Thursday, August 09, 2007

A P.S. About Hysterical Realism

When I recently wrote about Jonathan Franzen, I mentioned that I thought the literary critic James Wood was more correct in applying his phrase "hysterical realism" to Don DeLillo than to Zadie Smith. Turns out, Wood partly agrees. The big (but not astounding) news this week was that Wood is leaving The New Republic to become a staff writer for The New Yorker. In noting the move, Paper Cuts excerpted a past interview with Wood in The Kenyon Review, where he said, in part:
(White Teeth by Zadie Smith) was a funny, lively, exciting book in many ways, but I was struck that I was having an experience not unlike the experience of reading a number of other contemporary novels, large contemporary novels.

And that's to say, I had been completely unmoved. There had been no transformation of feeling. And it sent me thinking about why that might be, what the central lack might be. And it seemed to me that it had something to do with character and the human. I then began to think of Smith's novel in relation to a number of other large books: Underworld by Don DeLillo, Pynchon's recent book Mason & Dixon, David Foster Wallace's large book Infinite Jest, and so on. Was there some kind of genre here in which the cartoonish was displacing the real? In which the machinery of plot was also blocking out in some way a greater simplicity? I also thought perhaps there was an interesting borrowing from Dickens: It seems to me that if you look at a book like Underworld, it is in fact a sort of quite old-fashioned social novel like Bleak House -- it tries to account for the connectedness of society at various levels. But, and here was the thing that struck me, strongly in relation to DeLillo, perhaps less acutely in relation to Smith, was that the connectedness was entirely conceptual. It was asserted by DeLillo and it exists on the level of paranoia and ideology and so on. "This is how we will account for the last fifty years of American life." There was no human connectedness at all. There were lots of different characters; none of them had any real life with each other. The really striking difference from Dickens, say.


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