Hysterical realism

Prospect Magazine

Hysterical realism

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Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” is the latest in a new genre of over-heated realist novels. Are they just imitating Dickens without the emotional force?

a genre is hardening. It is becoming possible to describe today’s “big, ambitious novel.” Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: Dickens. Such recent novels as Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, DeLillo’s Underworld, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges.

The big contemporary novel is a perpetual motion machine. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, flaunting their glamorous congestion. Vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned. A parody would go like this. If a character is introduced in London (call him Toby Awknotuby, ie “To be or not to be”-ha!) then we will be swiftly told that he has a twin in Delhi (called Boyt: an anagram of Toby), who, like Toby, has the same curious genital deformation, and

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