Sunday, February 15, 2009

Two Skins for the Contemporary Novel

I have just read "Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill, and so I guess, having previously read Tom McCarthy's "Remainder" I'm now fully qualified to respond to Zadie Smith's New York Review of Books article that compares and contrasts the two. There is much of interest in Smith's article, though it requires quite a bit of unpicking, and I wonder to what extent it has to do with the two books in hand, or whether either of them really has the necessary "heft" to deserve this close analysis. To my mind, they are not so much two paths for the contemporary novel, but rather, different "skins" for the novelist looking to write about contemporary experience. For in both books, there's a sense of early 21st century ennui brought to an absolute pitch. It may well be that the main literary trope of this first decade will turn out to be this ennui, or, perhaps more correctly, a sense of powerlessness. Our characters - whether O'Neill's Dutch commodity analyst, or McCarthy's recipient of an accident payout, are the accidental rich, that could as easily be reality show winners, or winners of the Richard & Judy/Oprah Winfrey bookclub lotteries in other words. It seems that the main distinctions between the two novels aren't as polarised as Smith would have in mind, other than those of nationality and style. For "Netherland" is very much an American novel, in a style that, puffed full of decorative lived-in prose, is almost unfashionable; whilst "Remainder" has the unfussy style that has dominated English writing for half-a-century. Smith mentions Ballard, and there is the same unblinking, unemotional sentences in McCarthy as you'll find in the great dystopianists work.

I'm wondering if what she's identifying here is a clash of styles rather than substances - and one's reminded of her own aborted take on the flashier end of contemporary American fiction, in the first half of the unloved "The Autograph Man." I'd go as far to say that it is the setting that creates the prose; for, reading the first half of "Netherland", I couldn't understand how this masterful writing had been dropped from the Booker longlist - unless, it was just too American. Perhaps that was the case, for in London, O'Neill's prose turns prosaic, no longer elegiac-romantic. It's like, in "Netherland", he's taken a deep breath on New York, and inhaled all its flavours.

I've written a little about "Remainder" before, and though its been an interesting think-piece, Smith's yoking of the two novels, it does seem a little artificial; both in their different ways are novels that are a little attention-seeking, whilst remaining some way from being revolutionary. What I found interesting about "Netherland" was both its centre of influence - it would be a prime suspect in any "all New York novels are indebted to Gatsby" investigation - and its intent. At its heart, its not about Gatsby - here, the vital but vapid Chuck Ramkissoon, but about Carraway - the less interesting narrator, Dutch oil analyst Hans van den Broek; or rather its about both of them, but comes to life through Ramkissoon's exoticism - even if, at its heart, Ramkissoon is just a foil to play opposite Hans, and boy, Hans is a cold fish. His life decisions are baldly existential - or, worse, complacent. Left alone in the New York that he followed his wife Rachel to, after she decides to go home following 9/11, we're given a marriage from a distance - actually, and in time - that it's very hard to care much about. These two rich, but vacant characters deserve each other. There's a self-absorbtion in Hans that is almost Jamesian; and by the end of the novel, it is James, not Fitzgerald who keeps coming to mind, not just the distance of a Strether in "The Ambassadors", but the struggle to give such a character anything of a passion. Though the Twin Towers is touched on with a ferocious delicacy, the homelessness of our modern knowledge workers - the rich, as well as the poor - comes home strongly throughout the novel. Home counties Rachel, and Dutch Hans, at sea in New York, a telling example of the shock to the system that 9/11 presumably still means to inhabitants of that city. I remember being in Manchester during the 1996 bomb, and how close I'd been to be walking in town that morning - over the next six months I shrank away from a city that was half-closed down anyway, and shortly moved to London.

The problem with a novel that's also about a failing marriage is that you have to care about that marriage to make it work. Neither Rachel or Hans seems to, so it makes it difficult for us to. But these problematic sides to "Netherland" shouldn't obscure its power - which is sometimes more painterly, more abstract, even more existential, than a non-realist novel like "Remainder" or Magnus Mills' work. It's evocation of the strangest of subject matters - the immigrant New York cricket scene is not the choice of a writer playing to the gallery - but an immersion in something the writer deeply cares about. Hans, in his time in New York is no longer a Carraway, but that other most rational of Fitzgerald heroes, Dick Diver from "Tender is the Night". Living in the neverland of the Chelsea Hotel, and with nothing other than his work, cricket becomes a therapy, a chance to live without thinking too much about one's own problems. Like in A.M. Homes' "This Book Can Save Your Life" or McInerney's "The Good Life", (the latter, also set in New York after 9/11), "Netherland" is an attempt to give meaning to a character whose life is too comfortable to actually require it.

I'm struck by echoes of my own work, in that a man falling apart when left alone (by a wife who goes to New York for a week) was the theme of my recent novella, and that my 1999 novel "High Wire", ends, as does "Netherland" with a scene of reconciliation on London's South Bank. That novel's faults were surely also of language, of finding a language that could effect the lyricism that O'Neill pinches more easily from the New York Streets, and planting it in the humdrum of modern life.

More than ever, as I said earlier, I feel that a sense of powerlessness, or ennui, is the decades defining literary characteristic.


Richard said...

I felt that Smith's review was quite damning of both novels in certain respects, especially in that although she seemed to call for more experimentation in the novel the repeated aspersions on McCarthy reheating rather old ideas from Blanchot and Robbe Grillet didn't seem to suggest that she thought Remainder represented the Ulysses de nos jours.

I think you're very much right about 'skins,' as it did seem to me that modern literature had a rather larger repetoire of modes available to it than Smith seemed to suggest, from new journalism to magical realism. The idea of modernism and realism as the only choices seems rather outdated as an argument.

I also think you're right about ennui as a governing characteristic, although I wonder if Houellebecq and Ballard aren't better exemplars than McCarthy or O'Neill - certainly, I can't say Smith's review left me feeling entirely moved to read either.

Bournemouth Runner said...

I think "damning" is probably not the right word, though there was plenty of "faint praise", in Smith's article. Nuanced as I said. I like Smith's criticism but it does tend to want its cake and to eat it - the density of a senior common room discussion with the more openness of a public debate. I like your "larger repetoire of modes" - I think that's exactly it. Modernism is nothing if not a toolbox for future writing; or, to put it another way, this late in the novel's life, there's nothing new under the sun. (I don't believe that by the way, but the novel is somewhat post-revolutionary these days, to say the least.) I liked "Netherland" more than "Remainder", though the latter was a better story in many ways. They don't feel either/or though - more versionings of a similar tale. I mention Magnus Mills because it seems he does what McCarthy does, but funnier, and better, and more often. Houellebecq does seem to be - like or loathe him - the name we come back to when pinpointing the vaingloriousness of the age!

Thanks for dropping by!

Richard said...

Damning was probably overstating it, although I did grow quite tired of incessantly hearing of how Smith was attacking 'Establishment Literary Fiction.' I would say that Smith appeared to equivocal about both novels.