Zadie Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel” and the Oncoming 2666 Deluge


Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland was probably the best reviewed book of 2008 (pending its imminent dethroning by Roberto Bolaño’s 2666); many of its reviews cited the book as a sort of post post-9/11 novel, the implication being it was novel of the present, or even the future — the new paradigm we could all get behind. The book was “closely observed,” “pricked with lyrically exact metaphor,” its expatriate New York narrative “un-self-consciously in touch with how we live now.”

Now, pleasingly, Zadie Smith has emerged to sort of demolish the book in a NYRB article tellingly entitled “Two Paths for the Novel.” She accurately tags the novel’s obvious appeal — “For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition — ironically registers the book’s frankly 19th century “baroque descriptions of clouds, light, and water,” and then takes note of a whole century of James Joyce and American metafiction and asks: “In this version of our literary history, the last man standing is the Balzac-Flaubert model, on the evidence of its extraordinary persistence. But the critiques persist, too. Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?”

It is a particularly good essay to read — even if you didn’t vehemently dislike Netherland, as I did —  in conjunction with Bolaño’s 2666, which I guess we’ll all be hearing more than we want to about over the coming weeks. That novel’s achievement — one of many — is to mock the bedtime story, the cushy, sumptuous sentence, the psychologically rich character: all the “credos,” in Smith’s words, “upon which Realism is built: the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Which tenants almost make me feel ill as I read Smith’s sentence.

Bolaño’s ‘narrative’ is almost cartoonishly dead-ended; his novel’s heart is a 280-page section of uninflected, unimagined details about the deaths of hundreds of women: how they were found, what they were wearing, how they died. Surfaces. No interiority. The world — as it is outside — crushing the individual without a shred of lyricism. It has a lot more to do with the way we’ve lived over the last 8 years than Netherland‘s cricket and bourgeoisie angst. Smith rightly senses this thing could go two ways. Her other paradigm path is Tom McCarthy’s Remainder but it could well be 2666: “Fact and self persist, in comic misapprehension, circling each other in space.”