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realism-s-last-word
Cut-out from The Constitution of the 3rd of May by Jan Matejko. Wikimedia Commons.

Realism´s Last Word

Excerpt from THE ORGAN-GRINDER'S MONKEY: CULTURE AFTER THE AVANT-GARDE, published by Litteraria Pragensia.

“From two recent novels, a story emerges about the future for the Anglophone novel.” So begins an article by Zadie Smith for the New York Review of Books, November 2008,[1] the two novels in question being Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland – a “breed of lyrical Realism”[2] concerned with the poignancy of experiences born of 9/11 – and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder – whose rejection of the intellectual and emotive premises of Netherland is described by Smith as “a function of our ailing literary culture.” Smith posits these diametrically opposed forms of Realism as demarcating the sole viable divergent routes of the contemporary Anglophone novel. “In healthy times,” she notes, there might be multiple routes, “allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene.”

These are, however, not healthy times. And, rather than argue for a wider set of possibilities to be made available to the future of the novel (by the publishing and distribution conglomerates that dominate the fiction market in England and America), Smith contents herself with describing a state of affairs. In doing so, she goes some way to being complicit with what ails contemporary literary culture. A breed of “lyrical Realism,” Smith notes, “has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition… It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.”

But it’s difficult to avoid drawing the conclusion that Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel” is proscriptive in its own right. Despite a “dispiriting sense of recognition” belying the sameness of the prevailing commodity system that governs the production, marketing and consumption of what in the trade is referred to as “literary fiction,” Smith is content not to contest but merely recount the onset of a malaise as seemingly innocuous as a hack portraitist’s realisation that, after all, he’s only a hack, one step away from a Box Brownie. What’s really at stake, it seems, is authenticity, since it’s the photograph that’s the source of the portrait’s breakdown here, exposing the fact that the portraitist is nothing more than a mechanised dwarf, like Kempelen’s chess player. So there’s something of a creeping nostalgia here at work, too, for the reinstating of a direct writerly/readerly experience which Remainder ironises and which Netherland sentimentalises. At one point, Smith’s “Two Paths” appears to be a hedging of bets: we can discount the sentimentality, because irony will bring us into the portraitist’s studio by the back door, where a faux-Magritte will by waiting on the easel: a portrait of a Box Brownie in a flourish of paint strokes. Put another way, if only “Realism” could find a way to maintain its pretense of differing from itself (like the unique experience promised in every bottle of Coca-Cola), even while pointing out that its products are really just the same thing endlessly recycled in a type of Warholian entropic spiral, then that would all be to the good – a segment of the publishing industry could, as the saying goes, go on having its Coke and drinking it.

This open paradox, everywhere on display in Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, is what draws Smith to the novel as representing something of a tactical manoeuvre in the advance of Realism. Conveniently enough, the question of authenticity is also the novel’s dominant theme – its plot, meanwhile, is pure wishfulness, as though exploring the trope of what if an impoverished lyrical Realism suddenly had a cash windfall drop on it out of the blue. Geoff Manaugh gives an apt summary:

Remainder is about a man in London who is hit on the head by “something falling from the sky.” He goes into a coma; is involved in a lawsuit upon waking; and is awarded £8.5 million in damages. This all takes place in the first few pages. The rest of the book is about the narrator’s attempt to figure out what exactly to do with all that money – as well as how he can recreate, to the minutest detail, a building in which he might (or might not) have once lived.[3]

To facilitate this “reconstruction,” McCarthy’s narrator first gets in touch with real estate agents:

I spoke to three different estate agents. The first two didn’t understand what I was saying. They offered to show me flats – really nice flats, ones in converted warehouses beside the Thames, with open plans and mezzanines and spiral staircases and balconies and loading doors and old crane arms and other such unusual features.

“It’s not unusual features that I’m after,” I tried to explain. “It’s particular ones. I want a certain pattern on the staircase – a black pattern on white marble or imitation marble. And I need there to be a courtyard.”

“We can certainly try to accommodate these preferences,” this one said.

“These are not preferences,” I replied. “These are absolute requirements. [...] And it’s not one property I’m after,” I informed her. “It’s the whole lot. There must be certain neighbours, like this old woman who lives below me, and a pianist two floors below her, and…” (78)

Making no progress with the agents of already-existing London “real” estate who misconstrue “style” (viz Smith’s lyric Realism) for “authenticity” (characterised for McCarthy as negative affect), the narrator turns to the services of a logistics firm, called Time Control. Time Control specialises in facilitation. McCarthy’s narrator is put in touch with Nazrul Ram Vyas who acts as a type of analytic engine (Smith describes Nazrul as “no more a character (in Realism’s sense of the word) than I am a chair, but he is the most exquisite facilitator and it’s through him that every detail of the re-enactment is processed”). McCarthy:

“I have a large project in mind,” I said, “and wanted to enlist your help.” “Enlist” was good. I felt pleased with myself.

“Okay,” said Naz. “What type of project?”

“I want to buy a building, a particular type of building, and decorate and furnish it in a particular way. I have precise requirements, right down to the smallest detail. I want to hire people to live in it, and perform tasks that I will designate. They need to perform these exactly as I say, and when I ask them to. I shall most probably require the building opposite as well, and most probably need it to be modified. Certain actions must take place at that location too, exactly as and when I shall require them to take place. I need the project to be set up, staffed and coordinated, and I’d like to start as soon as possible.”

“Excellent,” Naz said, straight off. He didn’t miss a single beat. I felt a surge inside my chest, a tingling. (83)

The discussion then moves on to what roles these hired residents are expected to play in McCarthy’s elaborate choreography (since, in fact, the work of re-enactment is always undertaken as a type of somnambulant dance constantly being rehearsed, repeated, until, on the very surface of the real it begins to describe the operations of an unconscious in which, ultimately, it’s the arbitrary that reigns, directed by the narrator’s presence or non-presence, to the point at which the re-enactors themselves become nothing but actuated tropes, automatons in a psycho drama that has no more depth than a type of mot juste echoing – or not – in space):

“What tasks would you like them to perform?”

“There’ll be an old woman downstairs, immediately below me,” I said. “Her main duty will be to cook liver. Constantly. Her kitchen must face outwards to the courtyard, the back courtyard onto which my own kitchen and bathroom will face too. The smell of liver must waft upwards. She’ll also be required to deposit a bin bag outside her door as I descend the staircase, and to exchange certain words with me which I’ll work out and assign to her.”

“Understood,” said Naz. “Who’s next?” (87)

In certain respects, McCarthy’s novel isn’t all that remote from O’Neill’s: it at least simulates all the core tropes of Realism; it presents no barrier to comprehensibility for the otherwise dispirited reader. It may go even further than this, giving the reader the comforting impression of returning his or her thoughts to her, freshly re-minted. One reviewer in the New York Times went so far as to describe Remainder as “a work of novelistic philosophy, as disturbing as it is funny,” operating on the reader by way of its “bleak humor, hauntingly affectless narrator and methodical expansion…”[4] There’s the sense, indeed, that McCarthy’s Remainder proffers the sort of revelatory experience of 1970s Erhard Seminars Training, teaching the reader that he or she too is really just a machine, a cog in the Great Re-enactment.

Out of this an image of redemption emerges. For Smith, Remainder offers a path of redemption to an otherwise failed novelistic form, because it brings with it a revelatory authenticity which the lyrical Realism of Netherland, as commoditised simulation of a world “deeply experienced,” lacks. To construct a more potent opposition – “two paths,” as if the future of the trade paperback weren’t already a done deal – Smith cites the publishing history of McCarthy’s Remainder: that it came to notoriety the hard way, and that however much it has since been slotted into the existing money-mechanism of the global book industry, its aura of authenticity (it isn’t an industry clone but “the real thing”) – married its own post-postmodernist “critique” of the cult of authenticity. Its authentic inauthenticity promises to subvert the “realist novel,” as it were, from within. But while the fact that McCarthy’s novel “took seven years to find a mainstream publisher” here serves to position the work in clearer opposition to O’Neill’s novel, as exemplary of the prevailing status quo, we should be reminded that, had it not found “a mainstream publisher,” Remainder would not have been written about in the New York Times and would consequently not be regarded by a popular literary figure such as Smith as bearing upon the future of the novel in any way whatsoever.

Smith has nothing to say on this point. The fact that Remainder was first published by a small Parisian art press, called Metronome, is never mentioned in her long article. While she clearly identifies O’Neill with a well-established avenue of reception, the limited opportunities offered by way of reception to medium and small press publications isn’t addressed. This would appear something of an oversight – as if Smith had missed a key plot element – since there’s something more than fortuitous in Remainder having been first published by Metronome, whose founder, Clémentine Deliss, set out specifically to model herself on Maurice Girodias and Jack Kahane.

In the 1930s and 1950s, Kahane’s Obelisk Press and Girodias’s Olympia Press served as important conduits for English fiction otherwise facing suppression for censorship reasons – including books by Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Anaïs Nin, Pauline Réage, William Burroughs and, incidentally, Jean Genet – or because of its experimental and non-commercial character – as in the case of Beckett’s Watt and Raymond Queneau’s Zazie. This connection is instructive, but no more so than the fact that Deliss’s Metronome Press was first and foremost a simulation of these two outsider presses, undertaken as a conceptual art project. Smith appears unaware of this, though she speaks at length about McCarthy’s own work as a conceptualist within the quasi-avant-garde International Necronautical Society. And while Smith does dwell at length on the critique of “authenticity” issued by the INS, and how this might bear upon the “sincerity,” so to speak, of McCarthy as a commercially successful realist novelist, she fails to note that the “mainstream” publisher who subsequently took up Remainder after its initial positive reviews in Le Monde and 3:AM, was the independent press Alma, which, with One World Classics, had recently acquired John Calder, one of the few significant publishers of avant-garde writing in English and English translation at the time (works by Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, Artaud, and the early Philippe Sollers, among others).

This coincidence is surely of interest. The story of the domestication of what’s deemed “experimental writing” going hand-in-hand with the commercialisation of a major avant-garde imprint, and the significance of the appellation “independent” in speaking of an industry in which “maverick” is just a codeword for rogue vested interests. The publication history of Remainder is instructive in this respect, because it requires that we ask about the nature of reception: how contemporary fiction is “received” within the pages of the major literary periodicals, such as the New York Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement, and how this is largely premised upon the investment of mainstream commercial publishers and the opportunism of the literary agents who earn their livelihood catering to them. And Zadie Smith’s article is no exception. For we should not doubt that, were it not for the minor celebrity surrounding Remainder before its acquisition by Alma and its subsequent commercial success, Zadie Smith would not have proclaimed it “one of the great English novels of the last ten years,” because she wouldn’t have read it.

Speculation aside, what remains notable in Smith’s article is that while Remainder is made to stand for a certain type of outsider literature, namely “the experimental novel,” it’s able to do so only because of its continuing subscription to key tenets of realist fiction. While Remainder may be described as radically “materialist” in its thematic concerns, these are nonetheless related in a straight-forward, one might say conventional, prose style. There’s only one conspicuous instance of anti-naturalism in the entire novel. Smith recounts the scene. Perceiving inauthenticity at work everywhere, McCarthy’s narrator zooms in on a group of homeless people. He notices “the way they take messages up and down the street to each other, with a sense of purpose, really seeming to own the street, interacting with it genuinely. He makes contact with one of them. He takes him to a local restaurant, buys him a meal. He wants to ask the boy something but he can’t get it out. Then the wine spills” (Smith)…

The waiter came back over. He was… She was young, with large, dark glasses, an Italian woman. Large breasts. Small.

“What do you want to know?” my homeless person asked.

“I want to know…” I started, but the waiter leant across me as he took the tablecloth away. She took the table away too. There wasn’t any table. The truth is, I’ve been making all this up – the stuff about the homeless person. He existed all right, sitting camouflaged against the shop fronts and the dustbins – but I didn’t go across to him.

Because, in fact, the homeless are just like everyone else:

They had a point to prove: that they were one with the street; that they and only they spoke its true language; that they really owned the space around them. Crap: total crap…. And then their swaggering, their arrogance: a cover. Usurpers. Frauds. (59-60)

Like Robbe-Grillet, McCarthy eschews linguistic deviation. But unlike Robbe-Grillet, he also eschews any deviation from narrative convention; their only similarity in this area being the absence of psychologism – “the vague reflection of the hero’s vague soul, the image of his torments, the shadow of his desires” (Robbe-Grillet). McCarthy doesn’t give us motives, but rather a dispassionate case study – stripped, as Robbe-Grillet says, of the “total and unique adjective which attempts to unite all the inner qualities, the entire hidden soul of things” – but whose object is strictly hypothetical. McCarthy’s principle “innovation” is to adopt a fictional premise and subject it to an exacting realism – the premise being that, in the figure of his protagonist, there’s no authentic experience, only re-enactment. Or, rather, that experience only becomes authentic by way of re-enactment; the more fictive, the more vicarious the “original” experience, the better.

What Smith accomplishes in framing Remainder in the way she does, as the straw man in an argument about the viability of anything that might be described as experimental fiction, is to draw a line under the notion of experiment that admits only what has already entered into the mainstream of Anglo-American publishing (the rather historical example of Genet, whose canonicity was hardly in question at the time of Smith’s writing) and ostensibly to reject any model of “experimentation” that deviates from the realist mode (she mentions Trocchi and Kavan, but not Ann Quin or Brigid Brophy). Likewise, the American writers she cites as examples of what certain unnamed “famous public critics” have rejected as postmodernist aberration, are all major figures: Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, Foster-Wallace.

Since the publication of Smith’s article, small press authors have been notable in making the Booker Prize shortlist, notably Alison Moore in 2012, represented by Salt Publishing – a press in part initiated by Australian poet John Kinsella. The 2012 shortlist also included two other small presses, Myrmidon and Other Stories, both of them regional UK presses. The chair of the Booker panel, Peter Stothard made patronising references to this “new” state of affairs, the literary media mused, telephones buzzed in agencies across London. But what was missing from the benevolence of the industry towards its smaller players was the acknowledgement that, ever since the publishing bubble burst at the end of the ’90s, editors and business managers made redundant at the major conglomerates like Pan McMillan had been quietly colonising the medium and small presses in the US and UK – either directly, or by a kind of stealth. Soft Skull Press in New York is an example of the former, Salt of the latter – having repositioned itself after years of publishing experimental poetry and some fiction to become a small-scale replica of the commercial big houses, producing precisely the kind of work that would fall within the ambit of the Booker Prize.

But genuine experimentation is both difficult to define and difficult to encounter on bookshelves, depending on where you happen to look. The space available for small presses in the literary market place is increasingly circumscribed by the nature of the publishing/distribution industries. The majority of presses devoted to experimental works are historical entities, now either defunct, like Calder, or partially defunct and defined primarily by their backlist, like Grove, City Lights, New Directions, Fiction Collective and Serpents Tail, or so small as to require specialised knowledge to be able to locate them: marginal presses like Starcherone or Twisted Spoon. The notable exception is John O’Brien’s Dalkey Archive Press, based in Illinois, which has continued in the tradition of John Calder presenting experimental authors in translation, such as Arno Schmidt, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Michal Ajvaz, alongside experimental English-language authors whose work had fallen out of print or been previously unavailable, like Harry Mathews, Ann Quin, Rikki Ducornet, as well as new writers like Joshua Cohen whose formally ambitious and intellectually demanding work lies beyond the ken of mainstream publishing.

Cohen’s monumental novel Witz, released by Dalkey in 2010, earned its author international notoriety when it was named the Village Voice’s Best Book of 2010. It’s been described as

…a deliberate act of excess that’s also an exercise in omission – the product of a negative aesthetic that emphasises what isn’t there. In telling the story of the last Jew alive, for example, Cohen omits the word “Jew.” And within the loose skeleton of a coming-of-age story, he negates the premise of growth through experience by having his central character be born “full size, at full intelligence… with glasses and hairy.”[5]

If a basic distinction can be made here between Witz and Remainder, it would be that – in the framework provided by Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel” – McCarthy represents “experimentation” as subject-orientated (concerned with its own authentic-inauthenticity, its own status as simulacrum), while Cohen represents a language-orientated writing, in which subject is always bound to forms of discourse – in the case of Witz, a discourse of omission, occlusion, and ex-communication. Here is Cohen on the “birth” of his protagonist, Benjamin Israelien:

…even old, old enough, what with those wrinkles and the pruning red and the wizened blue eyes and the mouth that’s ready to say—what’s with all that hair flecked ruddy blond and with these clunky glasses on how the daughters crowd in to get a better look, their drippy frames bent from His passage the better to know His parents by and His sisters, gasping in terror their own eyes, their own mouths as He’s wipedoff, amniotic forewater pissily pooled over His hairily rimmed and pudgily lipped mouth bubbling to burst upon his glasses’ lenses, smudgy with fluid, that and His, nu, you know, too, which is hairy as well, the beard down below and apparently, can it be, already circumcised… (81-2)

Cohen is less concerned with depicting the real, inauthentic or otherwise, than with articulating the “real” in its state of constant genesis. “We all have to keep inventing maniacally,” Cohen writes, “to keep up with the real.” His language is frequently idiomatic and idiosyncratic, blending East Coast Yiddish, Joycean puns and portmanteaus in what the New York Times reviewer described as a “vigorous assault on the sentence as a unit of simple communication,” while his plotlines fabricate wildly beyond the borders of the factual, to “enkitsch,” as he says, “the lives of the no-longer living.”

In some respects, Cohen’s career is what McCarthy’s might have been had his work found a permanent home outside the mainstream. Cohen’s first book was released by the Prague-based small press, Twisted Spoon, which produced his collection of short stories, The Quorum, in 2005, at about the same time as it was considering McCarthy’s Men in Space (written before Remainder but published only afterwards). Both McCarthy and Cohen write for the major literary periodicals: Cohen is a frequent contributor to Harpers, The New York Times, Bookforum and others and his most recent novel, Four New Messages, was even named a Best Book of 2012 by The New Yorker. His work, however, differs significantly from McCarthy’s in that it engages in sometimes radical formal experimentation.

One of Cohen’s early novels, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto (Fugue State Press, 2008) – originally a short story published in the Prague Literary Review – is comprised of a non-stop rant by a violinist who halts a concert performance mid-way to address an improvised, verbal “cadenza” at the audience. A Heaven of Others, published by Starcherone in 2007, is an elliptical account of a dead Israeli boy’s accidental journey to the wrong heaven, the Muslim heaven of his murderer, a young Palestinian suicide bomber. Witz, meanwhile, recounts the parallel stories of the last Jew on earth, Benjamin Israelien, and the last remaining survivor of Auschwitz, Joseph Cohen. It was compared in the New York Observer to Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow and noted for its defiance of summarisation and use of “puns, allusions, digressions, authorial sleights of hand and structural gags” – precisely the type of anti-realism that finds no place in Zadie Smith’s future vision of the Anglophone novel.

It’s arguable that in the current publishing climate, Cohen’s Witz would never have found a mainstream publisher regardless of the merit attached to it, and were it not for the ambitions of Dalkey Archive would remain in relative obscurity when compared with either of the works Smith discusses in her article. This, of course, isn’t a novel state of affairs, but it perhaps speaks to our time. After the ’70s, when authors like Pynchon, Coover, Grass and others, secured a place on the lists of houses like Knopf, Grove and Picador, the trend in Anglophone publishing has been towards a business model of corporate consolidation and a marketing strategy that could be described as keeping in step with Hollywood: which is to say, dominated by a formulaic recycling of an entertainment model geared to maximising revenues. Unlike the ’70s and the New Hollywood of that decade, when even the major studios exposed themselves to creative risk-taking, the years since in publishing have been dominated by block-buster mentality profit-taking in the ’80s and ’90s, and conservative pragmatism in the years since.

This has produced some anomalies along the way. Translation, never the industry in English-speaking countries as it is elsewhere, discovered its heyday in the 1980s and ’90s on the back of socalled French Theory and the global celebrity of Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and others. A number of (mostly) American academic presses like Chicago and Stanford radically expanded their commercial base as a consequence. Previously small, scholarly and left-leaning UK presses like Athlone (Continuum) and Polity similarly underwent significant changes. The impact of the French Theory industry affected the status of translation, the quality of translations – often by translators closely engaged in the theories themselves – and the market exposure of antecedent works in translation that had previously experienced limited availability (even including thinkers and writers with – at that time – a certain marginal celebrity in their own right, like Robbe-Grillet and Jacques Lacan). The vogue in French Theory also affected the reception of translations of German works, and to a much lesser extent those from Spanish – which tended to be fiction-led. Central and Eastern European languages also experienced a surge of interest following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but only briefly.

However much it may seem that during the ’80s and ’90s the market in translation was flooded – some might say indiscriminately – by works of all kinds in any way affiliated with French Theory, we need to be rather circumspect in our assumptions about the reception of work that fell outside the template of the academic and other industries that grew out of the theory boom. While French Theory provided a certain renewed impetus for avant-gardism, this impetus was – with exceptions, largely academic and scholastic. In the arts, Theory tended to feed back into a recycling of forms whose reception had already been paved in the ’60s and ’70s and had a defined commercial value or had been legitimised in the mainstream arts press and cultural welfare programmes (the various Arts Councils). In literature, it spurred nominal interests in works by a range of writers, some of them already canonical elsewhere, like Mallarmé, Lautréamont and Bataille.

But the notion that a French Theoretical milieu had been dumped wholesale on the Anglo-American market is rather misleading; we can see, simply by looking at the pages of such an influential journal as Tel Quel, that already the translation industry of the ’80s and ’90s was brought to bear as an apparatus of selective reception. The key figure we can point to here would be none other than the editor-in-chief of Tel Quel, the publisher of seminal works by Derrida and many others, husband of Julia Kristeva, a central figure on the Parisian cultural scene, recipient of the Prix Médicis for his first novel and widely heralded by the likes of Mauriac and Aragon – Philippe Sollers.

Sollers’s early works, A Strange Solitude, Le Parc and Drame, were published in English translation by John Calder and Marion Boyars in the UK in the late ’60s, and by Red Dust in the US in the mid-’80s. Sollers’s criticism, collected as Writing and the Experience of Limits, was published in 1983 by Columbia University Press, which also published his late “reactionary” novel Les Femmes (Women) in 1990. However, despite the fact that Derrida and Kristeva both published essays, and Roland Barthes a book, on Sollers’s major works of the Tel Quel period – Nombres, Lois, and H – not one of these books, in the almost fifty intervening years, has appeared in English.

In these novels, Sollers moves increasingly towards a freer use of language, to the point where, in H, he entirely abandons the use of punctuation, allowing the text to establish a type of semantic cadence through the voice of the reader. If in Nombres he sought (as McCarthy would later) to “overcome a sense of the inauthenticity of lived experience… founded in the oppressiveness of the spectacle,”[6] in H he moves towards a Joycean insistence upon the experience of language itself, as materiality. Not materiality-as-subject, as in Remainder, but the materiality of sense – a far more radical, far more antipodal stance.

If, returning to Smith’s “two paths,” we were to schematise a trend here, we might be led to describe McCarthy’s writing as more or less conventionally mimetic (while asking about the status of mimēsis as such, as capable of transmitting the authenticity/inauthenticity of any supervening idea), and Cohen’s Witz as linguistic-mimetic (its subject is language, around which it builds narratives, identifiable plots and so on: a world, as Michelle Dicinoski puts it, “in the shape of a narrative”). In turn, Sollers’s H would represent the anti-mimetic – a reaching towards a purely linguistic construction in which language is neither instrument nor object, but rather an articulation, as it were, of an interiority of sense (a subjectivity in language) and in so being establishes the only terms of authentic (in this case experiential) communication by exploding the ground of mimetic inauthenticity:

…which says hello the machine with its lanky legs its deformed side cata bases its stiff press buttons tonic accents outside of stanza she dreamed tonight that i was throwing a ball very high and very far it’s never going to stop it lights up passing the hoops arranged meridians rounder when it traverses them and here’s the bomb that falls back all hot smoke-filled grilled so we’re in the mountains there’s powder snow look at the white violet crystals feel that air and indeed we dig our ankles into full foam for the first time the hallucination is dropwise seen from within cut stride cata cata catalysis it’s been days and days that she was pouting in her sinister corner but this morning on the way it’s the open the hollow decided is there another form no will the answer be of course not no-one and besides delirium isn’t delirium go on turn the lock the missing lock the key that doesn’t exist…[7]

There’s no avoiding the militant character and aspiration of Sollers’s project, which refuses the terms of inquiry and debate characterised by Zadie Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel” nor is there any question of Sollers submitting to such a dichotomy. There’s little doubt that if Remainder represents for Smith the antipodes of O’Neill’s fiction, Sollers represents the antipodes of what Smith calls fiction per se. It’s both a realism and an anti-realism: anti-realist to the extent it’s anti-mimetic; realist to the extent that it supplants narrative conventionality with the experiential. It makes a direct assault upon the complacencies of reading that allow such distinctions as Smith’s to assume centre stage in a discussion of the “future of the novel” and, while doing so, calls for new ways of reading – a reading that directly impinges upon the reader who is, in turn, reconfigured by the text. Roland Barthes has this to say about Sollers’s writing:

What is new here is that this inflexible submission to the practice of writing… seems to go through a kind of radical madness of the subject, an endless series of unending and unwearying involvements. You are present at a mad struggle between the “inconclusion” of attitudes… whose succession always remains open… and the weight of the Image [the “mimetic” register, in other words], which invincibly tends to solidify; for the destiny of the Image is immobility. To attack this immobility, this mortification of the image, as Sollers does is a dangerous, extremist action…[8]

But if Sollers hits his mark, it’s still Realism that has the last word, for it’s the business of Realism to have a last word. In the final instance, such acts of extremism are already subsumed by a conception of Realism which simultaneously effects their exclusion. Two contrary paths are indeed seen to open out from this apparent paradox, each disavowing the other – whether in the language of subversion or of revisionism. If a certain potentiality of Realism is activated in works so seemingly remote as H, Witz and Remainder, this should alert us to the dangers of future proscriptions of the likes of Smith’s “two paths.”

Or, we can understand this problem differently. Just as McCarthy’s narrator rejects the “unordinary”[9] in favour of a total architecture of a banal immersed in its own serial “authentication,” so Sollers and Cohen proffer an architecture of the radically iterable event. Where the latter departs from the former is that McCarthy’s assault upon such paradigms rests at a thematic level, while for Cohen and Sollers’s what’s at stake is language itself, not simply what language is purported to describe. The risk for Remainder is that it may be reduced to a type of décor (and alibi) in the latest annex of lyrical Realism. In Smith’s “Two Paths,” this is indeed the case, with Remainder being offered up as a way for business to proceed more or less as usual, with a clear conscience.[10]

If for Cohen and Sollers the ordinary and experiential are bound to language, this isn’t because language is a tool for the mere reporting of daily events, emotions, thoughts, but for the opposite reason, that language reflects the perversion inherent to ordinary things and vice versa. The final image of Remainder is perhaps appropriate here – a plane flying in an endless figure-eight, a recursive loop which will last exactly as long as the fuel in the plane’s tank. It’s as if McCarthy is adverting here to precisely the trap that Realism in Smith’s “Two Path’s” represents, in which deviation always feeds back into normalisation: the perverse logic at work in McCarthy’s radical materialism remains a depicted logic in which the novel’s language never itself partakes. The picture may be of an open figure, a jet-streamed infinity written in the sky, but the form itself is a closed circle, as Smith well knows. But Remainder is perverse enough for Smith to detect a countervailing force in it – a force which seamlessly expropriates even that which apparently contradicts it, completing the matrix wherein authentic and inauthentic are combined with disarming facility.


*Presented as a lecture in the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies, Monash University, Melbourne, 8 April 2013; first published in American Asparagus 1 (2013), revised with invaluable assistance from Laurie Lee at the University of Chicago.

[1]   Zadie Smith, “Two Paths for the Novel,” New York Review of Books, 20 November 2008.

[2]   “Realism” is intended here to convey a notion of language, employed in a largely naturalistic mode, largely confined within syntactic and grammatical conventions. Smith’s “Realism” is fundamentally affective: it is a “communicated realism.” Its fictions are evocative to the extent that they are expressed within a highly circumscribed linguistic framework – whether it be the lyricism of O’Neill or the “radical materialism” of Tom McCarthy to which Smith sees it as opposed, or of what David Foster Wallace earlier called the “three dreary camps” of “Neiman-Marcus Nihilism,” “Catatonic Realism” and “Workshop Hermeticism.”

[3]   Geoff Manaugh, “Time Control,” BLDG Blog, 3 July 2008.

[4]   Liesl Schillinger, “Play it Again,” New York Times / Sunday Book Review, 25 February 2007.

[5]   Stephen Burn, “Tribe of One,” The New York Times (Sunday Book Review), 13 June 2010: BR27.

[6]   Malcolm Pollard, The Novels of Philippe Sollers: Narrative and the Visual (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994) 80.

[7]   Philippe Sollers, H (Paris: Gallimard, 1973), trans. Veronika Stankovianska and David Vichnar, VLAK 2 (2011): 12.

[8]   Roland Barthes, “Oscillation,” Sollers écrivain (Paris: éditions du Seuil, 1979).

[9]   The concocted fetish of the singular, the unique, which Smith identifies as the stock-in-trade of lyrical Realism.

[10]   On this point, “Realism” (lyrical or otherwise) has no need to affect sincerity, to appear convincing, or to make amends for its excesses. To the contrary, the question is rather of elective affinities with a writing that hectors for a last word, even while offering consolations to enlarge itself, the image of its benefaction, of its munificence, tinged with the shame of its readiness to betray its own kind, to hand over scapegoats if only to maintain familiar prerogatives for the next fifteen minutes.

This excerpt was first published by the author on the Equus Press website.

 

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