Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lyrical realism vs. the avant-garde

A recent piece by Garth Risk Hallberg revisits a 2008 Zadie Smith essay, in which she compares Joseph O'Neill's Netherland to Tom McCarthy's Remainder.* I was surprised to learn that Smith came out strongly against Netherland as the type of novel she'd like to see--and write--more of. But that's a testament to how unprepared I am to wade into this debate. Not only have I not read Smith's essay, I also have not read Remainder or any of McCarthy's work. This will not, of course, stop me from commenting.

Like Smith, I've grown tired of "lyrical Realism" in contemporary fiction, and suspect that it's holding fiction back from addressing Big Questions. I don't, however, have a strong argument at hand to prove this. It's more a feeling that all the time spent "showing" the raised, doily-like pattern on the china our heroine is setting on the rough-hewn dining room table leaves less time for "telling," or asking, what all this is for. Why are we here? What is our place in the universe? What are our obligations to it? Yes, I know: these questions are all there. They are embedded in the showing of the china, and a more subtle mind than mine would appreciate them that way. I just prefer it when characters and authors wrestle with big questions explicitly, at least from time to time. And some of that wrestling could well spill over into the novel's form, making it what is loosely called "avant-garde."

On the other hand, I really liked Netherland, and I believe it's because, as Hallberg puts it, "the potentially meaningless gets redeemed by fine writing." That's no minor distinction. When the writing is that fine, that important to the story, it becomes its own meta, its own avant-garde. Of course it's extremely hard to do this well; the attempt often results in too much milky light glinting off the aforementioned china, and/or tiresome nosedives into the past. Back to "lyrical Realism" of the most lamentable kind.

Anyway, Hallberg deftly undermines both the lyrical Realist and avant-garde categories, reminding us that the point, for both writers and readers, is not to choose a side. Instead, it's up to authors to rethink and revise form *every time* they sit down to write--not for the sake of form itself, but to properly accommodate the writer's "burning."

*We have now reached the third level of meta, criticizing criticism of criticism. There's probably a point at which this must stop.

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