THIS IS PROBABLY a mistake, and you should stop reading here. A young novelist without a published novel decides to write on Zadie Smith’s NW and “Two Paths for the Novel” in hopes of getting some answers to her own writing? Save yourself. Turn back now. Though, if you keep reading I can promise you no discussion of process (at least, none of my own).
I am writing this because I am bored (read: struggling) with my own novel but also more than that with the very idea of writing novels, and because I’m jealous too, not of Zadie Smith (this won’t – at least, I don’t think it will – be a take down of her) but of artists, you know, visual artists, and how they get to think about form. Why is that question of form so rare in books? This is the reason I appreciated Two Paths, her essay which, to summarize very, very briefly, laid out the case for the novel (as an institution) between what she calls “lyrical realism” (you know, the novel with lots of description and interiority) vs. something that might be called “modernist” or “postmodernist.” Those are what she terms the “avant-garde” path.
PISS ON THIS
In the essay it’s a slugfest line for line and plotline for plotline (even cricket is up for grabs) between Netherland and its dense descriptions and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (which does not have dense descriptions, let us say, which creates character more as a schematic and plot as something undone, redone, repeated like a Freudian trauma). One book comes from what she calls the Balzac/Flaubert school; the other the Robbe-Grillet école, but, you know, we could lay it all back to Fielding and Austen on the one hand, and Laurence Sterne and Tristram Shandy on the other. So, the idea that one is avant garde and the other not is a bit misleading even if we want to scotch the idea of Sterne being the postmodernist predecessor. (Instead, should we let the modernists / postmodernists – whichever name you prefer – begin with Woolf and Joyce, we’re still talking about a nearly 100-year trajectory).
Q: What does this mean to question form now?
I keep throwing this idea back onto art, and maybe if we think of conceptual art originating with Duchamp and his urinal, this becomes easier for me. After he put out his readymade and called it “Fountain,” recontextualizing a toilet, form became an issue for art forever on. So, form is old hat for artists, and now it’s always up for grabs. What interests me is how with art the very question of what shape something takes is inherent to the process, and that form says something about the larger piece and its meaning. Just using examples from the New Museum’s Triennial this year, art can be sagging canvas like a tent representing a bedroom in Beirut or a stack of Zimbabwean money or a Venn diagram in pale pink and blue….
And, it’s almost joke; I, a writer, long for formal freedoms, while most of that conceptual art takes writing to explain: the press release, the didactic text…. Somehow though art is allowed to have multiple, multifarious, non-synchronous meanings, and the novel often seems to prevent that. The very nature of narrative is to create order, and books (those postmodernist ones, like Remainder) that question it can seem trite and tricksy – clever but missing the depth I long for in novels. Maybe, we should just cut to the chase and say visual art is more like poetry, and I can be done with it. I am, however, not a poet. And, I do write about art, and this conflict between art and fiction weighs on me. Not to mention my novel.
I’m increasingly worried about a small seam of space between what I see in contemporary art and the expectations of novels, realist novels. EG: They should be full of descriptions, many of which feel overstuffed, and follow a kind of teleology that moves like this: stasis, problem, new realization; stasis, problem, new realization, ad infinitum to the end. This isn’t to say I want picaresques either. They drive me nuts, but the novel as I learned it in my MFA program and various workshops feels formulaic, inevitable – and more than that, inexorable. So at a time when art is conceptual, when even painting “problematizes” what it paints, art feels more true to life as it’s lived, that is to say, discontinuous and multifarious. Art feels like it has the possibility to sum up our world today in a more incisive way, even if you need writing as a way in. Meanwhile, writing fiction feels too representational, like I’m working in the academy system in France at the end of the 19th century and making history paintings. A friend of mine who’s a successful sculptor has told me I’m romanticizing art, and the art world is just as hidebound. Maybe, but it doesn’t have what I call Sad Pigeon Syndrome.
Q: Can form in writing say something inherently true about us or our moment without having to rely on the font of character?
THE SAD PIGEON
Here is my problem, and I think it’s also Smith’s problem, though she looked at it as a binary choice: two paths, one right, one wrong, right or left. I’m not sure that’s better. I don’t want this or that, x or y. She tried to solve this in NW—a novel about which I feel both Hurray! and Horror! in equal parts. In it she tells a story that is sort of a mystery, sort of a story of friendship, sort of a story of class and striving, and clearly about a certain corner of northwest London. The NW of the title is the first part of a postcode. She uses voice and characters to explore the multifarious experience of the city. My Hurray! is for the exploration at the heart of the book and for the many parts I truly like. Her voice is infectious, and she captures sounds and people, scenes and smells with a deftness and humor that is warm and just plain old great. The Horror! is where her experiment doesn’t work, which is about half the book. Character often gets reduced to something flat and nearly binary, as if the two paths, the either/or, left her stuck. As if, in fact, she sacrificed character to form, or picked form over function. But, I want (in that old modernist dictate) Form to Follow Function.
So, here are my issues (issues like therapy issues):
• I like character.
• I like characters to pull me in and allow me to question my notions of people and self (theirs, mine, others). This, I find, pleasurable and meaningful, which, right or wrong, is commonly seen as the larger goal of writing and reading in today’s fiction.
• I believe (this “believe” is a bit like a credo maybe like the Nicene Creed, but we all tell ourselves what we need to get by) story is a deep need, that narrative draws us in. It’s key to who we are. I have no proof for this. Remember, this is creed and perhaps about as believable as the idea of three forms of God or God in general.
• Next, I say to myself: “And so it goes all the way back to the stories of the Odyssey and Iliad.” Yes, story. Sitting there around some fire with Homer? Story.
BORGES’ SAD PIGEON’S MAP
This is the kind of argument people bring up to prove out the endless need for story. There’s also Aristotle talking about the “delight” we get from mimetic forms in literature, that this is a deep human need, that this defines us as humans. But, his take some two thousand years ago is as relevant to my point as, say, cave paintings to contemporary art (or, erotic lekythos to Jeff Koons. And, God, there should be a link there.) It’s as if there’s a straight line from Homer to Roth to Updike. One (Homer), however, is not bound up in detail as the agency of character or, as I call it, Sad Pigeon Syndrome, where the pigeon outside the window is solely there to reflect back a character’s emotional state. Please. And, details used ad infinitum to let us into a character’s point of view? It is pounded into us as writers that each character is individual (a bit like that line about how no two snowflakes are the same, which by the way isn’t true), and each character is supposed to experience everything in her fictional world in her own idiosyncratic way, so all those telling details can be brought into action to let us, the reader, into her point of view at any one time.
As writers and teachers of writing, our addiction to this idea of detail reminds me of Borges’ map. You know the one of the territory that wasn’t to scale but the scale was one to one, and the map was the same size as the area it purported to describe? I feel like we’re in danger of doing that with description in novels. Soon we’ll recreate entire rooms life-size, almost like virtual reality, and a novel will literally be the size of the house, the size of the car, the size of a character’s street.
Also, I don’t believe all those huddled around the fire with Homer heard him talk about the sad pigeon or how Achilles stroked his stubble pensively or whether it was salted with gray, and how Odysseus stared at Penelope’s unstrung weaving and came unstrung himself with love. There was of course the “rosy fingered dawn.” That dawn though had nothing to do with character.
So, I want a novel to question form, and I don’t think genre or voice is a formal choice. I want the novel to express a multifarious experience. I also want a pleasant reading experience, and I want to get lost in character. I want to weep. I want to identify – all of which is clearly too much to put on a novel. And, I had high hopes of NW starting with Two Paths and then onto the New Yorker’s excerpt and Laura Miller’s review in Salon. I wanted to love this as a “project,” itself a very contemporary-art term, but I can’t I. I love the idea of it more than the thing itself, and the only part I really love is the character Felix Cooper who feels frail and human and full. He’s in the section that’s written as realism.
In the sections where Smith resists realism, it’s as if she refuses to give her main characters those things that make the fleeting Felix, with whom we spend less than a day, feel rich. It’s like she won’t fill in the gaps that let us sympathize with her two main characters, Leah and Keisha/Natalie, and their conflicting desires. And, I believe (back to credo-type belief, here) that conflicting desires are what make us human and rich.
Instead, Leah gets a very Woolfian stream of consciousness and a lovely shorthand way of experiencing the city. The details are urgent and impressionistic and feel indebted to their place. Keisha/Natalie’s section is numbered; some entries are even simply lists. One item is literally the menu from a dinner party, and between numbers 58 and 59 she changes her name to the more race-neutral Natalie. Her decision isn’t shown. The name simply changes and you have to follow, but eliding the moment works well. It captures her alienation and confusion and the race/class issues, as does the entire numbering tactic, that is, until she graduates. Which is where the New Yorker excerpt ends. After that, the older she gets, the numbers start to let Natalie down as she becomes a deeply narcissistic self-loathing barrister. Smith’s formal choices don’t give the characters space to be good and bad, and in reading these sections, it feels like the liberal-humanist project that is the novel today is lost. And, not for the better.
TO THINE OWN SELF
She wrote in “Two Paths” about characters: “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? [To which I’d say no, but her whole novel is about childhood as destiny, as good a realist fiction subject as ever there has been.] Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered like this in the verbal fancy of times past?”
Reading this I think, Yeah! Kick out the effing sad pigeon, Ms. Smith. Get rid of the notion of a continuous self. But, I also see a defense being written of Leah and Natalie and their rather intolerable selves and choices. She leaves both in a precarious place at the end of the book, though their friendship, is, at least, in tact. I also wonder to use an example from realism, did Lily Bart seek her good? Or any of Jean Rhys’s women? Maybe Smith is talking about how narrative sets up a continuity, an evolution, which isn’t true to how people really are. So, do we need that narrative continuity to engage us in a story?
(WHITE MAN) IN HAMMERSMITH PALAIS (with thanks to The Clash)
Half the problem with NW isn’t form, it’s my problem with bourgy writing, and I don’t mean that thing where novels are essentially bourgeois forms (beginning, middle and end, or, put it another way: a disruption of the status quo and then a return to a new status quo). I’m talking instead about the post-economic-meltdown-Great-Recession fiction that concerns itself with narcissistic rich and upper middle class people doing irritating things and having high-class moral dilemmas. I don’t like those people in real life, so why would I want to spend my days (well, evenings) reading about them?
Somehow struggling middle-class Rabbit Angstrom – overwhelmed by his life and making bad choices, going off with a hooker and abandoning the pregnant and slack Janice – is much more sympathetic than a woman who loves her dog exorbitantly and no one else enough (Leah) or another (Natalie) who deadens herself to herself to escape her poor past and ends up unable to engage in the world. And, this is her downfall, she’s rich and emotionally deadened. She’s so self-absorbed, it’s hard to care what happens to her, and this isn’t about form but a kind of fiction from Jonathan Dee to John Lanchester to Jonathan Franzen and his Freedom. I don’t want to read about bourgeois people with the humanity drained from them. Maybe that writing is actually revolutionary, because we are supposed to hate them. It just feels to me like too much time with the Ryans and Romneys of the world.
“AUTHENTICITY” (Note the quotes).
“Authentic” and “authenticity” are used 22 times in the essay. I’m not sure what she means by them. Authenticity is one of those words that’s in vogue now, particularly with “truth” and “real” being questionable notions. So, I think “authenticity” is that word smart people, smart people who’ve done enough postmodern theory to read Baudrillard, use when they kind-of really mean a) the truth b) the real c) new or d) original. In the essay her meaning seems to slip between all of the above, and I think she means capturing something that feels true or essential to our time. One place where she uses the A-word is here:
“For though these novels [Netherland and Remainder] seem far apart, their authors [O’Neill and McCarthy] are curiously similar. Similar age, similar class, one went to Oxford, the other Cambridge, both are by now a part of the publishing mainstream, share a fondness for cricket, and are subject to a typically British class/race anxiety that has left its residue [also she doesn’t say both are white]. A flashback-inclined Freudian might conjure up the image of two brilliant young men, straight out of college, both eager to write the Novel of the Future, who discover, to their great dismay, that the authenticity baton (which is, of course, entirely phony) has been passed on. Passed to women, to those of color, to people of different sexualities, to people from far-off, war-torn places. The frustrated sense of having come to the authenticity party exactly a century late!”
This quote troubles me. First, authenticity for O’Neill becomes interiority and for McCarthy about form. Then, there’s the “authenticity baton,”a weird enough image. I’m picturing the Olympic 400-meter relay here. And this baton is “phony.” It also “has been passed on.” So, she’s both saying it isn’t real and that it is. How else could it pass on? Someone has to believe in it, or act like he does. She is also commenting on the crisis of originality for writers and that quest to come up with something that matters, at the same time she’s talking about white guilt or maybe white guys’ jealousy about not being where the action is any more, or at least not being able to tell “new” stories from the supposed point of view of their own experience.
Now I get this kind of anxiety over originality. Writing is an act of anxiety, I’m convinced. It can feel like you have nothing new to say, nothing authentic to offer up. I think this is part of the curse of writing, but I bet visual artists get this too. You spend all this time alone doing this thing and have no idea if it’s going to be any good (certainly true for a young writer. Philip Roth might not have this problem) and you get hung up on whether whatever you’re suffering over matters. It’s a short hop from “matters” to originality. And then from originality to authenticity. It’s also very easy when we’re doing these short hops for the realist novel with all its rules and sad-pigeon character details to feel played out. Inexorable. Plot too with its structure of stasis, problem, new stasis. So, in all this, it’s easy to want to be new, to go after the authentic. What is that though?
In that long quote, above authenticity = the other. Just before that however, Smith writes about how O’Neill and McCarthy both slid in weird non-white characters who felt, well, tokenistic. The place of authenticity in Netherland is with the brown Asian man who shows the alienated rich white guy the way back to the truth via cricket. Meanwhile in Remainder another Asian man has a similar (ish) role, though the truth is all Baudrillardian simulation. He even talks about cricket with the main character, only here cricket = death. Those nice brown men as conduits of truth is troubling. I think that Smith’s anxiety over authenticity isn’t just this. Remember the 22 times she says it? I think it’s also about herself and her writing. She longs to write the thing that matters, but it goes deeper than that.
In 2009 she gave a lecture where she mourns the loss of her authentic voice. She went to Cambridge and her speech changed, became posh; she lost herself (this sounds remarkably like Natalie’s transformation, just Smith was at a better school). She describes how class and speech are entwined in the UK, and she wishes she still had that youthful voice, her authentic self. The talk is also a thoughtful meditation on this-or-thatness and choices one makes if, like her or President Obama, you’re mixed race.
The lecture ends on election night in 2008 when Obama is voted in. She’s at a tony party in NYC and is torn because she can’t go to a bar in Harlem. She’s anxious about going uptown with her fancy speech and fancy dress (by which I mean not the UK version, aka a costume, but the US one as in a fashionable dress). And, reading the lecture, I think, Really? You think the people of Harlem at this little reggae bar can’t discern the codes? Also who cares? Just go.
The lecture also makes me think about NW where she does a great job of channeling voices that sound to me like genuine London speech as I hear it now. And, I wonder: don’t we all lose our authentic voices, aka that teen slangy speech, as we get older? But, I appreciate what she’s saying. I don’t want to give her a hard time for it. I also know she’s read Deleuze, so I wonder why she doesn’t feel she can have multiple selves, and all of them are part of her? In NW she is clearly showing how we are products of our background and that background continues to define us.
So, back to “Two Paths”, two voices, this or that, one will win out over the other –speech, narrative, form. Part of Smith’s answer to the authenticity anxiety is to try out forms that feel true to lived experience and consciousness now. I would say that that this consciousness as captured in NW often feels like it could have been written in other decades, though her details are bang of the moment. I also think about writers who’ve played with form recently but not (so far as I can tell) been caught up in discussing their choices, or what they mean. Or, that they’re a path. Off the top of my head there’s, of course, Jennifer Egan as well as Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story where the husband of a meth addict does a kind of multiple choice list to figure out how to deal with her addiction, or even in the crime “genre” the harrowing (it’s still with me) So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman. It uses multiple voices, tape transcripts, etc to tell a story of violence against women. Also I keep thinking of Craig Taylor and his fine oral history Londoners. Now it’s not “avant garde” though in Smith’s definition, which seems to mean rarely-used form, it could be. Few oral histories are written, and his feels radical. Londoners also aims to capture the multifarious polyglot nature of the city. He said about it one time we were talking:
I think with nonfiction you’re allowed to surprise people in a way you can’t with a novel. Some of these stories here would seem impossible or just ludicrous in a novel, like they couldn’t exist. The wonderful thing about nonfiction is that those people do exist, and sometimes that’s the hard thing for novelists writing about London. They choose these archetypes, and I didn’t have to do that. I just went with the real people who are in my mind infinitely more surprising and rich in their experiences.
The more I look at what oral history can do though, the more I think it’s a kind of avant garde form [see, that word!]. You’re able to do stuff a novel just can’t. There have been some books that have come out about the city recently. Well, there are always books coming out about London and other cities, and the novels are run by these rules where characters have to meet up or their lives have to intersect. The great thing about this book is that no one is going to ever ask me why the plumber never met the banker or why the dominatrix never showed up and talked to the ex-dockman.
This form can carry the depth of fiction, but it can do stuff that the novel just can’t. It can smash itself into these eighty, ninety different pieces and never cohere because the real city doesn’t. The person you meet on the first day, that cab driver who picks you up when you come to the city, isn’t the one who takes you to the airport on the day you leave because cities don’t cohere to that sort of thing. I think the form – this collage of voices – can be a very freeing way of telling a story. At times when the novel feels a bit stale, I love having this ability to do things differently from what a novelist would be bound to do.
Those quotes stick with me. He’s got authenticity (the people are real), and if it’s authenticity in terms of the “baton” Smith mentioned, take the gay Iranian stowaway. Taylor also lets those others speak in their own voices. He gets out of the way, and the result reads like a round, and it pulls you in.
So … here I am. I have no answers. Christ, will I ever? Sorry, if you’ve read this far with me (3870 words and counting). The Weeklings is about the essay as in essayer, meaning to try, and I am trying to figure this out. I am trying to write a novel that “matters,” that absorbs the reader and seems true to the lives I want to describe.
I have some jealousy over art.
I am writing about my small town in upstate New York in the New York City watershed. People here often live at the poverty line; the region is gutted, in a sense, by tourism, and then the city acts here a bit like a colonial power. It wants a natural resource (water) cheap and challenges its tax rates to keep it so, while maintaining its own police force here, some 150 miles away from Manhattan. And, that’s just the backdrop. There are the people and the weather and small town life. I want to capture the longing to live here if you’re not from here and the need to leave if you are so you can make a living and how, if you do, you long to return. My characters include a methed up former conceptual artist (wouldn’t you know?) and a former hydrologist turned cop for the city and two kids who are poor and struggling to figure things out.
But, maybe Craig is right? I think of the stories here I couldn’t make up: The former high-class escort who is a pillar of the community, or the dairy farmer mortgaged to the hilt struggling to keep the family farm, or the nurse who came here from Brixton (like me) via Jamaica. She’s a hellfire and brimstone woman, part of the 1950s Jamaican diaspora who arrives in rural New York, helping the town in the 1960s confront its own racism. I mean, those are stories I am eager to tell. And, they are authentic. Maybe what “it” (the it I’m searching for) is in part I write because I like these stories. I like people. I like their warmth and failures and striving. All of which has been said before. It’s a common theme in literarture now. Just pick up pretty much any Russell Banks book. But, there is this trouble I have where if few people are reading books, if the market is smaller and the money poorer, maybe it is a good time to play around and push those boundaries to figure out, like Smith does, how to write something where form feels true to place or experience. Maybe I can do more to capture the characters and voices and the place. Maybe.
[With many thanks to Kwame Dawes and to Sam Byers, who let me rant on about the Sad Pigeon to him for a month in September over email and in return offered up his very lucid thoughts on form and fiction.]