By one catastrophically limited measure, the best novel of the year is surely Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland—best in that it has generated the most intelligent critical disagreement this year on what a novel is. Add to that productively contumacious environment Zadie Smith’s current piece in the New York Review of Books, a dual review of the O’Neill and the novel Remainder by Tom McCarthy. One of Smith’s theses for the piece: “The two novels are antipodal—indeed one is the strong refusal of the other.” Anyone interested in novels as more than passing entertainments will find Smith’s piece a useful broadening of mind, one with which one can agreeably disagree.
Smith’s is a scrupulously aesthetic reading of the novel. She gives no quarter to content that isn’t about the novel’s novelness. After taxonomizing the book as a “post–September 11 novel,” Smith precises “a post-catastrophe novel but the catastrophe isn’t terror, it’s Realism.” This is a nice argumentative tack for the O’Neill, a book scrupulously aware of its effects, its engagement with what novels do and how–but perhaps not, as Smith argues, as in command of that engagement as that awareness might first suggest. “Everything must be made literary,” Smith argues of O’Neill’s style, one she finds false. For where a number of public readers have seen the novel as an anatomy of 21st century anomie and refined tedium, Smith suspects the highly-accomplished style as helplessly reflecting that corruption. She writes that O’Neill gives all he observes “the high lyrical treatment, in what feels, at its best, like a grim satire on the profound fatuity of twenty-first-century bourgeois existence.”
Smith, whose last novel contained much that was in a mode no less “high lyrical” if considerably more gently satirical, knows of what she writes. And, unlike many in her cohort, she can vaunt writers utterly unlike her. A student of critical theory whose favorite contemporary writer was David Foster Wallace, Smith explores Netherland not to the end of knocking O’Neill off the little critical pedestal carved for him by others, but to praise Tom McCarthy’s far less noticed Remainder. Smith’s pairing is critically useful, even though I find the latter novel, in its various involutions, more programmatic than profound. Still, if you’ve read the O’Neill, I would suggest you read the McCarthy, an enterprise as determinedly anti- as Netherland is pro-. And to get the ball rolling, if you don’t mind meeting a novel first through a discursive gloss, spend time with Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel” as your weekend read.