Hysterical realism

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?
November 20, 2000

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 that their mother belongs to a religious cult based in the Orkney Islands, and that their father (who was born at the exact second that the Hiroshima bomb was dropped) has been a Hell's Angel for the last 13 years (but in a curious Hell's Angel group, devoted only to the fanatical study of late Wordsworth), and that their mad left-wing aunt, Delilah, was curiously struck dumb when Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister, and has not spoken since. And all this, over many pages, before poor Toby Awknotuby has done a thing, or thought a thought!

Is this really a caricature? Recent novels by Rushdie, Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace and others, have featured a great rock musician who, when born, began immediately to play air guitar in his crib (Rushdie); a talking dog, a mechanical duck, a giant octagonal cheese and two clocks having a conversation (Pynchon); a nun called Sister Edgar who is obsessed with germs and who may be a reincarnation of J Edgar Hoover, and a conceptual artist painting retired B-52 bombers in the New Mexican desert (DeLillo); a terrorist group devoted to the liberation of Quebec called the Wheelchair Assassins, and a film so compelling that anyone who sees it dies (Foster Wallace). Zadie Smith's novel features, among other things: a terrorist Islamic group based in North London with a silly acronym (Kevin); a Jewish scientist who is genetically engineering a mouse; a woman born during an earthquake in Kingston, Jamaica in 1907; a group of Jehovah's Witnesses; and twins, one in Bangladesh and one in London, who both break their noses at about the same time.

This is not magical realism but hysterical realism. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, over-worked. One's objections are made not at the level of verisimilitude but at the level of morality: the style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality-the usual charge-but because it seems evasive of reality, while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up but a cover-up.

The mode of narration of these books seems to be almost incompatible with tragedy or anguish. Underworld, the darkest of them, nevertheless carries within it-in its calm profusion of characters and plots, its flawless carpet of fine prose on page after page-a soothing sense that it might never have to end; that another 1,000 or 2,000 pages might easily be added. There are many enemies, seen and unseen, in Underworld, but silence is not one of them.

Books like these are praised for being brilliant cabinets of wonders. So many stories! So many weird and funky characters! Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation. The mere existence of a giant cheese or a cloned mouse or three different earthquakes in a novel is seen as meaningful evidence of great imaginative powers. And this is because, too often, these features are mistaken for scenes, as if they constituted the movement or workings or pressure of the novel, rather than being taken for what they are-props of the imagination, meaning's toys.

What are these busy stories and sub-stories evading? One awkwardness hidden in the frenzy is about the very possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character in fiction. By and large, these are not stories that could never happen (as, say, a thriller or a magic realist novel often contains things that could never happen); rather, they portray people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them. They are not stories in which people defy the laws of physics (one could be born in an earthquake); they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion. This is what Aristotle means when he says that in storytelling "a convincing impossibility" (a man levitating, say) is preferable to "an unconvincing possibility" (say, the possibility that a fundamentalist group in London would continue to call itself Kevin).

Above all, what makes these stories unconvincing is their very profusion, their relatedness. Yet it is just the relatedness of these stories which their writers seem to cherish, and propose as an absolute value-as inherently meaningful. The different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves. There is an obsession with connecting characters with each other, as information is connected in the world wide web. These are internet novels, in a sense.

In Underworld, everything and everyone is connected in some way to paranoia and to the nuclear threat. The Ground Beneath Her Feet suggests that a deep structure of myth, both Greek and Indian, binds all the characters together. White Teeth ends with a clashing finale, in which all the novel's characters-most of whom are now dispersed between various fanatical religious groups-head towards a London press conference where the scientist, Marcus Chalfen, is announcing the successful cloning of his mouse.

Alas, since the characters in these novels are not really alive, their connectedness can only be insisted on; indeed, the reader begins to think that it is being insisted on precisely because they do not really exist. After all, real humans disaggregate more often than congregate. The forms of these novels tell us that we are all connected-by the Bomb (DeLillo), or by myth (Rushdie), or by our natural multiracial multiplicity (Smith); but it is a formal lesson, not an actual enactment.

An excess of storytelling has become the contemporary way of shrouding, in majesty, a lack. That lack is the human. Since modernism, there has been a crisis in how to create human character on the page. Since modernism, many of the finest writers have been offering critique and parody of the idea of character, in the absence of convincing ways to return to an innocent representation of character. Certainly, the people who inhabit the big, ambitious contemporary novels have a showy liveliness-liveliness hangs off them like jewellery. This is less true of Zadie Smith than of Rushdie; Smith's principal characters move in and out of human depth. Sometimes they seem to provoke her sympathy; at other times they are only externally comic. As realism, much of White Teeth is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic. There is too much shiny externality, too much caricature.

It might be argued that literature has only very rarely represented character. Even the great novelists, like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, resort to caricature, didactically speaking over characters, using repetitive leitmotifs, and so on. The truly unhostaged-the Chekhovs-are rare. Thomas Mann's first novel Buddenbrooks, a beautiful novel written by a writer only a year older than Zadie Smith, makes plentiful use of the leitmotif as a way of affixing signatures to different characters. (Yet how those characters live!)

And Dickens, of course, is the great master of the leitmotif. Many of Dickens's characters are, as EM Forster rightly put it, flat but vibrating very fast. They are vivid blots of essence, souls seen only through thick, gnarled casings. Dickens has been the overwhelming influence on postwar fiction in the English-speaking world. There is hardly a writer who has not been touched by him: Angus Wilson and Muriel Spark; Martin Amis's robust, comic gargoyles; Rushdie's outsize character; the intensely theatrical Angela Carter; the Naipaul of Mr Biswas; VS Pritchett's cocky salesmen; and now Zadie Smith. In America, Saul Bellow's genius for grotesquerie and for vivid external description owes something to Dickens; and what was Underworld but an old-fashioned Dickensian novel like Bleak House, with an ambition to describe all of society on its different levels?

One reason for the popularity of Dickens among contemporary novelists is that his way of creating and propelling theatrically alive characters offers an easy model for writers unable or unwilling to create characters who are fully human. Dickens shows a novelist how to get a character launched, if not how to keep one afloat. He makes caricature respectable for an age in which it has become hard to create character.

Yet in Dickens there is an immediate access to strong feeling, which tears the puppetry of his people, breaks their casings, and lets us enter them. Mr Micawber is a simple, univocal essence, but he feels, and he makes us feel. One recalls that passionate, bare sentence, in which David Copperfield tells us: "Mr Micawber was waiting for me within the gate, and we went up to his room, and cried very much."

It is difficult to find a single moment like that in all the many thousands of pages of the big, ambitious, contemporary books. It has become customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours within a complex fictional world such as Rushdie's or Foster Wallace's, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful. Which is why you never want to reread a book like The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

But this failure has also to do with the fact that some of the best novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist's quarries any more. Information has become the new character. It is this, and the use made of Dickens, that connects these "literary" writers with an entertainer like Tom Wolfe, despite the literary distinction of the former and the cinematic vulgarity of the latter. Tom Wolfe has argued repeatedly that the writer's task is to go out and bloat oneself with information on "how the world works." This in turn is not very different from the recent manifesto of Britain's literary New Puritans, despite the leanness of their style. Like Wolfe, they argue that literature must tell us about our culture now, and that it must bristle with real brand names and real place-names. This is merely a variant of the informational connectedness of Smith, Rushdie, Pynchon, DeLillo, and others.

For if information or knowledge is your hero, then it will suffice to make do with vivacious caricatures. Zadie Smith has said, in an interview, that her concern is with "ideas and themes that I can tie together-problem-solving from other places and worlds." Thus the abundant Smith reveals herself a New Puritan at heart. It is not the writer's job, she says, "to tell us how somebody felt about something, it's to tell us how their world works." Citing the American writers David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, she comments: "these are guys who know a great deal about the world. They understand macro- and microeconomics, the internet, maths, philosophy, but... they're still people who know about the street, about family, love, sex, whatever. That is an incredibly fruitful combination. If you can get the balance right. And I don't think any of us have quite yet, but hopefully one of us will."

This is gently, modestly put. And to give Smith her considerable due, she may be more likely to "get the balance right" than any of her contemporaries-in part because she sees that a balance is needed, and in part because she is very talented and still very young. At her best, she approaches her characters and makes them human; she is more interested in this than Rushdie is, for example, and much more gifted at it than are the New Puritans. About her, one is tempted to apply Orwell's remark, that Dickens had rotten architecture but great gargoyles. The architecture is the essential silliness of her lunge for multiplicities-her cults and cloned mice and Jamaican earthquakes. Formally, her book lacks moral seriousness. But her details are often instantly convincing, both funny and moving.

When Smith is writing well, she seems capable of almost anything. She more than justifies the excitement she has provoked. But in a recent interview she has said that her next novel will have a half-Chinese, half-Jewish hero and will be about Jewish mysticism, and alarm bells start sounding: she is chasing a conceptual hybridity that seems all too familiar. She is, at present, a representative figure because her novel is poised (or torn) between a commitment to the human, to human stories, to a modern kind of realism, and a love affair with the more dominant contemporary strain-the wildly multiple and hybrid, the cartoonish, the zany, the farcical, and the wastefully abundant. Like contemporary British fiction, she could go either way. One holds one's breath, for her, and for it.

Adapted from an essay in the New Republic. "The Broken Estate" by James Wood (rrp £12.50) can be purchased for £10.50. Call 020 8324 5649