Zadie Smith – The Autograph Man
For someone with my particular literary damage, reading this novel for the first time in 2014 was a lot like having the arguments of 2001 all over again. If literary critic James Wood’s attack on what he deemed “hysterical realism” has a fitting target it is this over-eager, initially likeable but ultimately tiresome second novel from Smith.
The story of “twenty-something Chinese-Jewish autograph dealer” Alex-Li Tandem’s frantic, free-wheeling attempts to lose himself in the search for his pop culture obsession, The Autograph Man spends its four hundred plus pages tilting after a curiously overdetermined sort of oblivion. To mangle a Samuel Johnston quote most boys of my age know by way of popular wise guy Hunter S. Thompson, Tandem acts in the belief that he who becomes his hobbies spares himself the pain of being a man. The novel follows suit, hence the ever-egressing framework of Kabbalistic associations, Zen progressions, verbal tics (“the popular” and ”wise guy” chief among them), Rabbinical comedy routines and generally excessive detail. All of this by way of keeping Tandem from dealing with the world’s tendency towards impermanence and disorder: these events take place in the build-up to the tenth anniversary of his fathers’ death, and in the aftermath of a destructive trip that seems like it might cost Tandem most of his established relationships, and also his car.
The overlapping structures of this novel are all fine and sturdy, and have elsewhere proven themselves more than capable of supporting, variously: an Oscar Wilde aphorism, an essay by Walter Benjamin (“wise guy” and recipient of the novel’s worst punchline), the occult adventure comic Promethea, and an excellent graphic novel by Eddie Campbell. There’s nothing to say that they couldn’t provide the framework for an excellent Zadie Smith novel too, but the difference between The Autograph Man and all of the aforementioned works is that Smith’s imaginative scaffolding seems to exist around very little that was worth supporting in the first place.
March 10th, 2014
George Eliot – Silas Marner
Despite its sentimental, Dickensian cover and premise – an outcast weaver is drawn back into society by the arrival of an orphaned child in his life – this short novel is yet more evidence of Eliot’s ability to create the impression of distance in her fictions. Eliot’s mastery of the bourgeois novel is of a similar kind and order to Milton’s mastery of the epic poem; the devil, as always, is in the details and how they’re relayed.
It’s worth comparing Marner’s transition over the first part of this novel with Scrooge’s in A Christmas Carol in order to better understand Eliot’s method. Dickens is one of the all time great narrators, and he trusts that the effects he has conveyed so spectacularly throughout his ghost story will linger with both his notorious outcast and miser and the reader even after he’s allowed the illusion to collapse in on itself:
For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”
The kind hand trembled.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.
Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.
Compare the drama of Dickens’s line to the ever-shifting emphasis of this paragraph from the final bloom of Silas Marner‘s first volume:
Silas began now to think of Raveloe life entirely in relation to Eppie: she must have everything that was a good in Raveloe; and he listened docilely, that he might come to understand better what this life was, from which, for fifteen years, he had stood aloof as from a strange thing, with which he could have no communion: as some man who has a precious plant to which he would give a nurturing home in a new soil, thinks of the rain, and the sunshine, and all influences, in relation to his nursling, and asks industriously for all knowledge that will help him to satisfy the wants of the searching roots, or to guard leaf and bud from invading harm. The disposition to hoard had been utterly crushed at the very first by the loss of his long-stored gold: the coins he earned afterwards seemed as irrelevant as stones brought to complete a house suddenly buried by an earthquake; the sense of bereavement was too heavy upon him for the old thrill of satisfaction to arise again at the touch of the newly-earned coin. And now something had come to replace his hoard which gave a growing purpose to the earnings, drawing his hope and joy continually onward beyond the money.
In Eliot’s hands a seemingly romantic conceit – a child’s improving effect on an alienated adult – is nevertheless established to be effective only inasmuch as Marner’s continued obligations to the child necessitate a continued interaction with society as a whole. This is typical of Eliot’s approach, which emphasises connection and consequence over the triumph of kind hearts and stirring rhetoric.
This comparison is, however, not offered in order to disparage Dickens, whose busy narration looks simultaneously backward to the jarring shifts of the best English poetry and forward to the juddering machinery of modern comedy. And if it’s true that those same novels are premised on a call to individual kindness that overlooks the necessity for any broader or more systematic change then that does not diminish their effectiveness in making vivid the muck and dirt of unreformed reality.
The simple truth is that Eliot’s talents are slightly different in nature, and their magnitude does not need to be exaggerated by the disparagement of other novelists even if they may be better understood in light of the comparison.
Staying mindful of the example of Dickens, it occurs that the subject of the novelist vs. the social order that produced them is a curious one when applied to Eliot’s work. The form of the bourgeois novel she so excels at may in itself may replicate bourgeois values by way of its sheer confidence, but Eliot interrogates these conventions through the startling depth and clarity of her narrative judgements, which contrast with the narrative itself in a way that can’t help but provoke quiet inquiry.
The introduction to the edition I read makes up for any awkwardness its cover may engender by virtue of an astute introduction by R.T. Jones (an Honorary Fellow of the University of York, apparently), in which Jones tracks some of the juxtapositions that exist in Silas Marner‘s framing story, arguing that for all Eliot’s narration chides Godfrey for foolishly hoping that all would work out well when he didn’t claim his secret child, the story bears out his actions more than it does her words:
…the novel leads us to conclude that if Godfrey had done the right thing, acknowledged his first wife and her baby as his, Nancy would not have married him; Eppie (under a different name, of course) would have grown up in the Red House with no mother and a resentful father; so Godfrey, Nancy and Eppie would have had very little oppotunity for happiness, and of course Silas Marner would have remained an exile from human society.
Silas Marner ends on a statement of total happiness that somehow fails to ring false, but the novel never once lets you forget that fairy-tale conclusion has been built on a series of disappointments, lies, and betrayals, and it is Eliot’s ability to keep both of these seemingly contradictory positions in perspective that gives the truest account of her peculiar genius in this short novel.