Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith


  The clubbers, the scene gays, the old boys heading to their drinking clubs—all formatted. Then suddenly he notices a group of homeless people, the way they take messages up and down the street to each other, with a sense of purpose, really seeming to own the street, interacting with it genuinely. He makes contact with one of them. He takes him to a local restaurant, buys him a meal. He wants to ask the boy something, but he can’t get it out. Then the wine spills:The waiter came back over. He was . . . She was young, with large dark glasses, an Italian woman. Large breasts. Small.

  “What do you want to know?” my homeless person asked.

  “I want to know . . .” I started, but the waiter leant across me as he took the tablecloth away. She took the table away too. There wasn’t any table. The truth is, I’ve been making all this up—the stuff about the homeless person. He existed all right, sitting camouflaged against the shop fronts and the dustbins—but I didn’t go across to him.

  Because, in fact, the homeless are just like everyone else:They had a point to prove: that they were one with the street; that they and only they spoke its true language; that they really owned the space around them. Crap: total crap . . . And then their swaggering, their arrogance: a cover. Usurpers. Frauds.

  Large breasts. Small. The narrative has a nervous breakdown. It’s the final MacGuffin, the end of the beginning, as if the novel were saying: Satisfied? Can I write this novel my way now? Remainder’s way turns out to be an extreme form of dialectical materialism—it’s a book about a man who builds in order to feel. A few days after the fake homeless epiphany, at a party, while in the host’s bathroom, the Enactor sees a crack in the plaster in the wall. It reminds him of another crack, in the wall of “his” apartment in a very specific six-story building he has yet no memory of ever living in or seeing. In this building many people lived doing many things—cooking liver, playing the piano, fixing a bike. And there were cats on the roof! It all comes back to him, though it was never there in the first place. And now Remainder really begins, in the mission to rebuild this building, to place reenactors in it reenacting those actions he wants them to enact (cooking liver, playing the piano, fixing a bike), doing them over and over till it feels real, while he, in his apartment, fluidly closes and reopens a fridge door, just like De Niro. Eight and a half a million quid should cover this, especially as he has entrusted his money to a man much like Hans van den Broek—a stock trader—who makes money for the Reenactor (for that’s what he is now) almost as quickly as he can spend it. To facilitate his reenactment, the Reenactor hires Nazrul Ram Vyas, an Indian “from a high-caste family” who works as a facilitator for a company dedicated to personal inauthenticity: Time Control UK. It takes people’s lives and manages them for them. Nazrul is no more a character (in realism’s sense of the word) than I am a chair, but he is the most exquisite facilitator, and it is through him that every detail of the reenactment is processed. He thinks of everything. In place of the pleasure of the rich adjective we have an imagined world in which logistical details and logical consequences are pursued with care and precision: if you were to rebuild an entire house and fill it with people reenacting actions you have chosen for them, this is exactly how it would play out. Every detail is attended to except the one we’ve come to think of as the only one that matters in a novel: how it feels. The Reenactor in Remainder only ever has one feeling—the tingling—which occurs whenever his reenactments are going particularly well. The feeling is addictive; the enactments escalate, in a fascinating direction. A black man is shot by two other black men near the Reenactor’s house. The Reenactor at once asks Naz to “lay the ground for the re-enactment of the black man’s death. I think I’d have gone mad otherwise, so strong was my compulsion to re-enact it.” In this reenactment, the Reenactor himself assumes the role of the “dead black man” (who is everywhere referred to like this). His tingling goes off the charts. It’s so good, he begins to fall into trances. It’s impossible not to note here that the nonwhite subject is still the bad conscience of the contemporary novel, obviously so in the realist tradition, but also more subtly here in the avant-garde. Why is the greatest facilitator of inauthenticity Asian? Why is the closest thing to epiphany a dead black man? Because Remainder, too, wants to destroy the myth of cultural authenticity—though for purer reasons than Netherland. If your project is to rid the self of its sacredness, to flatten selfhood out, it’s philosophical hypocrisy to let any selves escape, whatever color they may be. The nameless “dead black man” is a deliberate provocation on McCarthy’s part, and in its lack of coy sentiment there is a genuine transgressive thrill. Still, it does seem rather hard to have to give up on subjectivity when you’ve only recently gotten free of objectification. I suppose history only goes in one direction. But to Remainder’s provocation it’s tempting to answer with another: that beneath the conscious ideas of this novel, a subconscious trace remains, revealing a faint racial antipathy that is psychological and social rather than theoretical. (If Netherland can be read against its own grain, which is to say, theoretically, why not read Remainder psychologically?) For though these novels seem far apart, their authors are curiously similar. Similar age; similar class; one went to Oxford, the other, Cambridge; both are by now a part of the publishing mainstream, share a fondness for cricket and are subject to a typically British class/race anxiety that has left its residue. A flashback-inclined Freudian might conjure up the image of two brilliant young men, straight out of college, both eager to write the Novel of the Future, who discover, to their great dismay, that the authenticity baton (which is, of course, entirely phony) has been passed on. Passed to women, to those of color, to people of different sexualities, to people from far off, war-torn places. . . . The frustrated sense of having come to the authenticity party exactly a century late!

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  Aspects of this constructive frustration were aired publicly at the Drawing Center in New York, on September 25, 2007, when two men, Tom McCarthy and the philosopher Simon Critchley, sat at a table in semidarkness and took turns reading “The Joint Statement of Inauthenticity,” latest manifesto of the International Necronautical Society (INS). The men identified themselves only as the society’s general secretary and chief philosopher. Their voices were flat, nasal, utterly British; they placed sudden emphasis on certain words. It was like listening to a Smiths song.

  “We begin,” announced the general secretary, “with the experience of failed transcendence, a failure that is at the core of the general secretary’s novels57 and the chief philosopher’s tomes. Being is not full transcendence, the plenitude of the one or cosmic abundance, but rather an ellipsis, an absence, an incomprehensibly vast lack, scattered with—” and here the general secretary tripped over his tongue, corrected himself and continued, “—with debris and detritus. Philosophy, as the thinking of Being, has to begin from the experience of disappointment that is at once Religious (God is dead, the One is gone); Epistemic (we know very little, almost nothing; all knowledge claims have to begin from the experience of limitation); and Political (blood is being spilt in the streets as if it were champagne).” On the scratchy live recording,58 the audience coughs nervously and is silent: there is not much else to be done when someone’s reading a manifesto at you. The INS members continue: through the brief (by now traditional) faux demolition of the Greek idealists, specifically Plato and Aristotle, who believed form and essence to be more real than anything else, and therefore perfect. “But if form is perfect,” asks the general secretary, “if it is perfection itself, then how does one explain the obvious imperfection of the world, for the world is not perfect? This is where matter, our undoing, enters into the picture. For the Greeks, the principle of imperfection was matter. Matter was the source of the corruption of form.”

  Necronauts, as you might guess from the name, feel differently. They are “modern lovers of debris,” and what is most real for them is not form or God but “the brute materiality of the external world . . . In short, against idealism in ph
ilosophy, and idealists or transcendent conceptions of art—of art as pure perfect form—we set a doctrine of materialism. . . .” So, while Dorian Gray projects his perfect image into the world, Necronauts keep faith with the “rotting flesh assemblage hanging up in his attic”; as Ernest Shackleton forces his dominance fantasy onto the indifferent polar expanse, Necronauts concern themselves with the “blackened, frost-bitten toes he and his crew were forced to chop from their own feet, cook on their stove and eat.” And so on. Like Chuck Ramkissoon, they have a motto: “We are all Necronauts, always, already,” which is recycled Derrida (as “blood like champagne” is recycled Dostoyevsky). That is to say, we are all death-marked creatures, defined by matter—though most of us most of the time pretend not to be.

  In Remainder, the INS general secretary puts his theoretical ideas to lively yet unobtrusive use. For the Reenactor himself does not realize he is a Necro naut; he is simply a bloke, and with Naz facilitating at his side he hopes, like the rest of us, to dominate matter, the better to disembody it. To demonstrate the folly of this, in the middle of the novel Remainder allows itself a stripped-down allegory on religion, staged in an auto shop where the Reenactor has gone to fix a flat tire. While there, he remembers his windshield wiper fluid reservoir is empty and asks for a fill-up. Two liters of blue liquid are poured into the reservoir, but when he presses the “spurter button” nothing spurts. The two liters haven’t leaked, but neither do they appear to be in the reservoir:They’d vaporized, evaporated. And do you know what? It felt wonderful. Don’t ask me why: it just did. It was as though I’d just witnessed a miracle: matter—these two litres of liquid—becoming un-matter—not surplus matter, mess or clutter, but pure, bodiless blueness. Transubstantiated.

  A few minutes later, the engine catches, matter has its inevitable revenge (“It gushed all over me: my shirt, my legs, my groin”) and transubstantiation shows itself for what it is: the beautiful pretense of the disappeared remainder. In the later reenactment of this scene (which Naz restages in an empty hangar at Heathrow, running it on a loop for weeks) the liquid really disappears, sprayed upward into an invisible, fine mist by the Reenactor’s hired technicians.

  McCarthy and his Necronauts are interested in tracing the history of the disappeared remainder through art and literature, marking the fundamental division between those who want to extinguish matter and elevate it to form (“They try and ingest all of reality into a system of thought, to eat it up, to penetrate and possess it. . . . This is what Hegel and the Marquis de Sade have in common”) and those who want to let matter matter:To let the orange orange and the flower flower. . . . We take the side of things and try to evoke their nocturnal, mineral quality. This is for us the essence of poetry, as it is expressed in Francis Ponge, Wallace Stevens, Ril ke’s Duino Elegies, and some of the personae of Pessoa . . . of trying, and failing, to speak about the thing itself and not just ideas about the thing. Of saying “Jug. Bridge. Cigarette. Oyster. Fruitbat. Windowsill. Sponge.”

  That “failing” there is very important. It’s what makes a book like Remainder—which is, after all, not simply a list of proper nouns—possible. Of course, it’s not unusual for avant-garde fiction writers to aspire to the concrete quality of poetry. Listening to the general secretary annunciate his list, emphasizing its clarity and unloveliness, I thought of Wislawa Szymborska, in particular the opening of “The End and The Beginning”:After every war

  someone has to clean up.

  Things won’t

  straighten themselves up, after all.

  Someone has to push the rubble

  to the sides of the road,

  so the corpse-laden wagons

  can pass.

  Someone has to get mired

  in scum and ashes,

  sofa springs,

  splintered glass,

  and bloody rags.

  Someone must drag in a girder

  to prop up a wall.

  Someone must glaze a window,

  rehang a door.

  Even those who are allergic to literary theory will recognize the literary sensibility, echoed in this poem, of which the INS forms an extreme, yet comprehensible, part. The connection: a perverse acknowledgment of limitations. One does not seek the secret, authentic heart of things. One believes—as Naipaul had it—that the world is what it is and, moreover, that all our relations with it are necessarily inauthentic. As a consequence, such an attitude is often mistaken for linguistic or philosophical nihilism, but its true strength comes from a rigorous attention to the damaged and the partial, the absent and the unspeakable. Remainder reserves its finest quality of attention for the well-worn street surface where the black man dies, its “muddy, pock-marked ridges,” the chewing gum and bottle tops, the “tarmac, stone, dirt, water, mud,” all of which form, in the mind of narrator, an almost overwhelming narration (“There’s too much here, too much process, just too much”) that is yet a narration defined by absence, by partial knowledge, for we can only know it by the marks it has left. Remainder recognizes, with Szymborska’s poem, that we know, in the end, “less than little/And finally as little as nothing,” and so tries always to acknowledge the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can’t understand or control—the ultimate marker of which is Death itself. We need not ever read a word of Heidegger to step in these murky waters. They flow through the “mainstream” of our canon. Through the negations of Beckett. The paradoxical concrete abstractions of Kafka. The scatological thingy-ness of Joyce at his most antic. The most famous line of Auden (“Poetry makes nothing happen”).59

  For those who are theory-minded, the INS manifesto in its entirety (only vaguely sketched out here) is to be recommended: it’s intellectually agile, pompous, faintly absurd, invigorating and not at all new. As celebrators of their own inauthenticity, the INS members freely admit their repetitious, recycling nature, stealing openly from Blanchot, Bataille, Heidegger, Derrida and, of course, Robbe-Grillet. Much of what is to be found in the manifesto is more leisurely expressed in the chief philosopher’s own “tomes” (in particular Very Little . . . Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature). As for the general secretary, within the provocations of the INS he is a theoretical fundamentalist, especially where the material practicalities of publishing are concerned. In 2003, he expelled two INS members for signing with corporate publishers, charging that they had “become complicit with a publishing industry whereby the ‘writer’ becomes merely the executor of a brief dictated by corporate market research, reasserting the certainties of middle-brow aesthetics.” It will be interesting to see what happens to these ideas now that McCarthy’s own material circumstances are somewhat changed: in 2007, Remainder went to Vintage Books in America and picked up a Film Four production deal. Still, that part of the INS brief that confronts the realities of contemporary publishing is not easily dismissed. When it comes to literary careers, it’s true: the pitch is queered. The literary economy sets up its stall on the road that leads to Netherland, along which one might wave to Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow. Rarely has it been less aware (or less interested) in seeing what’s new on the route to Remainder, that skewed side road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard. Friction, fear and outright hatred spring up often between these two traditions—yet they have revealing points of connection. At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov. For though manifestos feed on rupture, artworks themselves bear the trace of their own continuity. So it is with Remainder. The Reenactor’s obsessive, amoral reenactions have ancestors: Ahab and his whale, Humbert and his girl, Marlow’s trip downriver. The theater of the absurd that Remainder lays out is articulated with the same careful pedantry of Gregor Samsa himself. In its brutal excision of psychology it is easy to feel that Remainder comes to literature as an assassin, to kill the novel stone dead. I think it means rather to shake
the novel out if its present complacency. It clears away a little of the deadwood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward. We could call this constructive deconstruction, a quality that, for me, marks Remainder as one of the great English novels of the past ten years.

  Maybe the most heartening aspect of Remainder is that its theoretical foundations prove no obstacle to the expression of a self-ridiculing humor. In fact, the closer it adheres to its own principles, the funnier it is. Having spent half the book in an inauthentic building with reenactors reenacting, the Reenactor decides he needs a change:One day I got an urge to go and check up on the outside world myself. Nothing much to report.

 
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