Literary realism is dead

Zadie Smith's "NW" charts a bold new path for the novel and offers its readers a unique brand of "authenticity"

Topics: Infinite Jest, Zadie Smith, literature, The New Inquiry, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, NW, ,

Literary realism is dead
This piece originally appeared in The New Inquiry.

We’ve waited seven years for Zadie Smith’s NW, the same number of years it took Joseph O’Neill to write Netherland and for Tom McCarthy to place Remainder with a mainstream publisher. It’s been four years since Smith pitted these two books against each other in her much ballyhooed (and occasionally derided) New York Review of Books essay “Two Paths for the Novel,” where she put all her bets for the novel’s future on the darkest horse in the race, the anti-lyrical avant-garde.

The New Inquiry

In the essay, Smith grounded her argument on the idea of an “ailing literary culture,” lamenting that each and every novel published now clamors to be heard like church bells rung by wild sugar high children: “All novels,” she writes, “attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies.” Whatever the case for previous generations of novelists, today’s writers, she believes, are being herded down the path toward a homoglossic future: “A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.” Smith stops just short of blaming lyrical realism — that pretty literary device that gussies up the verisimilitudinous details of a character’s interior life and external experiences, and the mode in which she had by then already written three novels — for the deterioration of literature’s role in our era’s popular consciousness.

Just as Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 Harper’s essay, “Perchance to Dream” laid bare the social concerns that would dominate the next book he’d publish, 2001′s The Corrections, and David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram” seems to simmer beneath much of Infinite Jest, “Two Paths” now seems like the drawing board for NW. But unlike Franzen’s belligerence about “society” having a deleterious effect on art or “the soul,” or Wallace’s paralyzing concern about the relationship between writers and their television screens,  Smith’s work as both a critic and novelist invites her readers to celebrate the delicious and ever disastrous commingling of the world and the self. She blurs these borders in order to simultaneously honor and disparage art’s greatest article of faith-based flapdoodle: authenticity. It is a really neat trick.

But let me back up a little bit. Smith’s incredible first novel, White Teeth, very much partakes in straight-up lyrical realism, what she calls the “Balzac-Flaubert” mode. It’s a social novel that positions idiomatic — rather than stock — characters in a messy world and then strips both down to perversely specific universals through a strong plot and the soul-level clarity of beautiful language. Though the situations that tie together the Iqbal and Jones families in the book are frequently hyperbolic, not to mention rendered with such historically and personally specific detail, their entanglement feels like a thing bourne of fate rather than chance; Smith created a finely realized portrait of an incredibly particular group of people that somehow also manages to open a space of recognition for her readership. It’s a real Novel of a novel, replete with precious nuggets of an authentic-seeming voice, of authentic characters, of exaggerated situations that function to reveal the interconnectedness of authentic human being.

White Teeth is, as the New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani recently wrote in her review of NW, concerned with the big issues of its day: intergenerational family relationships, the resonant affectations of the postcolonial children of immigrants, class, gender, race, coming of age in a highly mediated world, and the oscillating rhythm of joy and indignity that accompanies any longstanding intimacy among friends, family, or lovers. It is also about, as all narratives must be in some sense, the everyday peculiarities of time and its passage. Despite Kakutani’s implication that Smith’s latest novel lacks the heft of these big ideas, NW (and On Beauty before it) is also about these issues. They form the territory that Smith has always been striving to map, though NW is tighter, and experiments much more radically with form.

NW is principally the story of four denizens, past and present, of a particular government-aided housing complex in the titular quadrant of London. Leah Hanwell, the focus of the first of the book’s five sections, rails against time’s passing. She refuses to contemplate motherhood, even though her husband wants children, because she doesn’t have the desire to take on the responsibility of generation. She’d rather prolong the present indefinitely. Smith crafts Leah’s life through a modernist stream of consciousness, and the effect of Leah going back and forth and inside and outside of herself mixes up the chronology of her life in a way that seems to mirror her desire for stasis. In her intellectual reflections and refractions, Leah happens upon ugly thoughts about how unfair it is that she appears to be aging faster than her husband, and though she both opens and closes the novel in the pose of stillness, she resents her best friend Natalie Blake for the apparently linear momentum of progress that drives Natalie’s accomplished life.

Unlike Leah, Natalie’s desire for a managed and ordered relationship to time is offset by the palimpsest of life. Where Leah wants to stay suspended indefinitely in a present that keeps inching away into the past, Natalie tries to get ahead of herself and erase her own history. She takes on her past and rewrites her life as a clear chronology of success. She unburdens herself of her racially and socioeconomically significant birth name, Keisha, but history catches up with her. No matter how hard she tries to organize her time on earth, to create for herself a measured and progressive narrative, the numbers will never add up to a life.

Novels are an especially apt medium for playing with and among time, and the impulse to use language as a relativity machine is strong in NW. Time in the novel ties itself to space, to the way we move about the world, and the novel unfolds at the exact intersection of back there and back when. Like Big Ben overseeing every page of Virginia Woolf’s modernist classic Mrs. Dalloway, time — even the actual word — haunts NW with a needling and anxious insistence. These textual echolocations with Mrs. Dalloway patinas the novel as a literary artifact with the same shimmer of historical specificity that makes London itself a humbling delight, written over and over again by the people who live there.

The titles of many of the 185 numbered sections that outline the narrative of Natalie’s life hammer at Smith’s preoccupation with time: “16. The new timetable”; “26. Relative time”; “79. The end of history”; “89. Time slows down”; “143. The present”; “148. The future”; “152. The past”; “160. Time speeds up.” These show the ins and outs of time and the ins and outs of what the novel, or this novel, can do to it and through it.

This digressive chunk about Natalie does what Smith does at her best, which is to double back on her reader’s behalf to illustrate anew for us the danger of a mind that’s been made up. Natalie’s ambitions to upwardly mobile herself into class oblivion require her to live in a kind of double time. The hours spent studying to become a barrister, the constant stream of emails once she ascends to the professional class (“Though incredibly fast, her phone was still too slow”), the pace of strident success, her lifelong social climbing, and her biological clock all conspire to collapse time into the rapid succession of so many ladder rungs underfoot. The tiny essays — which depict text messages, the answers to teen-magazine quizzes, dinner menus, the effused materials of a certain kind of life — are illustrative errata that correct the impression the reader will already have of Natalie from Leah.

Where Woolf dealt in the horror of the hours, Smith sets down moments and gels them into years. NW’s characters stand inside of time but try to think or act outside it. Their competing desires for progress and stagnation make for especially rich reading in an era where the phrase “time poor” is a way that people actually describe themselves. In an accelerated culture, we all find ourselves time poor; we all reserve the right to fall into the so-called busy trap, that self-inflicted flurry of obligations by which we can better better imagine the value of our lives. But then again, the poverty of time is part of the human condition. The awareness of time as both linear passage and circuitous rhythm lends a special significance to being, to being here, alive, in this world.

Narrative is how we make sense of this, is the base unit of meaning, the story we can tell ourselves, to help pass the time into something that feels a little less like it’s running away from us. Smith shifts narrative gears throughout each section of NW, and each character is differently equipped to both describe and be described by the chronology of their lives. Of course, it ultimately doesn’t matter; while we may experience time in many different ways, it runs only one course. No amount of narrative construction can ever truly stop it, slow it, or speed it up.

In NW‘s opening chapter, Leah latches onto a phrase she hears on the radio: “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me.” The phrase echoes on the first page and throughout the book. It’s a beautiful slip of nothing, the idea that the self is a collection of definitions, penned not by one’s relationship to the world but by some elementally authentic and impenetrable kernel within each of us.

The novel’s characters all grapple with the self as a transient gossamer thing, easily obliterated and readily rebuilt. They move through time, but then time moves back through them, and the border between outside and inside moves around, becomes more and less permeable. They tell themselves stories both during and after the events that make up their days. Natalie Blake, standing outside of a danger place, rings the bell, “an act she later characterized to herself as ‘leaving her own body.’” Everywhere the self dissolves, and yet what remains is still more, somehow, than mere artifice. Mere images. The images are never quite untethered from the real, and Smith, despite her structural detouring, can’t quite escape some semblance of Realism, can’t discard her innate lyrical gifts.


Now, about authenticity and “Two Paths for the Novel.”

Smith’s anxieties about Realism stem from the realist project to assert “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Her characters are fragmented, and each struggles with clinging to the thread of the self. The formal explorations in each of NW‘s sections reveal a relentless sense of the back-and-forth struggle between the constraints of voice and style and the impulse to break free of them, to mirror the spontaneity of life.

Then again, given Smith’s intense championing of McCarthy’s Remainder, perhaps spontaneity is not precisely the right word. Where NW maps the variable and infinite ways people relate to time, in all of its trickling and flooding, through both plot and form,  Remainder is hinged on a single idea and depicts a narrator faced with the opportunity to take control of that particular river. Smith call’s McCarthy’s nameless main character The Reenactor — a play on one of Remainder‘s many internal jokes, because his function is to build and then enact the novel you find yourself reading. Unlike a conventional Realist protagonist, The Reenactor is completely free to author his own plot.

Both Remainder and NW are written against Realism. And both are preoccupied with time and its constructions. McCarthy’s Reenactor manufactures artificial moments of experience that he can endlessly repeat, each detail so choreographed and rehearsed that it becomes a controlled second nature. In one scene, he’s lying on the floor of a building he’s had rebuilt from memory. He watches the sun travel across the space for an afternoon, reveling in how exactly this journey matches some authentic feeling he’s had before. When he next repeats the exercise, trying to restage that moment of feeling, he finds he can’t: it’s later in the year, and the sun has moved farther away from the earth,changing the quality and duration of the light’s path across the tile. Time has passed, and it is the one element beyond his control — it cannot be made or remade, authentically or inauthentically.

In “Two Paths,” Smith praises Remainder for how the novel empties its characters of their interiority, how it uproots and denies the idea of a solidly authentic inner self. Smith does something similar in NW: Natalie worries that she’s managed to go her whole life without developing much of a personality, and Leah wants, perhaps too much, or for hollow reasons, to keep it real and stay near her working class roots. But time keeps happening to them, and they move on with that inevitable flow, somehow real and full of their selves, even when they thought they’d managed to self-annihilate through drugs or sex or dancing or whichever way one goes about losing oneself. They still manage to trudge through the other side of oblivion with a self still intact. It’s as if time, in all of its varying speed and slowness, is the thing that ties that tenuously grasped slip of a thing, the self, to each body. Events happen, time happens, in various ways, but its the narrative imposed by time that ties these factors to that little golden ticket of the self. Time is also what ties Leah and Natalie together, and is the one thing that prevents the Reenactor from being able to organize a one-hundred percent artificially authentic moment.


Franzen’s “Perchance to Dream” is a premature swan song for literature as it passes out of fashion in consumer culture and allegedly becomes overwhelmed by the world’s proliferating materiality. For Franzen, the problem was overstimulation, and his worry seems to have stemmed from his perception that the world had become too big to write down. (After taking a year off to gather material for his third novel, Franzen returned to fiction thinking he may not have acquired enough. “But”, he wrote, “the problem manifested itself as just the opposite: an overload.”) It’s no wonder the man refuses to tweet.

David Foster Wallace also wrote an essay on the future of fiction to work out many of the issues that would dominate the novel he was then working on. His 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram” reads like an equivocating cry against television, while much of Infinite Jest describes the medium’s exquisitely satisfying dangers. Wallace argued that TV programming had by then adopted and perfected so many techniques that had once seemed unique to fiction; whereas once only writers were “ooglers,”  people who accumulate details through constant voyeurism, Wallace claimed television had made ooglers of us all, and worse, had collapsed the distance between authentic experience and watching artificial experience. The problem for novelists, he wrote, is that they will cull from television rather than life for their art. It’s just too easy not to.

Smith’s “Two Paths” picks up where Wallace leaves us, still concerned with the great burden of authentic watching and its corollary, the seemingly inauthentic watching of the self. The central thrust of “Two Paths” resounds with the decade-long echo of Wallace’s claim in “E Unibus Pluram” that realism is no longer a fitting strategy for telling stories about a world which has rapidly become less real. Wallace wrote,

one of realistic fiction’s big jobs used to be to afford easements across borders, to help readers leap over the walls of self and locale and show us unseen or dreamed-of people and cultures and ways to be. Realism made the strange familiar. Today, when we can eat Tex-Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching a Soviet-satellite newscast of the Berlin Wall’s Fall — i.e., when damn near everything presents itself as familiar — it’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious Realist fiction is going about trying to make the familiar strange.

Compare Smith’s major indictment against Realism, by way of Netherland:

An interesting thought is trying to reach us here, but the ghost of the literary burns it away, 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?

Smith and Wallace both come up against the new, worried that it’s impossible to build solid novels, let alone the future, with lyrical realism’s rusty old tools. Wallace coined the term Image-fiction (which, thankfully, hasn’t much caught on) to semi-disparagingly describe the work of his contemporaries: a reliance on the distances permitted by images of things rather than the things themselves to generate a perpetual irony of engagement — which is but more distance, bringing writers and readers further away from each other and from their own “authentic” selves. Smith, for her part, upbraids Netherland for trying too hard to have it both ways. Though she finds O’Neill’s novel possessed of a new sort of lyric irony questioning its own motives, she’s dismayed to find that “in the end Netherland wants always to comfort us, to assure us of our beautiful plenitude.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Smith would advocate so fiercely for Tom McCarthy’s Remainder as  harbinger of the novel’s future. Remainder is, by design, the most authentic piece of plain-prose Image-fiction ever written. Her infatuation with McCarthy’s Remainder stems from a desire to do away with a realism modeled on authenticity and novelty. In Remainder the narrator tries to reactualize a faded memory, ambiguously built from a lifetime of sensual, cinematic, and otherwise imagined experiences. The point in time he is trying to recreate, whether it ever existed or not, is the only point in his memory where he felt free from artifice in his actions. It’s the only way he can picture himself unburdened by the double awareness of being watched and thus always watching himself. If he builds this moment by artificial means, he’ll be able to inhabit that moment of authenticity. One could read Remainder as an allegory for the Realist novel. Here is a person building a fake world in order to experience real feeling. Isn’t that precisely what novelists do?

NW occupies a very different space from Remainder. Even though she wrote against the “adjectival mania” of lyrical realism, Smith seemingly can’t help but to use language in a way that honors its grand scope. At one point, Felix, one of the four core characters of NW whose presence is the ghost of his history in the titular neighborhood, sees a stranger “through a mullioned, glittering window sitting on a leather pouffe, trying on one of those green jackets, waxy like a tablecloth, with the tartan inside.” Later, Smith describes afternoon tea as a highlight in the “lethal quiet” of Leah’s childhood home. No, Smith was never ready to abandon the luscious and incantatory powers of rich language.

Perhaps it’s a sign that our literary culture is not quite so ailing that Smith managed to make a space for NW, to clear a third path, one that meanders through Willesden, through time, and through the mind. The book, by the way, is really good. It’s her most authentic yet.

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