Post Road Magazine #29

Thinking about Zadie Smith

Ryan McIlvain

To take the roundabout way to Zadie Smith—monumentally talented, restless, self-devouring, an Uroboros of a writer—I could start with the equally talented and restless John Barth. His 1967 essay-manifesto "The Literature of Exhaustion" has aged well, but only if it's read in its entirety, which it seldom is. Too often it's reduced to a kind of literary-historical flashcard with the essay's most dismissive, most quotable contention standing in for the tone and drift of the entire piece: narrative literature, Barth writes, "has just about shot its bolt."[i] It isn't quite a breach of the essay's main thesis to abstract it in this way, but it is an abstraction, a flattening-out of something hillier and weirder and harder to pin down. Here is Barth in a quiet, almost longsuffering passage from the same essay that gets at more or less the same point, but see how differently it gets there:

I sympathize with a remark attributed to Saul Bellow, that to be technically up-to-date is the least important attribute of a writer—though I would add that this least important attribute may be nevertheless essential. In any case, to be technically out-of-date is likely to be a genuine defect: Beethoven's Sixth Symphony or the Chartres cathedral, if executed today, might be simply embarrassing . . . . A good many current novelists write turn-of-the-century-type novels, only in more or less mid-twentieth-century language and about contemporary people and topics; this makes them less interesting (to me) than excellent writers who are also technically contemporary: Joyce and Kafka, for instance, in their time, and in ours, Samuel Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges.[ii]

            This is Ezra Pound's call to make it new in the late sixties—modulated, of course, warbling postmodernly, alternating between Barth's self-doubt, a sort of small-argument modesty ("this makes them less interesting (to me)" and an old-fashioned modernist hauteur. "Distressing as the fact is to us liberal democrats," Barth goes on to write, "the commonalty, alas, will always lose their way and their soul; it is the chosen remnant . . . who, confronted with Baroque reality, Baroque history, the Baroque state of his art, need not rehearse its possibilities to exhaustion . . ."[iii]

             What the flashcard version of Barth's essay ultimately elides is this sinuous, protean tone: barn-burning one moment, uncertain the next, High Church serious one moment, whimsical and punch-pullingly tongue-in-cheek the next. It's not conscience that makes a coward of Barth—self-consciousness is more like it, and an impressive grounding in the literary tradition. Barth knows he's rehearsing old arguments, but he can't help renewing the Poundian call—again the call, and again. He frankly laments the fact that so many of his novel-writing contemporaries seem to be following Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or Balzac "when the question seems to me to be how to succeed not even Joyce and Kafka, but those who succeeded Joyce and Kafka and are now in the evenings of their own careers."[iv]

            The evenings of their own careers—an elegant phrase, and probably a gentler one, a gentler ushering-out than Pound's would have been, but it's still the door that's being shown to the old and superseded. They must be superseded, right? They're old! It's a strangely tyrannical reading of linear time from such a champion of the nonlinear, the nontraditional. Not only is Time in the usual temporal sense our taskmaster (its winged chariot drawing near, etc.), but now Time is also tyrannical in the sense that it's always time for something, time to chuck the old gods, time to deify ourselves, time to make our move, make it new, and again, and again. Barth's sophisticated prose may obscure the fact, but underneath his essay beats a heart full of bromides: If you're not growing you're shrinking! If you're not moving you're standing still!

            Most tyrannical of all, perhaps, is that this constant anxiety for the new is what Barth gives us in exchange for giving up Saul Bellow, say, or Bernard Malamud, James Baldwin, Iris Murdoch, Ralph Ellison, Mary McCarthy, John Cheever, Flannery O'Connor, Philip Roth, all the Barth contemporaries whose work made the literary tradition new in less strenuous, more graceful ways. 


The good news is, of course, that we don't have to give up our pleasure artists—or, more to the point, we can keep them and still keep our membership in the kind of Literary Improvement Society that Barth envisions. Ours may be a less extreme branch of this society, but that's fine—that counts too. One of the lies of the Barthian view is that loud experimentalism, the kind that wears its name on its sleeve, is the only kind that deserves the name, not to mention the cultural caché that solaces experimental art in its relative loneliness. Saul Bellow's low-profile renovations in the Dostoevskian novel are still renovations, and it should come as no surprise that Bellow read and taught and very much loved Joyce's Ulysses.[v] Roth did too, and brought a Joycean spirit of foment to his metafictional novels, no more innocent or na•ve than Barth's. It is true that these writers and their ilk tend to stop short of late late Joyce, which is Barth's touchstone. The steroidal experiments of Finnegans Wake, or the steroidal self-consciousness of Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, have largely run their course by now, or gone underground, but the artistic concerns that produced these works still remain in serious writers, like pine needles in a hiking boot.

            Trying to get at that itch, the unease that turns suddenly painful, Zadie Smith produced an essay-manifesto of her own, "Two Directions for the Novel," in 2008. Smith is an unlikely descendant of Joyce and Barth, raised on the novels of E.M. Forster, but she is unabashedly cerebral, like her modernist predecessors, omnivorous, wide-reaching in her reading and writing, and perhaps self-conscious to a fault. In "Two Directions for the Novel," she turns her critical gaze ostensibly outward, picking up and putting down Joseph O'Neill's lyric realist novel, Netherland, then picking up Tom McCarthy's anti-realist novel Remainder and holding it up as "one of the great English novels of the past ten years."[vi] Remainder, Smith tells us, is a story that resists easy synopsis, easy analysis, pretty quotation. It's a nameless first-person voice trying to get his head around a nameless trauma ("About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing."), and for the most part failing in his attempt. Smith praises this resistance, and the novel's conscious provocations, but above all she praises its position: Remainder is well off the well-trodden lyric realist path that Flaubert famously cut and that a century and a half of high literature has beaten to tractionless powder. Netherland, on the other hand, is happily stuck in that tradition, departing from it here and there, but mostly content to stay the course. The novel's lyrical, adjectival mania, as Smith calls it, is nonetheless polished and controlled. Netherland is the "most masterful recent example" of the lyric manic mode. "And why shouldn't it be?"[vii]

            Smith passes along the received wisdom that literary realism has survived the assaults of the twentieth-century experimenters, but not, she adds, without an "anxiety trace."[viii] She points out the ways O'Neill's novel "foregrounds its narrative nostalgia," tries to excuse its familiar moves by nodding to them within the story—metafiction as permission. Here Smith is pointing an earnest finger at O'Neill, but pointing more fingers back at herself: I think she'd be the first to acknowledge this, this murder of the projected self that accounts for her essay's remarkable power. No more White Teeth or Autograph Man, she implicitly declares, no more On Beauty, those Flaubertian prison houses with their escape attempts chipping the walls. It's no accident that "Two Directions for the Novel" now appears in an essay collection called Changing My Mind, the book that collected itself without Smith's knowledge, as she writes in the "Foreword": "I had thought I was writing a novel."[ix] It's also no accident that the book's front matter begins with a line of David Foster Wallace, that pilgrim of anxiety of a different kind, like Smith, it turns out—the anxiety for the new. Here's what Wallace's epigraph says: "you get to decide what to worship." And here's what I think it means: shouldn't we be striking out for something else? How boring to return to the old gods with this new permission slip in hand.  

            And yet—and it is an "and yet"—Smith has risen from the ashes of her self-immolations to produce, four years after Changing My Mind, her latest and arguably best book, NW, a novel that sets out to escape the Flaubertian mold and basically fails. It's a noble failure, though, a lucky failure, a fine, searching character novel about friendship and chance in northwest London. Where Barth made good on his literary manifesto in a book that feels (to me) less like a funhouse than a joyless maze, Smith's failure to make good on her manifesto is a good failure, a "better failure," if I can adapt Beckett,[x] and a testament to the moderate, incrementalist heart at the heart of Smith's sensibility. NW begins in high Joycean mode—

            The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.
            Four gardens along, in the estate, a grim girl on the third floor screams Anglo-Saxon at nobody. Juliet balcony, projecting for miles. It ain't like that. Nah it ain't like that. Don't you start. Fag in hand. Fleshy, lobster-red.
            I am the sole
            I am the sole author[xi]

            —but soon enough Smith grounds the reader in this play of voices, this stream of thought and action. The next short chapter makes clear that the "she" of the first chapter is Leah, a redheaded Irish-English social worker who lives on the edge of the projects she grew up in. Her best friend is Natalie, a first-generation Caribbean born and raised in the same projects, now a barrister, married with children and living in a posher part of town. The real substance of the novel is the complicated relationship these characters chart as they start into their thirties, defining themselves by and against their past selves, their bricolage ethnicities, their hopes for the future. It's a bildungsroman for the new millennium—the modern city's babel of voices, the long adolescence of its youth, the risk of violence, then the sudden fact of it. In the middle of the novel an easygoing mechanic drops in on an ex-girlfriend, holds back her weary taunts about his new life, new plans, and then goes out into the world to be randomly stabbed after an incident on a bus. The news of the murder drifts in and out of Leah's and Natalie's day like distant traffic sounds.

            Like its fated young mechanic, the novel's style in this stretch is relaxed, easy, settling into a beguiling naturalism. In Natalie's third of the book the telling fractures again, splits up into short, numbered, staccato sections that hint at the nonsequential progress of a life. You never lose the scent of the narrative, though—Smith makes sure of it. She'll strain her readers, but only to a point. The novel's shifting styles try to match its shifting themes ˆ la Ulysses, but unlike late Joyce, Smith stops more or less at the surface, prefers the illusion of post-realism. Many of NW's experiments are more about formatting than deep form—dashed dialogue instead of quotation-marked dialogue, dialogue in a different font size than the narration, paragraphs sans indentation, little shape poems in the loose form of an apple tree, say, when a character is thinking of apples. . .  The Natalie sections suggest the scattered, messily accruing quality of a life, but the section titles suggest the punning, rather cloying anxiety of Smith herself, never more the Barth disciple than here: make sure they know you know! "Speak, radio" is one such title, alluding to Nabokov's famous memoir so as to allude to Nabokov's famous memoir. Other titles—"Detour into the perfect past tense," "Vivre sa vie," "Rabbit," "Rabbit, run," "And the scales fell from her eyes" do little more to deepen or harmonize the fiction underneath them.

            At bottom, NW is a lyrical realist novel in the dress-up of Joycean experimentalism. Newness for the sake of newness can rankle me sometimes, but that's my problem, not Smith's. The more important thing to underline is that Smith is still, in Jonathan Franzen's surprisingly tendentious phrase, a "contract" writer. She cares about her audience as much as her art, which is something we couldn't say—will anyone disagree with me?—about the Joyce of Finnegans Wake.

            Here is Franzen in "Mr. Difficult," his essay on William Gaddis that eventually drew a bitter rejoinder from the experimental writer Ben Marcus[xii]:

Every writer is first a member of a community of readers, and the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader's attention only as long as the author sustains the reader's trust. This is the Contract model . . . [xiii]

            And here is Smith in an essay from Changing My Mind called "Rereading Barthes and Nabakov":

I'm glad I'm not the reader I was in college anymore, and I'll tell you why: it made me feel lonely. Back then I wanted to tear down the icon of the author and abolish, too, the idea of a privileged reader—the text was to be a free, wild thing, open to everyone, belonging to no one, refusing an ultimate meaning. Which was a powerful feeling, but also rather isolating, because it jettisons the very idea of communication, of any possible genuine link between the person who writes and the person who reads. Nowadays I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own.[xiv]

Writing as communication, communion, you get to decide what to worship—it's literature as religion. I should admit that I belong to this same religion, that my true and complicated feelings about it are reflected and refracted in my critiques of Barth, Smith, nearly every writer I care about.

            Toward the end of NW, Smith tells us that Natalie, once a devout Christian, "lost God so smoothly and painlessly she had to wonder what she'd ever meant by the word. She found politics and literature, music, cinema. "Found" is not the right word. She put her faith in these things and couldn't understand why—at exactly the moment she discovered them—her classmates seemed to be giving them up for dead."[xv] Something about the thinness of the literary enterprise haunts its practitioners, its parishioners. No, "found" is not the right word. The word Smith is looking for—the word we are looking for—is a word that combines the hope for reinvention with the knowledge, a kind of fallen knowledge, that no found reinvention is possible anymore. We have to make it up as we go along, in life as in literature—the try, the attempt, the esai, is everything, each failure containing the hope of a better one.


[i] John Barth, "The Literature of Exhaustion," The Friday Book (London: John Hopkins University Press, 1984), 71.

[ii] Ibid., 66.

[iii] "The Literature of Exhaustion," 75-76.

[iv] Ibid., 67.

[v] In a 1954 Times essay called "How I Wrote Augie March's Story," Bellow highlighted the "bedrock writers" he was riffing on—Dickens, Balzac, Hardy, Melville, Hawthorne, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and above all Joyce. Joyce was a Flaubertian in the beginning, Bellow wrote, but then expanded out into the voluminous, celebratory style that Bellow so admired. "[Joyce] brought to pork kidneys and privies and Dublin funerals a Miltonic power of language mixing elegance with street talk, popular ditties, obscenities and advertising slogans with Homeric echoes, poetry and silliness, the high and low" (quoted in James Salter's Bellow: a biography, [New York: Modern Library, 2002], 186).

[vi] Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind (New York: Penguin, 2009), 94.

[vii] Ibid., 80.

[viii] Ibid., 81.

[ix] Ibid., viii.

[x] Fail Better is also the title of another book ("a solemn, theoretical book about writing") that Smith tried her hand at while Changing My Mind took shape (ibid.).

[xi] Zadie Smith, NW (New York: Penguin, 2012), 3.

[xii] For what it's worth, I realize with more than a little ambivalence that I'm reprising the Franzen role here.

[xiii] Jonathan Franzen, "Mr. Difficult," The New Yorker, September 30, 2002, 102.

[xiv] Changing My Mind, 57.

[xv] NW, 247.

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