Remainder by Tom McCarthy

In Zadie Smith’s collection of essays Changing My Mind, Smith contrasts Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and uses both to consider two possible directions for the contemporary novel. I’ve never read Netherland, discouraged by the gushing superlatives that accompanied its release. Remainder appeared more interesting, eulogised here by Smith:

The literary economy sets up its stall on the road that leads to Netherland, along which one might wave to Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow. Rarely has it been less aware (or less interested) in seeing what’s new on the route to Remainder, that skewed side-road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchard, William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard. Friction, fear and outright hatred spring up often between these two traditions-yet they have revealing points of connection. At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov. For though manifestos feed on rupture, artworks themselves bear the trace of their own continuity. So it is with Remainder. The Re-enactor’s obsessive, amoral re-enactions have ancestors: Ahab and his whale, Humbert and his girl, Marlow’s trip downriver. The theatre of the absurd that Remainder lays out is articulated with the same careful pedantry of Gregor Samsa himself. In its brutal excision of psychology it is easy to feel that Remainder comes to literature as an assassin, to kill the novel stone dead. I think it means rather to shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the deadwood, offering a glimpse of an alternative road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward. We could call this constructive deconstruction, a quality that, for me, marks Remainder as one of the great English novels of the past ten years.

How could I resist? The book accompanied me on my spring sojourn to the sun, read mostly poolside, washed down with an occasional Brandy Sour.

A traumatic, disabling accident leaves an unnamed, wealthy protagonist in need of greater authenticity. He obsessively enacts and re-enacts situations from his past, scenes within memories, all on a grand scale. It is a deeply amoral story, carefully structured with a unembellished prose that gives an almost hypnotic effect (that could have been the Brandy Sour). I read the novel, torn between admiring the technique and wondering how it would reach a conclusion. Disappointment set in in the last section, the final enactment was unsatisfactory, too trite. Almost certainly I will reread and perhaps manage to understand Smith’s conclusive sentence.

Politics by Adam Thirlwell

Of Granta’s twenty ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ from 2003, Zadie Smith and Adam Thirlwell offer the greatest promise as writers testing the form and finding an evolving and distinct style.

Thirlwell’s debut novel Politics is a study of relationships. A sexually explicit opening chapter presages other reasonably hard-core set-pieces. (It’s not a book to read while sitting beside a stranger on a commuter train.) After the eye-opening first section, the narrator explains:

This book is not about sex. No. It is about goodness. This story is about being kind. In this book, my characters have sex, my characters do everything, for moral reasons.

This comical examination of the minute actions, thoughts and emotions of the three central protagonists is intertwined by the metafictional commentary of the unnamed narrator. I enjoyed the occasional historical digressions, notably into the life of Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam, the plays of Oscar Wilde, Bollywood films, Bulgakov in Stalinist Russia and Bauhaus architecture. I have a predilection for digressive stories. Less enjoyable is Thirlwell’s colloquial dialogue, e.g. “‘Yeah no igzacly’, said Nana. ‘You’re not men to. Because it’s meaningless.'”

There are more accomplished writers using postmodern techniques to play with form, Calvino comes immediately to mind but there is enough promise to continue reading Thirlwell’s work. Biblioklept is reading Thirlwell’s next book The Delighted States (published here as Miss. Herbert or at least so my copy is titled), which I am looking forward to reading some time soon.

The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head by Louis Begley

What type of person comes to mind when you think of Franz Kafka? How about:

. . . over six feet tall, handsome, elegantly dressed; an unexceptional student, a strong swimmer, an aerobics enthusiast, a vegetarian; a frequent visitor to movie houses, cabarets, all-night cafés, literary soirées and brothels; the published author of seven books during his brief lifetime; engaged three times (twice to the same woman); valued by his employers, promoted at work. (Changing My Mind – Zadie Smith)

Not quite the Kafka that emerges from Max Brod’s 1947 biography. Louis Begley’s biographical essay is an essential complement to Brod’s book. It strips away both the banality and the mystique of Kafka, the man, the genius and the writer.

Kafka’s life so imperatively commands our interest because his short stories and novels stand among the most original and greatest works of twentieth-century literature. Without them, there would be little to remember him for . . . . Apart from moments of triumph, when a work he had completed met his superbly exigent standards, the only significant events in his private and humdrum life were occasional infatuations and the ups and downs of his relations with Felice and Milena . . . . and, of course, the milestones marking the progress of his illness.

Begley has drawn from Kafka’s letters and diaries an interpretation that makes Kafka accessible as a complex but understandable person, living through difficult personal and historical circumstances. In doing so he makes possible a refreshed reading of Kafka’s incredible stories. Zadie Smith again: “But if we’re not to read Kafka too Brodley, how are we to read him? We might do worse than to read him Begley.”

Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith

In a crackling eulogy to David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith writes:

He can’t be read and understood and enjoyed at that speed any more than I can get the hang of the Goldberg Variations over a weekend. His reader needs to think of herself as a musician, spreading  the sheet music – the gift of the work – over the music stand, electing to play. First there is practise, then competency at the instrument, then spending time with the sheet music, then playing it over and over.

In Changing my Mind Zadie Smith has compiled her own variations, subdivided into five sections – ‘Reading’, ‘Being’, ‘Seeing’, ‘Feeling’ and ‘Remembering’. The essays merit careful reading. They range from personal recollections of family to insightful considerations of writers, actors and English comedy. The David Foster Wallace and Kafka essays are outstanding pieces of criticism. All the variations are engrossing to read.

Smith is a thoughtful writer, painstakingly challenging her own style. She is also a contemplative and intelligent reader.

Recently included in a series of articles entitled ‘Ten rules for writing fiction‘, Smith offered:

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.

Reality Hunger by David Shields

The debate is old but David Shields, in Reality Hunger, revives the argument against artifice in the novel. Forget conventional fiction is his manifesto, the energy in literature today is found in essays, memoirs, diaries and non-fiction. His book is a collage, constructed from a mixture of his own content and excerpts and quotations, very hip hop.

A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what those terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism but being told it can’t be published because it might harm the publishing industry.

However, Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows …

. . . . . . . .

If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages 210-218 …

Part of the argument is persuasive. There is terrific vigour in writing that blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. Ryszard Kapuscinski, Geoff Dyer, W. G. Sebald, and J. M. Coetzee create first-rate novels. The diaries, essays and letters of writers like Woolf, Chekhov, Gide, Musil, Beckett are amongst their finest creations.

The validity of Shield’s contention falls down, for me, on the premise that there is such a thing as a “standard” novel. I’m currently reading Zadie Smith’s essays (terrific by the way), in a discussion about Eliot and the Victorian novel she writes:

What is universal and timeless in literature is need – we continue to need  novelists who seem to know and feel, and move between these two modes of operation with wondrous fluidity. What is not universal or timeless, though is form. Forms, styles, structures – whatever word you prefer – should change like skirt lengths. They have to; otherwise we make a rule, a religion, of one form; we say. ‘This form here, this is what reality is like,’ and it pleases us to say that …

Thankfully the form continues to evolve. David Shields provides many examples of contemporary writers successfully moving the style of novels forward. But the need is for literature to contain multitudes. As much as I am enjoying Zadie Smith’s essays and read Reality Hunger with genuine enthusiasm, I relish the freedom to pick up The Brothers Karamazov, follow it with a David Markson, then segue into Cervantes. Too much reality gets old. Though I don’t entirely buy David Shield’s argument, the book is great fun to read, and there are some terrific quotations, as long as you haven’t taken a razor blade to the citations to know their origin.