Alyssa Udall's Reviews > Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith
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Feb 06, 12

bookshelves: nonfiction, literature
Read in February, 2012

During my recent pillage visit to the Orem Public Library, I picked up a work of non-fiction along with my stack of 15 young adult novels: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith. I had read Zadie Smith's On Beauty and some of her interviews online, so I knew this book would be good for me.

But, because this book is good for me (good to exercise my mind, good to get me out of the habit of reading through books in an almost semi-conscious state) I don't exactly like reading it. This book is so dense, like a giant bowl of lentil soup. I know that eating this soup is good for me, but I also know that it's almost impossible to enjoy the process of eating it when it takes so much effort to get down.

This unpleasant reading experience doesn't have anything to do with the book itself, other than the fact that it is more complex and intelligent than I am and therefore, putting me and this book together forces an ultimate battle of wills, in which I sit and stare at the same paragraph for an hour and the paragraph catches me staring and says, "Really? You still don't get it?"

But I did finally get it, pretentious paragraph, and it only took a few hours on a Saturday when I was too lazy to get up and leave the house to see a movie about superheros.

The essay "Two Directions for the Novel" is a dissection of today's current novel form (lyrical realism) and the novel's future form (constructive deconstruction) in the form of Netherland by Joseph O'Neill and Remainder by Tom McCarthy, respectively.

Netherland, the essay claims, is perhaps the most perfect example of lyrical realism available today: "It is so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait," (73).

The novel, Smith states, is so anxious about its own status in the world of literature that it can't help but show an anxiety of excess and of lyrical overload, where "everything must be made literary. Nothing escapes.... even the mini traumas of a middle-class life are given the high lyrical treatment, in what feels, at its best, like a grim satire on the profound fatuity of twenty-first century bourgeois existence," (80).

To this trend of lyrical realism, Smith poses an important series of questions:

[Netherland] wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really realism? (82).


If lyrical realism does not actually portray reality, than what is its purpose? Smith claims that "out of a familiar love, like a lapsed High Anglican, Netherland hangs on to the rituals and garments of transcendence, though it well knows they are empty," (82-83).

Then where is literature to turn if meaning cannot be created by a lyrical portrayal of life and, more importantly, the objects that make our lives what they are?

This is where McCarthy's Remainder comes in and where I began to be thoroughly confused. McCarthy belongs to a group of theorists called the Necronauts who are "interested in tracing the history of the disappeared remained through art and literature," (90).

But what is this disappeared remainder?

It is the gap between a thing and its meaning.

In lyrical realism, a thing is given meaning by assigning it personal significance: "In Netherland, only one's own subjectivity is really authentic, and only the personal offers this possibility of transcendence... Which is why things are so relentlessly aestheticised: this is how their importance is signified, and their depth. The world is covered in language," (79).

But, when this lyricism does not actually do its job (ie. portray reality and provide meaning in that portrait), what are we left with?: "the ghost of the literary burns... away, leaving only its remainder: a nicely constructed sentence, rich in sound and syntax, signifying (almost) nothing," (82).

The disappeared remainder in a deconstructive text like Remainder does not romanticize an object or a place or make it personal, as this does not convey authenticity. Rather, it shows how the thing actually exists in its own reality, in its own space, and it lets it be. It does not assign meaning, but discusses the meaning found by its relation to other objects. The meaning assigned by lyrical realists cannot be authentic, because a thing is, after all, just a thing and should be observed and written as it is shown in space:

One does not seek the secret, authentic heart of things. One believes--as Naipaul put 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, (92).


Rather than assign meaning with lyrical language/personal significance, the deconstructive text discusses the thing in its own context. A description of a thing or place can be made a narration by showing how the thing has affected its surroundings. Because "everything must leave a mark.... everything has a material reality," (95) the narrator of Remainder is able to observe a street where a black man has just died, noting its "muddy, pock-marked ridges" and "tarmac, stone, dirt, water, mud" and think "There's too much here, too much process, just too much," (qtd. in Smith 92).

Therefore, this deconstruction is "yet a narration defined by absence, by partial knowledge, for we only know it by the marks it has left" and, most importantly, the disappeared remainder that lyrical realism ignores, but is thoroughly anxious about, is "the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can't understand or control--the ultimate marker of which is Death itself," (92).

The new direction of literature, supposedly, is language that acknowledges the barrier between language and meaning, the disappeared remainder that exists when we acknowledge this barrier, and the arbitrariness of assigning literary qualities to a thing that cannot be known completely in terms of personal significance or blatant aestheticisation.

The new novel reads this: "'the rinsed taxes, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits,'" (qtd. in Smith 80) and asks "grapefruits?" Why not "let the orange orange and the flower flower," (91).

The new novel desires to "take the side of things and try to evoke their nocturnal, mineral quality. This is... the essence of poetry... of trying, and failing, to speak about the thing itself and not just ideas about the thing," (91).
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