Dated in the future, but a little bit older than that, Zadie Smith's exquisite article, Two Paths for a Novel, from the New York Review of Books, could be a very fine read for your week. It is a comparative review of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and Tom McCarthy's Remainer, and a long essay on the reign, on the best-selling lists and popular taste, of what Smith terms 'lyrical realism', and criticises with merciless, but faultless, precision.
Since most, if not all, of what stands on the bookstore shelves under Australian Fiction falls into that category, and there is little difference between contemporary Australian literary and dramatic writing, there can be no harm in quoting with some breadth:
In Netherland, only one's own subjectivity is really authentic, and only the personal offers this possibility of transcendence, this “translation into another world.” Which is why personal things are so relentlessly aestheticized: this is how their importance is signified, and their depth. The world is covered in language. Lip service is paid to the sanctity of mystery…, but, in practice Netherland colonizes all space by way of voracious image. This results in many beauties (“a static turnstile like a monster's unearthed skeleton”) and some oddities (a cricket ball arrives “like a gigantic meteoritic cranberry”), though in both cases, there is an anxiety of excess. Everything must be made literary. Nothing escapes. On TV “dark Baghdad glitter[s] with American bombs.” Even the mini traumas of a middle-class life are given the high lyrical treatment, in what feels, at its best, like a grim satire on the profound fatuity of twenty-first-century bourgeois existence. The surprise discovery of his wife's lactose intolerance becomes “an unknown hinterland to our marriage”; a slightly unpleasant experience of American bureaucracy at the DMV brings Hans (metaphorically) close to the war on terror.
Bear with Zadie a little longer:
Netherland recognizes the tenuous nature of a self, that “fine white thread running, through years and years,” and Hans flirts with the possibility that language may not precisely describe the world (“I was assaulted by the notion, arriving in the form of a terrifying stroke of consciousness, that substance—everything of so called concreteness—was indistinct from its unnameable opposite”), but in the end Netherland wants always to comfort us, to assure us of our beautiful plenitude. At a certain point in his Pervert's Guide to Cinema, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek passes quickly and dismissively over exactly this personal fullness we hold so dear in the literary arts (“You know…the wealth of human personality and so on and so forth…”), directing our attention instead to those cinematic masters of the anti-sublime (Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, David Lynch) who look into the eyes of the Other and see no self at all, only an unknowable absence, an abyss. Netherland flirts with that idea, too. Not knowing what to do with photographs of his young son, Hans gives them to Chuck's girlfriend, Eliza, who organizes photo albums for a living:
I was thinking of the miserable apprehension we have of even those existences that matter most to us. To witness a life, even in love—even with a camera—was to witness a monstrous crime without noticing the particulars required for justice.
An interesting thought is trying to reach us here, but the ghost of the literary burns it away, leaving only its remainder: a nicely constructed sentence, rich in sound and syntax, signifying (almost) nothing. Netherland doesn't really want to know about misapprehension. It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?
Sorry/thank you, dear reader. Having read three quarters of Smith's article, and taken it around with me for my whirlwind week, brought it up in countless conversations (because Australian literature, and Australian dramatic writing, have featured in many conversations lately), it was good to return and find that Smith's article has started a fruitful and articulated discussion on the literary blogs. Proving once again, as a side note, that literary criticism grew up much before all others.
On the one hand, there is the usual conglomerate of the artfully- and/or socially-minded, who uphold the values of a fine turn of phrase and story-telling, and dismiss formal inquiry as esoteric and elitist in ways similar to Anglophone theatre criticism. Dismissing Smith's problematization of a perfect specimen of a genre, (“People are not typically dispirited by dances, cars, movies, or novels because they are “perfect” – if they ever could be.”), Tony Christini on A Pragmatic Policy argues, from a sociological-humanist angle:
It’s so easy, so safe to talk about technique, to hopelessly bemoan or tinker with change in technique to little crucial effect. It’s almost a way of removing art from the humanities, the human realm, and inserting it into severely blinkered conceptual netherworlds.
Christini's critique, however, has depth and complexity, unlike the open traditionalist Nigel Beale's:
If Smith condemns O’Neill’s ‘realism’ as the bedside story that comforts us the most, and if she eschews the importance of form, the truth of language and the continuity of self, what on earth is she suggesting gets us closer to our condition? That everyone write like Beckett? And how, if she has an idea, does she plan to hold reader interest without use of plot, metaphor and style?
And yet, both seem to conceptualise form as frill on the meaningful content, quite blind to the ideology behind the well-turned phrase. Mark Thwaite, on the other hand, recognises in Smith's lyrical realism his own Establishment Literary Fiction, which parallels rather strongly what we, in theatre, call in turns dramatic, naturalistic or, with a wrinkled nose, 'straight theatre'. ELF is
the very antithesis of literature: it is hubristic, formulaic and trite; it is non- essential. If Literary Fiction is defined by its proud masterpieces, its smug perfections, literature should be known as a failed art that in its failing helps us to understand our own feeble inadequacies and helps us to fail better.
If most Australian writing fails, it's primarily because, to echo Thwaite on McEwan, it isn't an investigation into anything. What's commonly perceived as failure is that it isn't even, to echo Thwaite on McEwan again, the laying bare of a meticulous plan. In this sense, it fails both on its own terms and if read subversively. What often gets lost in this search for craft, for stories and characters and phrases turning, to reward and promote and rescue and hold up and praise and wave like the national flag, is everything else. The groundwork overshadows what should be up in the sky. Because certainly it's not inappropriate to view art as a Tower of Babel, and the experience of art as a stretching of the self, an act of violence over our self-validated comfort, in order to bring us closer to the world, to others, to ourselves. At the bottom of it, a pursuit of an answer to a question we may not always know. And, as a result of the strain, strange shapes and colours. Unfamiliar things. As Hemingway said, almost no new classics resemble other previous classics.
Finally, Richard Crary, remembering that we often say Modernism when we mean formal experiment, writes:
For it seems to me that the forgotten, ignored (or possibly just not understood?) meaning of Modernism is writing as an event, art as an event, where writing in the old, accepted, “conventional” ways are simply not suitable, not justified.
This brings it back, very closely, to performance, theatre as an event in time and space and not a timeless/placeless/dis-event, a simulacrum of the perfect unrealisable play. The threads connecting the discussion are too many and too colourful to even start systematising on a sunny spring day full of work and hunger. But shouldn't we keep thinking? If we could write on theatre, particularly in this country, with the articulation, intelligence and passion of literary criticism, it wouldn't hurt us, would it?