Friday, December 5, 2008

"Hyterical realism" and digression

I finished re-reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith last night. I'm still struggling with my resistance to James Wood's critique. I know that he appreciates some things in it and that in fact my own delight and annoyance with the book probably closely tracks his, but I'm bothered by how his annoyance seems to be based on a categorical objection rather than her success or failure within that category.

The other day I was discussing this in terms of the social novel, but it's probably the quality of "digression" that is more central to the question. Smith and others that Wood labels, in The Irresponsible Self: On Laugher and the Novel, as "hysterical realism" often have digressions full of sophisticated, even expert, detail on scientific, social, historical and political topics tangentially related to the story. That and other narrative elements, often documentary in nature like signs, letters, emails, etc. supply a quality of pastiche. The other thing they often do is introduce the author--have the author talk over the disembodied narrative voice and apparently show off the author's knowledge or research skills. That's the worst-case, and I'm with Wood in his judgment of David Foster Wallace when he plays this trick. I find Wallace's writing self indulgent.

But this quality of digression is not unique to contemporary authors. It is common in Don Quixote and it's full bloom probably occurs in Moby Dick. Most people who find Moby Dick a chore to read probably feel that way because of that specific habit. If you don't like it or get it, it's an indulgence. The same quality is why its fans regard it is as transformational.

I don't remember seeing any evaluation of Moby Dick by James Wood, so I don't know how he feels about it. But he definitely doesn't include it in his critique of hysterical realism. It seems to me that he is attacking the Young Turks because they are Young Turks and not because they fail to deploy the technique of digression succesfully.

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