September 17, 2010

The good old avant-garde


Adam Kirsch‘s review of Tom McCarthy‘s C in Slate (“Tom McCarthy’s C shows the future of fiction“) claims that “Tom McCarthy is a writer of destiny…but the destiny he represents is the opposite of Franzen’s. He is the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel.” Kirsch quotes Zadie Smith‘s New York Review of Books review of McCarthy’s Remainder where she wrote that McCarthy “clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.”

(The dead “wood” might very well be in reference to James Wood, who has become, perhaps wrongly, pegged as the champion of the realist tradition and, quite rightly, an antagonist of Smith and co. It should be mentioned though that Wood has no love for Franzen either; apparently neither the realists nor the avant-gardists want anything to do with him.)

Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen

Tom McCarthy

It’s pretty to think of things so: Wood, Franzen, and antiquated realism on one side of the fence, McCarthy, Kirsch, and the literary future on the other.

I don’t want to take sides in this old debate, but I do want to point out this: it is an old debate. Novels like McCarthy’s C, full of historical fact and cultural speculation, have been around for a long time, at least as long as Thomas Pynchon‘s V and probably well before that. There’s something amiss when the avant-garde has become a familiar style with recognizable tropes and conventions. Radical writing is always exciting, but it is surprisingly subtle. It occurs in unexpected sentences, uncategorizable books, and athwart observations. The radical can appear in many places, sometime where you least expect it, but it does not come announced, and it is never anointed.