2 March, 2009Issue 8.6EuropeLiteratureWriters

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On Polyphony

Nakul Krishna

Zadie SmithIn a recent lecture at the New York Public Library, the British writer Zadie Smith offered a novel reading of the 2008 US presidential election. Smith claimed that Barack Obama’s victory owed partly to his being “a many-voiced man”, able to speak “of Main Street in Iowa and of sweet potato pie in Northwest Philly”. He was able to “succeed because he so rarely misspoke, carefully tailoring his intonations to suit the sensibility of his listeners”.

Borrowing a term that film critic Pauline Kael once used to describe Cary Grant, Smith suggested that Obama was born in a quasi-mythic realm called “Dream City”:

a place of many voices, where the unified singular self is an illusion… everything is doubled, everything is various. You have no choice but to cross borders and speak in tongues.

In Smith’s reckoning, Shakespeare was born in such a city too. “So was I,” she added, in what sounded like a proud whisper.

That Zadie Smith is a many-voiced novelist is old news. No critic, least of all one as sharp as Smith herself, could fail to have noticed. What was new in the lecture was Smith’s confident attitude towards her own voice.

Like many a novelist-critic, Smith has always had a troubled relationship with her own work. This anxiety has been most acute when focused on her many voices. Take her “big, baggy” debut White Teeth (2000), a frenzied tribute to multi-cultural London. With its manic pace, overwrought plotting and hyper-real characters, it was—to use her own words—a piece of “truly inspired thieving”—”Smith doing Amis, Smith doing Rushdie, Smith doing Kureishi…” In short, it seems that Zadie the critic wants, despite herself, to be one-voiced.

In other words, to borrow Smith’s habitual tendency to invoke her bugbear Plato, the Zadie Smith of 2000 was rather like a pitiable figure in an early Platonic dialogue. Ion, a many-voiced rhapsode steeped in Homer, wilts under Socrates’s questioning because he is unsure if he has knowledge or lacks it, whether his potent powers of performance derive from skill or from some sort of madness. In the end, the univocal Plato chalks up yet another victory over his old enemy, the hordes of the many-voiced.

Smith had her own Ion moment when the venerable “one-voiced” critic James Wood wrote a stern essay consigning White Teeth to a genre he dubbed “hysterical realism” (other hysterical realists included Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon). Not unlike Ion, Smith took Wood’s metaphorical rap on the knuckles stoically, going so far as to concede that some of his concerns were “painfully accurate”.

In On Beauty (2005), a gently humorous campus novel which borrows its structure from E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), Smith managed to hold back from gratuitous displays of virtuosity to do just one voice, in this case Forster’s, for the length of an entire book. The result is quite uncanny, but the effort cannot have been easy for a writer who has now learnt the importance of being true to her own “selves”.

In her most recent criticism and in her lecture on Obama, Smith launched a mission to rescue her “hysterical” and “many-voiced” selves from the likes of James Wood, or in other words, to avenge Ion’s humiliation. In proving she could write a one-voiced book, Smith dispelled her anxiety; she now has returned valiantly to appreciating the natural multiplicity of voices. The revenge began in a long and uncharacteristically difficult review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008). The novel—with its leisurely descriptions of New York’s cricketing subculture and its protagonist’s apolitical post-9/11 meditations—was an exemplary instance of “the nineteenth-century lyrical Realism of Balzac and Flaubert”. Smith noted that she had “written in this tradition [her]self”, “and cautiously hope[d] for its survival”. It was almost as if she saw her own lyrical self in O’Neill, a ventriloquist in her mould, effortlessly “doing” Balzac, “doing” Flaubert, with a relative guiltlessness she found discomfiting.

In that review, Smith indicated that she believed the future of the novel more likely to lie in a novel like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2007). She lauded it as “a kind of anti-literature hoax, a wind-up … work[ing] through the things we expect of a novel, gleefully taking them apart, brick by brick”. Remainder was a book “fully conscious” of “the ideas that underpin it”. But Netherland, with its blithe “metaphysical confidence”, its “authenticity fetish”, was trapped in “a dream that Plato started”.

Here was Zadie Smith reiterating the critique she had once levied at her lyrical self. McCarthy seemed to jog her memory of what she had once found so compelling about the hysterical, self-consciously artificial realism of Rushdie, Pynchon and DeLillo. The theoretical bent of her review suggested that Smith might have thought it time—and herself ready—to take on the philosophers on their own turf.

Again, her reflection needed a surrogate, and this time it was the President himself. Obama’s many-voicedness—and by implication her own—deserved “a proper study”, she said. She promptly suggested one that traced four “developmental stages”. In the first stage, the voice is bipolar, committed to opposing belief systems. The second stage is marked by flexibility between these poles, and the third by a capacity to “see a thing from both sides”. Then, finally, Smith describes the fourth stage:

which I think of as the mark of a certain kind of genius: the voice relinquishes ownership of itself, develops a creative sense of disassociation in which the claims that are particular to it seem no stronger than anyone else’s.

Smith left herself out of this speech, inviting others to fit her writing into the four-part scheme.

Her critical voice starts out caught between a love for Forster’s “lyrical” turn-of-century work and the “hysterical” late-twentieth-century novels of Don Delillo and Thomas Pynchon. The “lyrical” critic produces On Beauty and admires Netherland, while the “hysterical” one urges her to write White Teeth and The Autograph Man (2002) and to praise Remainder. Her acceptance of this conflict is as yet provisional and uneasy, “even to the point of equivocation”.

Smith’s inner critic has become an overt one now, fighting its battles on book review pages on both sides of the Atlantic. With each new essay, Smith appears increasingly able “to see a thing from both sides”—deploring a novel’s “metaphysical confidence” even while finding in herself whatever metaphysical gumption it must take to go around positing four-stage developmental theories of anything.

And for just a moment there, one might have thought she had it all figured out.

Smith has not yet achieved that “certain kind of genius” to which she evidently aspires. But she knows it, she is young, and happily for readers, there is ample time for her to grow into a “creative sense of dissociation”. What synthesis of the hysterical and the lyrical can we expect from Zadie Smith, philosopher and poet, rhapsode and critic?

Stage four promises to be a treat; the heart quickens in anticipation.

Nakul Krishna is reading for a second BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Exeter College, Oxford. He is Essays editor at the Oxonian Review.

Photograph © Roderick Field, Courtesy of Penguin Books Ltd.