Friday, September 24, 2010

Elves and other heroes

What is it an inclination away from? 'These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked,' as Zadie Smith wrote when she reviewed Tom McCarthy's first novel, Remainder, along with Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill nearly two years ago. She has written in this tradition herself, as she admits in the essay - and in fact is yet to show herself to be writing against it, but her analysis is sharp.

Mark Thwaite calls the thing Establishment Literary Fiction - which he shortens to ELF, with all the ironic suggestion, I'm sure, of heroic battles with teeming dark forces.

The question, however, is how to write around or through or under these fast moving highways. Christopher Taylor, in his review of McCarthy's most recent novel C, quotes McCarthy himself: "'Will he turn out,' McCarthy asked recently of the French writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint, 'to have been deconstructing literary sentimentalism or sentimentalising literary deconstruction?'" One aspect that already makes me suspicious when I read about C in reviews is the foregrounding of the material obsessions of protagonists - Serge going for radio waves while his sister goes for insects - which puts me in mind of the way bridge engineering and quilting function in Kate Grenville's The Idea of Perfection - a novel in which every emotional string is pulled. Even if you cut these strings, isn't the material or systems obsessed protagonist already a sentimental trope, a cliché of the nineties and noughties? I'll have to read it and C.

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