I wrote about this Zadie Smith essay some time back wherein I acknowledged an ambivalence in seeking out well-wrought, realist fiction when my interests as a writer lie elsewhere. I've never known what to add to that conversation when so many books--over such a long period of time--can reasonably be said to have approached becoming the apotheosis. Smith had similar issues, writing, "to read [Netherland] is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done—in a sense that’s the problem."
My thinking has changed somewhat since I first read Smith's essay, not about writing what Smith calls "lyric Realism," but about reading it. For a variety of reasons, I've encountered more of it in the last year, and while a lot of it still reads like skilled writers practicing a style they've learned by rote--that is to say lifeless and terrible with an abundance of characters named Pa and an underlying, unacknowledged conservatism that would scandalized its authors--occasionally something like Netherland comes along which manages to extract a lot of power out of the contradiction of using old ways to understand and describe a modern world. As a reader, I think it's a great book. As a writer, I think it's a great book, too, a reminder that whatever construction of fiction I might prefer cannot ignore books like this if it wants to claim openness as a value.
Smith, though obviously fond of the book, reads a little emptiness in Netherland's performance and while I agreed with her intuitively before reading it, afterward I'm not so sure. Or at least I'm not so sure her charge is best directed at this book. Can grand literary language and metaphor serve to turn our world, our persons into the ridiculously sublime at the expense of real tension, real danger, real real? Of course, and it's this as much as anything that's always pushed my tastes away from so much realism of this school. Everything is always so damned beautiful without being beautiful or damned, and the only thing real about any of it is that nothing impossible happens. For me, this wasn't a book that fell into the trap of the unnecessarily exalted if only because it showed an awareness that such a trap exists (and that it really is a trap). Netherland is a book about how we can control how we see ourselves and the world and how we might, even if only in moments, even if there are consequences, choose to see grandly. That felt real to me.