So Zadie Smith wrote about the future of the novel in The New York Review of Books and one of the novels she sees as being along one of two diverging "paths" for the novel is Tom McCarthy's Remainder (which I wrote about here). The other novel is Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, a book I feel like I have read a million glowing reviews of without once feeling even the slightest inkling to actually pick up. Smith helpfully explains why I might be such a case by setting up Netherland as the evolution of "lyrical Realism" whereas Remainder (a book I ordered the moment I first heard of it) is its antithesis, a book Smith associates with the avant garde (though I don't think she ever gives this path a proper, oddly capitalized label). As a reader, like Smith seems to be, whose sympathies lie somewhere on the avant garde side of center (which really means I side with what's innovative above all), it's not shocking that O'Neill's book doesn't interest me while McCarthy's I found immediately gripping.
(Although I have to say I've been a little taken aback by just how big Remainder seems to be getting recently. Not that it's undeserving. Not at all, in fact. I just wouldn't have pegged it as a book to capture the imagination of so many writers who seem to universally see it as a Very Important Book. Smith's essay gives her reasons but I remain a little incredulous).
The entire essay is quite the read in exactly the exhaustive way you'd expect from The New York Review of Books (in other words, I no longer need to read O'Neill's book or possibly any book ever again), but it's worth it. I mostly agree with J. Robert Lennon's take here which is that the Smith's piece fundamental flaw is positioning the two books as opposites and absolutes. She does this in her opening and then spends most of the essay purposefully disproving (or accidentally ignoring) this premise.
At one point she writes:
When it comes to literary careers, it's true: the pitch is queered. The literary economy sets up its stall on the road that leads to Netherland, alongwhich 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 Blanchot, 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.How then these ideas of the novel are in competition in an artistic sense (as opposed to a commercial sense) is a little unclear though I suppose it hearkens back to Smith's opening which suggests that while in healthy times literature gets multiple paths but in the unhealthy present we get but the one blocked by the Balzac-like realism of Netherland. I don't know what to say about this other than I don't think it's true or even nearly true. If anything, it's only becoming less true as traditional publishers struggle and small presses, the Internet, and other alternative venues pick up the slack.
That said, it really is a remarkable essay and I don't mean to suggest that Smith doesn't do well by her own premise. It's an interesting autopsy of two very different books, but it does assume an either/or that I don't necessarily buy into no matter how well written the argument (or how much smarter the argument's author is than me).
Smith also sees the end of postmodernism in her most bomb-throwing of paragraphs:
Yet despite these theoretical assaults, the American metafiction that stood inopposition to Realism has been relegated to a safe corner of literary history,to be studied in postmodernity modules, and dismissed, by our most famous publiccritics, as a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart. Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, David Foster Wallace—all misguided ideologists, the novelist equivalents of the socialists in Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man. 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?This, I think, is more true and a much more compelling argument. That said, I don't think what Smith calls postmodernism is dead or necessarily even close to it (especially since I, for one, have a hard time seeing how Remainder is any less postmodern than the average DeLillo book). I like Lennon's idea of acknowledging that what we call postmodernism is something simply inherent to narratives or our understanding of them and so a book like Remainder (or, say, The Raw Shark Texts) can be both referentially postmodern without being measured for its coffin.
Whatever the case, I think Smith's right to say quite a good deal of literature (if not the best literature) comes from somewhere in between her two poles and, healthy world or no, I don't see any reason why we have to choose.