Whether or not it is useful to think about fiction in terms of realism and anti-realism is debatable. (Very likely it is not.) This is nonetheless how I’ve chosen to position my newsletter: as a futile, contrarian document opposing one of contemporary literature’s most dominant forms.
“The novel is nothing without ‘real life,’” the critic Lionel Trilling wrote in 1963. Just as often it is nothing with “real life,” either. The realist novel’s baroque machinery — settings, scenes, lifelike characters, dialogue, etc. — approximates life only insofar as we pretend orderly access to consciousness and memory is in any way mimetic. It is a sturdy and seductive model, which, when done well, can entertain, or briefly exalt, or inculcate moral sentiment. There is nothing wrong with any of this, per se. (My shelves are lousy with realist masterpieces.)
But more and more I find the realist novel’s conscription of detail to describe and systematize the external world frictionless, even embarrassing. In “The Reality Effect” (1968), Roland Barthes suggested that the accumulation of realist detail in fiction serves an ideological function, the seeming innocence of these “useless details” allowing them to escape scrutiny in their contribution to an ambient notion of “the real.” While reading realist fiction, I often have the uncanny experience of a divided mind. I submit to the marvelous artifice set before me, even as some deeper part of my consciousness rejects these “useless details” entirely. This seems like life, but it isn’t like life at all.
In her 2008 essay for The New York Review of Books, “Two Paths for the Novel,” Zadie Smith had this to say about Joseph O’Neill’s Netherlands:
It 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?
Smith’s critique of the traditional realist novel gets at a larger point, which is that “realism” is finally something of a misnomer. Far closer to the feeling of life, for this reader anyway, is the fiction of the anti-realists: Borges, Hilst, Gombrowicz, Bernhard, Lispector, Werner, Hawkes, Krasznahorkai, to name only a few. In mapping the chaos of interiority, the spasms of consciousness, the superimpositions of memory, the anti-realists create fictive environments whose obvious artifice does not in any way lessen the concussive impact of their works. These fictions do not purport to be projections of some sedate, agreed-upon reality. Instead, they suggest the secret dream-life of a culture, harnessing its most intimate fantasies and anxieties.
The anti-realist novel belongs to no national school. While not precisely coherent, a short list of its influences would likely include Nighttown, K.’s assistants, French Surrealism, The Waves, Freud’s theories, the Eternal Recurrence, Hunger, the Underground Man, the Benjy interlude, Kleist’s cosmic ambiguities, the “Unreal city,” Nightwood, and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. The novels born of this tradition — a broad and heterogenous collection — form the dark subconscious of realist fiction: works of obsession, fantasy, absurdity, and illogicality.
The narrative grammar of anti-realism is hermetic. Kate, the lonely list-maker of David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1985); Lars Hertervig, the mentally ill painter of Jon Fosse’s Melancholy (1995); Witold and Fuks, the metaphysical detectives of Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos (1965); Andreas Ban, the retired psychologist of Daša Drndić’s Belladonna (2012); Michael and Margaret Banks, the bored couple of John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig (1961); Rudolf, the classical music scholar of Thomas Bernhard’s Concrete (1982); the Professor, the world’s foremost expert on mosses, of László Krasznahorkai’s Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (2016); the heavy-hearted narrator of Gerald Murnane’s Inland (1988); the ruminant Master of Robert Pinget’s Passacaglia (1978); each is cripplingly aware of the trap of consciousness. Whether flailing or measured, thinking serves only to bind them more tightly. Their varied attempts to flee these snares — literature, God, sex, insanity, delusion, laughter, intoxication, philosophy, painting, travel, correspondence, suicide — constitute the propulsive drama of obstructive fiction.
Where contemporary realist fiction seems to long for the final metamorphosis of cultural legitimacy — to become film or, worse, a “prestige” mini-series — anti-realists are an inconvenient reminder of what the novel can yet accomplish as a form. Each of these works is perverse, negatively capable, defined by absence, only partially available — just like its readers.
In short, I have no interest in fiction that transitions so easily to bingeable content. My pseudo-war against a very powerful enemy has begun.