Modern Culture30 Oct 2008 02:44 pm
The term “hysterical realism” (also called recherché postmodernism or maximalism) was coined by prominent literary critic James Wood, in a review of Zadie Smith’s, White Teeth (2000), which appeared in The New Republic on July 24, 2000. In the essay, entitled “Human, All Too Human,” Woods criticizes Smith’s ambitious debut novel, which explores the themes of identity and memory in contemporary multi-cultural London. Notably, Woods uses his review of Teeth as an opportunity to lament the rise to prominence of the “[b]ig, ambitious novel” in the literary world. He derisively describes these works as, “[a] perpetual-motion machine that appears to be embarrassed into velocity….The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted and overworked.”
Woods cites authors Don DeLillo (Underworld) and Thomas Pynchon (Mason & Dixon) as the founding fathers of hysterical realism, whose fact-stuffed and sprawling style inspired countless imitators, including such critical darlings as: Dave Eggers (A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius); the late David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest); Salman Rushdie (The Ground Beneath Her Feet); Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated) and Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), to name a few. Woods identifies DeLillo’s, Underworld (1997), as hysterical realism’s muse du jour. This sprawling, 828-page opus spans from the 1950s-1990s and fully incorporates real life historical events (such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear proliferation), into the characters’ thoughts, actions and feelings. Underworld and its literary progeny can be distinguished by their length (Jest clocks in at 1,079-pages), preoccupation with data (Wallace’s footnote fetish, Pynchon’s depiction of 18th Century land surveys), stylistic riffs (Eggers’ use of “creative non-fiction”) and experimentation with form and voice (Smith’s multicultural London). All of these novels are overtly (if not overly) smart.
For her part, Smith gracefully defended herself (and other writers lumped together under the genre) in her piece “This is how it feels to Me,” which appeared in The Guardian on October 13, 2001. She praised her fellow hysterical realists by noting that these authors attempt to straddle “[b]oth sides of the equation—brain and heart—present in their fiction.” Moreover, she makes the point that novelists have always been a product of their times, and that man vs. mass media is a defining conflict of modernity, stating, “[w]riters do not write what they want, they write what they can. When I was 21 I wanted to write like Kafka. But, unfortunately for me, I wrote like a script editor for The Simpsons who’d briefly joined a religious cult and then discovered Foucault.” Notably, most of the authors that Wood’s cites as exemplars, such as Isaac Babel, Italo Svevo and Giovanni Verga, were people who lived before the onset of mass media; it is easier to create an “intimate” setting when the geographical and philosophical reach of your characters is necessarily proscribed and they are free from the influence of Television and the Internet.
One Response to “Hysterical Realism”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.