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Books

A novel idea

By Matthew Clayfield
Álvaro Enrigue’s ‘Sudden Death’ and the nonfiction future of fiction

In her celebrated essay ‘Two Paths for the Novel’, Zadie Smith set out to define exactly what it said on the label. There was Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, with its lyrical realism and “authentic story of a self”, and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which rejected the idea of an authentic self and presented instead “a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward”. Both writers have been forced to labour under what the New Yorker once described as the article’s “long shadow” ever since.

Of course, Smith was in the middle of redefining herself as a novelist when she wrote that piece – it was published during the long hiatus between On Beauty and NW – and many read it as a veiled rejection of the “hysterical realism” of her earlier work. To that extent, it was also a kind of belated response to the piece in which that term of opprobrium first appeared, James Woods’ ‘Human, All Too Inhuman’, which savaged David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, and, not least, Smith’s White Teeth.

For all their sweeping pronouncements, both pieces were ultimately about tensions within the tradition of literary realism. (Despite Smith’s praise, McCarthy has always dismissed her piece. “This dichotomy of realistic stuff and avant-garde stuff simply doesn’t hold,” he told New York Magazine just before his fourth novel, Satin Island, was released.) Those who have little time for this tradition roll their eyes at such internecine (and seemingly interminable) squabbles: for their part, in the words of Ben Jeffery in his recent Times Literary Supplement review of The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Vol. 7, “by 1970 … one was forced to conclude ... that the formal possibilities of the novel had been used up somewhere between 1910 and 1930”. Indeed, Will Self once claimed that “the form should have been laid to rest at about the time of Finnegans Wake” and that we’ve had nothing but “zombie novels, instances of an undead art form” ever since.

But it seems to me that there’s a third path for the novel, which passes between or around these two poles (and the competing schools that comprise them) and is often overlooked by the sort of essayists and critics mentioned above because the books that are leading us down this path have slippery relationships with the concept of the novel in the first place. It’s a path being forged by writers like Geoff Dyer, Ben Lerner, Karl Ove Knausgård and Laurent Binet – only two of whom, it seems rather telling, belong to the English-language tradition – and only leads to something that we might call a “novel” (or even “fiction”) after it has traversed a rather more prickly thicket of genres and modes that bear little immediate resemblance to either.

Dyer has spoken at length about his disdain for, and even denial of, traditional genre categorisations. Anyone who has read But Beautiful, his book of pieces about jazz – “Short stories? Essays?” as the Paris Review put it – will know how hard it is to assign his work to any shelf but its own. But even his so-called 2009 “novel”, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, is revealed in its acknowledgements to be something more complex than what it claims on the cover: not a novel and not a memoir, but a mash-up of actuality, fiction, literary pastiche (primarily of Thomas Mann) and art criticism. Lerner’s 10:04 is an even more complicated affair: less a novel than a more-or-less-embellished-when-not-completely-made-up-or-completely-true account of the writing of a novel. Which isn’t exactly accurate either, as the novel that the character is supposedly writing is the not-really-a-novel we’re holding in our hands. (Whether or not the world needs another Charlie Kaufman is open to debate. Lerner’s earlier novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, plays similar games, but is arguably preferable for playing them quietly.) Knausgård whittles all this down to a more startling idea: memoir is fiction (and vice versa), so you choose how to sell it, you bastards.

Mexican-born author Álvaro Enrigue is perhaps bolder than any of them, with ambitions sprawling well beyond mere unreliable memoir. But then he’s also the product of a literary tradition in which genre boundaries, especially between fiction and nonfiction, have been porous at least since the beginning of the last century when Jorge Luis Borges started inventing books and authors and quoting them at length.

Enrigue’s Sudden Death (Vintage; $22.99) was published in Spanish to great acclaim in 2013 and was translated into English to similarly ecstatic reviews last year. His translator was Natasha Wimmer, who is perhaps best known for translating Bolaño’s equally slippery work. (What is ‘Labyrinth’ from The Secret of Evil? Fiction? Art criticism? Does it matter?) The book has been reviewed as a novel, but is perhaps best described – to paraphrase Dyer’s description of But Beautiful – as “imaginative criticism”. However you choose to categorise it (easily the least interesting thing about any book), it’s ultimately an extended argument that the counter-reformation and the conquest of the Americas together represent the key events by which the modern world as we know it came into being. The baroque, Enrigue says, marked the first rumblings of modernism, and the conquest was the first rumblings of, well, a lot more conquest.

He frames these events in terms of violence, exchange and transformation, all three of which come together in the unlikely and inspired metaphor of the tennis match. The event on which the book’s narrative turns is a meeting between the eccentric Italian painter Caravaggio and the conservative Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, who duke it out on the tennis court while their stories are told in flashback (and flashforward) and illustrate the themes in other ways. The most charming example is Enrigue’s idea that a mitre made out of feathers for the Pope by Mesoamerican craftsmen might have been discovered by a young Caravaggio, inspiring his revolutionary sense of lighting, the conquest not only changing the Americas beyond recognition – dragging them through “the pool of blood and shit that history leaves when it goes mad” – but Europe, too, teaching it new ways to see.

The scene in which this revelation takes place is entirely of the author’s own invention, as are countless others throughout, including the central tennis match. (Fans of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall may be disappointed to learn that Anne Boleyn’s hair was not turned into Europe’s most sought-after tennis balls after her husband had her beheaded.) The made-up stuff is carefully interspersed with extracts from real treatises on tennis in its early years, well-considered analyses of Caravaggio’s paintings, discourses on Mexican Spanish and the politics of proper nouns, and email exchanges with the author’s editor about the etymology of certain tennis-related turns of phrase.

With so many balls in the air, including the Boleyn ones, it’s inevitable that not all of them land as intended. (An ill-advised passage in which Enrigue attempts to interpret what his book is about calls to mind Lerner and, to a lesser extent, Dyer in their more excessively meta moments.) But it’s also this ambition, this sheer disregard for boundaries or limits, that suggests a path forward for what we might as well keep calling the novel. Jean-Luc Godard once wrote that one should “put everything into a movie”. By putting everything into his fiction – including all the stuff we’ve been told belongs elsewhere – Enrigue imagines the novel anew.

Matthew Clayfield

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent and travel writer.

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