Zadie Smith in the Caves: part I

Posted on August 16, 2010


I haven’t read Jonathan Franzen’s new book “Freedom.” And I never will. None-the-less, this is my review of that book. I rate it poor. (Writing reviews of books one hasn’t read is a new form known as Imaginative Journalism. Very louche.) I rate it so poor in fact that it causes me to question the value of all fiction everywhere. I did actually read the first two pages excerpted in NY times and as I read I noticed a question tapping at my window pane. The question was: “why am I reading this?” Then I recalled in a flash that same mordant question being asked as I read the first 80 pages of Franzen’s super famous everywhere other book, “The Corrections.” A maddening question that has an indicting answer, “because everybody is reading it.” That guilt is mine; I too follow trends.

Franzen’s prose has the curious and seemingly magical power of evacuating from one’s brain any curiosity/compassion/interest you might have for his characters and narrative. And when I say Seemingly Magical I mean not magical at all, Franzen couldn’t cast a spell to save his life.  This crushing indifference that is so endemic in his smarmy style is infectious. The contamination spreads and suddenly CONTEMPORARY FICTION itself begins to sweat and stink, like cheese left in the hot sun. We ask incredulously, “Wait a minute! You want me to read something that you’ve imagined?” Robbe-Grillet probably has something wry and trenchant to say on this subject. Also that other clench-mouth, the death-society man, Tom McCarthy, who seems in the very act of writing his novel to hate novels, but continues on, bravely writing them anyways.

Zadie Smith, bless her heart, knows exactly what I’m talking about and wrote an essay for the Guardian in which she elucidates upon what she calls Novel Nausea. Unfortunately this article is no longer available, and I’ve forgotten much of what was said. Something about a fictional bullshit? Meretricious authors? Traducing all reality? All of those things were mentioned, I’m sure only to conclude in abdication of her novel nausea at the end of the article by confessing that she is not so much tired of novels but rather tired of BADLY WRITTEN NOVELS. How very scandalous of her to say so. In any case, her disdain has a precedent and that precedent is E.M. Forster.

In his everywhere-referenced, Aspects of the Novel, he answers the question what does a novel do? with this rather curious response, said in a sort of “drooping and regretful voice, ‘yes—oh dear yes—the novel tells a story.’” He goes on to explain that this sadness and regret, proceeds from the very fact that storytelling, the repetition of “and then…and then…and then….” is LOW and ATAVISTIC. That in fact telling a story is something one does in a cave(1) around the paleolithic fire. How very uncomfortable it must have been for him, as a  novelist, to have lived in such a damp and smelly cave! (On a side note, speaking of sadness, one notices of Zadie Smith’s appearance, that it is almost as if her sadness is built into her face. That it is as there as her bones. It is possible for her to look happy, but she can never look not-sad.)

Could this cave that Forster speaks of be the same as those Marabar caves that glower with such menace in A Passage to India?