviscerates the meaning from words, leaving empty shells… Netherland contains some beautiful phrasing…it is thickly inked with ‘literary language’ … but this is not enough…

***

Criticism is better aimed first at hyperbolic publicity machines and sycophantic/rope towing literary critics, and second, at capitalism, and a system of boosterism which pours praise on everything that is published, provides little incentive to genuinely inventive experimental writers, and fails to recognize the fact that great novels, [many of them, yes, ‘realist,’] simply are not produced every year, not even every decade. 

 

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One Response to “Part 2: Netherland, Lyrical Realism, and the flip flops of Zadie Smith”

  1. PHP Application Development Says:

    Hi There,
    A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time, A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway

    Thanks,
    Mick

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