In her influential 2008 essay, “Two Paths for the Novel,” Zadie Smith aimed to steer novels away from lyrical realism—with its mantra of the self as a bottomless pool—and towards a skepticism of the self as continuous and continuously available to narration. The use of poetic prose for epiphanies, on the one hand, and the emphasis on the gaps between experiences and their capacity to be described, on the other, were antipodal for Smith. The one’s violent refusal of the other, moreover, was a symptom that the novel was ailing.
“All novels,” Smith declared, “attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene.” The relegation of the critique of the “incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self” to “a safe corner of literary history, to be studied in postmodernity modules,” was a hazard to the novel’s well-being. Smith discerned a possible remedy in the revival of the discomfiting narrative modes that Alain Robbe-Grillet used to destroy “the old myths of depth.”
In the decade since Smith’s essay appeared, however, these divergent paths seem to have converged. Smith’s assumption that the academy was insulated from the literary scene helps to date her essay. The proliferation of university-based Creative Writing programs has contributed to thinning the membrane between academic and public literary cultures, producing a permeability that may not be a sign of the robustness of either. The domain of literary fiction now accommodates both Chris Kraus, a latter-day Genet, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the newest occupant of Greene’s territory. The integration of Smith’s two paths can also be seen in the striking number of high-profile recent novels that aim to take both at once by coming in two parts. Their consideration measures the strengths and limits of Smith’s account.
Consisting of two parallel stories linked thematically or symbolically rather than through shared characters or setting, Ali Smith’s How to be Both (2014) provides a most explicit example of the novel in two parts. Released simultaneously in two editions, each beginning with the other narrative, this book put a premium on reading as the means for realizing the stories’ complementarity. How to be Both is literally and materially, as well as symbolically and thematically, a celebration of two-partedness, as its title announces. Both descriptively evocative and skeptical of narrative adequacy, it demands a kind of lyrical reading. Its success, however, depends upon both parts working equally well. The narrative of the 14th-century Italian painter is weaker than that of the contemporary young girl, and readers (like me) who encountered it first may have found the demands of this ingenious contrivance to be in excess of its rewards.
If Ali Smith aimed to strip narrative sequence of significance, for Lauren Groff in Fates and Furies (2015), it was crucial. Groff provides a stereoscopic perspective on a marriage by telling its story in two parts, the first from the perspective of the husband, and the second, that of the wife. The sequence is vital because the third-person narrator remains loyal to each character in turn, as first his and then her consciousness provides the filter for the experiences that are narrated. Groff grants each character a rich descriptive range at times bolstered and occasionally subverted by the mythological superstructure indicated by the novel’s title. The novel thereby achieves considerable revisionary power as the blind-spots deriving from the husband’s egotism are disclosed in the second part. Sequence is the vehicle through which the partners’ incompatibilities are dramatized for the reader, which, often in the case of the husband and sometimes in the case of the wife, go beyond the understanding of the characters themselves. But in demanding that the reader hold together these discrepancies, Groff risks exposing the occasional self-blinding of the narrator, which can feel to the reader like abandonment or betrayal.
Two narratives from different points of view but, unlike Groff’s, told in alternating chapters so that they unfold together, Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark (2017) adopts the bi-partite structure of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-53). The third-person narrative depicts elderly, rich, and cultured Epstein’s shedding of his fortune; the first-person narrative presents a recently divorced novelist in search of (or being found by) material for her new novel. Inevitably, these two parts intersect at the novel’s climactic end which also loops back towards its beginnings. (SPOILER ALERT) After watching Epstein leap off the ledge of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the narrator, Krauss’s alter-ego, will go on to write his story alongside her own. The novel ends on a Proustian note, forecasting the future composition of the very pages we have just read.
These novelists walk both of Zadie Smith’s two paths: they seek a descriptive language that suits their characters’ consciousness and register a skepticism of the adequacy of the novel’s conventional form to capture their experiences. Though they use two-partedness differently and with varying degrees of success, they each navigate Smith’s two paths by making demands on the reader. In each case, the reader supplies the coherence that the narrative knows it otherwise lacks. This is true also of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005), the novel that exemplifies Smith’s preferred skeptical path, as its ending makes clear. Smith, however, emphasizes the novelist and the novel, mentioning readers only to characterize lyrical realism’s indulgence of their expectation for comforting stories.
Despite the obvious differences between McCarthy’s stripped-down prose and Krauss’s plushy sentences, the endings of both Remainder and Forest Dark work in strikingly similar ways. Remainder ends with the unnamed narrator hijacking a plane to fly in infinite figure eights, thereby indicating the cause of the mysterious accident whose consequences it has narrated: the immense financial settlement that funds the narrator’s re-enactments. The hijacking both re-enacts and indicates the original trauma that the novel has ostentatiously refused to narrate. All we know is that something, possibly the piece of a plane, has fallen on the narrator and damaged his brain.
Remainder’s ending, like Forest Dark’s, loops back to its beginning to reflect its inaugurating circumstances and emphasize what it omits. Yet there are also differences: when Remainder points to what it leaves out, it triggers a modernist fantasy of art’s autonomy even as it subjects it to (a postmodern) critique. Forest Dark embraces a more Proustian modernism by indicating the unnarrated source of a narrative that features the writer’s search for her subject. Krauss thus expresses some faith in writerly capacity, whereas McCarthy’s infinite loop eludes any definite point of origin. In both cases, however, that which lies beyond the covers of the book, indicated but not directly represented, shapes, but is not fully commensurate with, its narrated contents.
The two-part novels underline the limits of novelistic narration by appealing directly and explicitly to the reader, whereas Remainder hedges its bets: readers need to recognize that the final flight of the hijacked plane formally registers the original trauma even though the narrator doesn’t ever say so. The burden put on readers differs slightly, but it signals the same thing: the scene of literary production is not the strangely featureless landscape of Smith’s essay; transactions with the reader occur in a marketplace that she prefers to ignore.
Smith’s minimization of the reader also invites a reconsideration of her two paths from another perspective. Although she understands the battle over realism to have been perpetual, discussing Balzac, Flaubert, and Joyce alongside Robbe-Grillet, J.G. Ballard, and David Foster Wallace, it is in an older debate over realism that we find the emphasis placed on readers: the distinction, often invoked by scholars of the early novel, between Samuel Richardson’s epistolary narration and Henry Fielding’s omniscience.
Writing in a vivid, present-tense style that he called writing “to the moment,” Richardson demanded that readers read along with characters, thereby suturing them together. Fielding, by contrast, regularly disrupts his own narration in a way designed to punctuate readers’ immersion and to produce a skeptical critique of it. The age-old dichotomy, Richardson or Fielding, could be taken to validate the productivity of the two-path model, but the polarization in each case distorts the ways novelistic narration (and realism) navigates both at once. Together Richardson and Fielding produced many, though not all, features of novelistic realism, which cannot be reduced to first- or third-person narration. Faith in the adequacy of novelistic description is one of realism’s underlying conditions across variations of style; another is skepticism about this adequacy.
In Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2005), Smith’s example of lyrical realism, she recognizes an anxiety about narrative’s capacities that the novel papers over in description. Smith proposes that the novel invests in the personal because it offers the only possibility of sanctuary or transcendence, but to which it pays only lip service. In O’Neill’s restriction of authenticity to subjectivity told in the third person, she detects more than a whiff of bad faith. For Smith, “most avantgarde challenges to Realism concentrate on the voice, on where the “I” is coming from, on the mysterious third person.” Perhaps the use of voice to collapse the boundaries separating author, narrator, and character in the recent wave of first-person narratives by Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Nell Zink, Chris Kraus, and Maggie Nelson, suggests that Smith’s two paths live on, for these autofictions seek to traverse the categories to which two-part novels remain committed. But to reinstall Smith’s two paths here would be to ignore the sincerity of the new autofictions’ commitment to voice, which, on its own, undercuts any skepticism about self.
Some novels are more dedicated to narrative voice and descriptive prowess while others are more invested in narrative structure. But the way that the new voice-oriented novels and those structured around two parts overvalue point of view creates the feeling that both kinds are reinventing the wheel. Perhaps what ails the contemporary novel is a short-sighted account of its history that slights the earlier lively period of discovery in favor of celebrating only its greatness. The significance that both Richardson and Fielding granted to their readers, now resurgent in two-part novels, suggests an alternative to perpetual alternation. Instead of running the literary history of the novel backwards, perhaps those creative writers who have come back to school could be induced to treat the novel’s history as a resource.
Marcie Frank teaches English Literature at Concordia University in Montreal. An essay on Dennis Cooper appeared in the Queer Objects issue of Angelaki 23:1 (2018). Frank’s The Novel Stage: Narrative Form from the Restoration to Jane Austen will be published by Bucknell UP in February 2020.