“Two Paths for the Novel” by Zadie Smith

Couple of weeks ago I read an article „Two Paths for the Novel” by Zadie Smith. Surprisingly, I found it really difficult to read but I wasn’t sure why. First, I thought it was because of the language (since English is not my mother tongue) but it wasn’t – I understood the words separately but I just could not make sense of them. After the second reading I realized that the fragments Smith used to justified her words were the problem. The article is a review of two novels – Netherland by Joseph O’Neil and Reminder by Tom McCarthy. However, it is not a typical review. Smith does in this text something I have not encountered before. I am used to the situation when the form of the novel reflects the character’s personality or the plot; the form becomes the content. In Smiths article, in a way, the content becomes the form. She bases her discussion about novels’ form on characters’ attitudes and choices. That is why I could not grasp the connection between her arguments and the quotations she used. Discussing Netherland, the example of lyrical Realism, she juxtaposes two protagonists : Hans – the anxious man and Chuck – the symbol of authenticity. Smith describes Hans as anxious since, on the one hand, he cannot stand one of the vice presidents nostalgia but, on the other hand, he does exactly the same thing – reminiscences about the past. Chuck, in turn, having no hesitations, communicates in almost Harlequin like quotations (“My motto is, Think Fantastic.”) Smith states:

“Chuck functions here as a kind of authenticity fetish, allowing Hans (and the reader) the nostalgic pleasure of returning to a narrative time when symbols and mottos were full of meaning and novels weren’t neurotic, but could aim themselves simply and purely at transcendent feeling”(Smith).

By mentioning the return to a narrative time, Smith transposes Hans and Chuck’s personalities into a discussion about narrative. She calls Netherland an anxious novel which uses lyrical Realism, yet, it is conscious of its limitations. Interestingly, she demonstrates this not through the anxiety between different narrative forms and styles (which are simply not there) but through a difference between protagonists’ personalities and approaches to life. This technique seemed slightly bizarre for me at the beginning; I wondered whether we can actually mix characters with the author’s narrative technique or even, in a way, let them comment on this technique. Finally, I came to a conclusion that it is another level of the author’s self-consciousness. He appears to comment on his writing not through the novel’s narrative but through the character’s personal narratives, their individual modes of communication. The author puts the discussion on realism and its limitations not in his mouth, or rather hands, but in the mouth of the protagonists. Interestingly, he doesn’t do it in a direct way, the characters don’t simply talk about realism. This discussion is represented in a mediated way through their ways of communication.

However, despite this rather unusual interpretative style, I cannot escape the conclusion that Smiths comes back to the problem debated intensively since, at least, modernism; the problem that, according to e.g. Gasiorek, does not really exist. He considers the dichotomy between realism and experimentalism as a false one, as ‘neither term can be taken for granted’ (Gasiorek 183) and both modes of writing are, in fact, interrelated since there are no solely experimental novels and realism no longer has the classic form based on transparency of language.

So, when I finally comprehended what the article is about, I asked myself : Do we really have go through this again? Really….?

Gasiorek, Andrzej, Post-war British Fiction, London: Edward Arnold, 1995.

Smith, Zadie, “Two Paths for the Novel”,
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/nov/20/two-paths-for-the-novel/
[4th September 2014]