From Hysterical Realism to Austerity Britain

White TeethCover of Home Fire by Kamila ShamsieCover of White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith

Home Fire

Kamila Shamsie

White Teeth gleamed with promise. Appearing at the turn of the millennium when it’s author was only 25, it won an array of awards and was almost (more on that later) universally lauded by critics. The sort of book to attract the word ‘sprawling’, it is full of characters (in both senses of the word), sweeps across history, and celebrated the success of London as a global city in the early years of New Labour, when things could only get better.

The book was talked about in terms of its energy and hope and the way it  ‘captures the colourful, multicultural landscape of London.’ In fact, so ‘sunny‘ and ‘good-hearted’ is it, that it apparently achieves the ‘post-racial, making ‘racism appear not only ugly and stupid but ludicrously out of date.’

A year later, the attack on the World Trade Centre started to shade the nascent millennium a different tone. Followed up by the financial crash of 2008, the London Riots of 2011, Trump and Brexit, it seems that optimism is in shorter supply and that racism is hideously contemporary.

In the Shadow of Terror

The post-9/11 assertion of state power over citizens was on Seamus Heaney’s mind when writing his version of Antigone, published as The Burial at Thebes in 2004. Antigone is one of the three Theban Plays by the Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles (496-406BC), of which the most familiar is Oedipus Rex. Antigone’s two brothers were on opposing sides in a civil war. Both killed in the fighting, Eteocles will be buried with full military honours, but a law is laid down that the rebel Polyneices must be left to rot.

Heaney imagined Creon, King of Thebes, as George W. Bush and has him condemn ‘traitors and subversives’, laud ‘patriotic duty’ and proclaim, ‘Whoever isn’t for us / Is against us.’ Antigone, doomed daughter of Oedipus, her parents already dead, is determined to give Polyneices a funeral, she tells her sister, in defiance of the law that says, ‘The ones we love … are enemies of the state.’

This quote is the epigraph to Home Fire. Kamila Shamsie’s Antigone is Aneeka, a British muslim whose brother joins ISIS. Parvaiz is soon disillusioned by the reality of his new home, but neither the ‘Islamic’1 nor British states will bend their implacable rules when he wants to leave. The pair are London born to immigrant parents, like many of the protagonists of White Teeth, but where for Smith’s characters the identity handed down is a chrysalis they wriggle out of, Shamsie’s are smothered by the weight of what their parents were.

White Teeth‘s Millat, son of Bangladeshi muslims, is a teenage delinquent before he rediscovers his faith with the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation, or KEVIN. He was written in a time when no one but foreign affairs aficionados so much as knew the name Al Qaeda, and a fundamentalist Islamic group could be given a mildly humorous name and considered somewhere between Jehovah’s Witnesses and militant animal rights activists in the crank league table.

At the book’s climax Millat shoots a man in the name of jihad – as part of a comic set-piece that results in no serious consequences: no death or permanent injury and, for reasons of mistaken identity, no punishment beyond a stern course of community service. A happy-ever-after coda tells us that everyone ends up more or less alright.

A writer in 2018 could not make knockabout comedy drama out of a group of wannabe muslim terrorists. That’s not to say comedy can’t be applied to the subject, but if it is, it must be black (the reliably brilliant Chris Morris showed us how to do it in his 2010 film Four Lions).

Hysterical Realism

But were the signs already there that things only getting better, boom and bust being over, the end of history, were illusions? It might seem too much to read a single novel as symptomatic of global geopolitical and cultural trends (and it might better be said that it was the reading rather than the novel, the gushing of the critics, that was symptomatic) but James Woods‘ choice of White Teeth as the emblematic text in his critique of hysterical realism points us a little in that direction.

For Woods, authors like Smith, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace write books that ‘share a bonhomous, punning, lively serenity of spirit.’ This is not a compliment. The lively spirit of these books is expressed by their burgeoning narrative invention, featuring a profusion of eccentric characters, essayistic digressions into niche realms of knowledge and playfully absurd plot devices – and not in the depth of their characters. It is ‘a showy liveliness, a theatricality, that almost succeeds in hiding the fact that they are without life.’

Woods wonders if the accumulation of spectacle – ‘a great rock musician who, when born, began immediately to play air guitar in his crib (Rushdie); a talking dog, a mechanical duck, a giant octagonal cheese, and two clocks having a conversation (Pynchon); a nun called Sister Edgar who is obsessed with germs and who may be a reincarnation of J. Edgar Hoover … (DeLillo); a terrorist group devoted to the liberation of Quebec called the Wheelchair Assassins … (Foster Wallace) … an animal-rights group called FATE, a Jewish scientist who is genetically engineering a mouse, a woman born during an earthquake in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1907; a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses who think that the world is ending on December 31, 1992; and twins, one in Bangladesh and one in London, who both break their noses at about the same time’ (Smith) – is an evasion.

He goes on: ‘The mere existence of a giant cheese or a cloned mouse or several different earthquakes in a novel is seen as meaningful or wonderful, evidence of great imaginative powers … these features are mistaken for scenes, as if they constituted the movement or the toil or the pressure of the novel, rather than … props … The existence of vitality is mistaken for the drama of vitality.’

It isn’t a great stretch to see the hysterical realism as a reflection of life under the neoliberal consensus and at the apex of globalisation (the Western world of these UK and USA authors) where not only is the accumulation of experience a guiding principle – the most exotic, organic, authentic, culinary trend; the most off-the-beaten-track holiday destination; the most immersive, ephemeral, site-specific installation – but so too is the accumulation of images of that experience.

We want the new music, clothes, i-trinkets now, and we want each other to know we have them. We want our every experience curated. We want an excess of reality, a hysterical reality, a hyperrealityà la Baudrillard, ‘in which entertainment, information, and communication technologies provide experiences more intense and involving than the scenes of banal everyday life … The realm of the hyperreal (e.g., media simulations of reality, Disneyland and amusement parks, malls and consumer fantasylands, TV sports, and other excursions into ideal worlds) is more real than real.’

This too is an evasion, a papering over of the consequences of globalisation for those who are not at its apex, a fin de siècle febrility. We are desperate to pretend that this is it, we’ve made it, we are happy and good and it can’t be taken away from us. In our postmodern condition, which Baudrillard diagnosed as hyperreality, we become ‘a pure screen, a pure absorption and re-absorption surface of the influent networks.’ We lose our depth, we are our image, and can float free in the present without concern for how we got here.

The authorial evasion of hysterical realism is, Woods believes, of depth of character. These books too frequently trade in sub-Dickensian caricatures known only by their obvious eccentricities, are full of showy erudition about niche subjects and cleverly tie multiple plot threads into coherent set-piece endings. The unexpected and large scale murder of the 11th of September 2001, Woods hoped, would put an end to writing of this kind. Such a sobering shot of reality ought to shatter end-of-history illusions and instigate renewed attempts to get under the skin of characters.

A Sobering Comparison

Home Fire is not obviously inventive. The structure of its plot is copied from that of a 2,500 year old tragic play. The writing is rarely lyrical. The authorial voice rarely obtrudes. But the economy of expression tends to help the reader become immersed in the narrative and to be carried along in its flow.

Before this becomes an exercise in showing how good Home Fire is by bashing White Teeth (though it is, for my money, the better book), it’s worth saying that White Teeth has much to recommend it – Woods himself acknowledges Smith’s talent. It’s an engaging read, and if it has flaws, they aren’t fatal. Also, the comparison is more to do with style than quality, with how multicultural London could be written about in 2000 as opposed to 2017.

Here are sentences from first Smith, then Shamsie:

  • Whilst he slipped in and out of consciousness, the position of the planets, the music of the spheres, the flap of a tiger-moth’s diaphanous wings in Central Africa, and a whole bunch of other stuff that Makes Shit Happen had decided it was second chance time for Archie.
  • But just then Aneeka shrugged in response and he experienced one of those terrifying moments in which a person you thought you knew reveals a new aspect of their character that has taken hold while you weren’t looking.

Having discussed hysterical realism, it’s difficult not to read Smith’s packed and diverse sentence as edging toward the hysterical: the piling up of symbols of fate, the jar in register between ‘diaphanous wings’ to ‘whole bunch of other stuff’, the ironic distance of the narrative voice, which evades engagement with Archie. Who at this point is breathing in carbon monoxide released from his car’s exhaust into his car via a hoover tube because he wants to die.

On the other hand, the breathless energy and optimism, the sense of events being shaped by heavy causal chains, are effects aimed for. Firstly, the ‘hysterical’ tone can be thought of as representing an increasingly hysterical reality. And then, throughout White Teeth we are shown characters struggling with the burden of their ancestry, but also that despite constraints they can’t predict where they’ll end up (as per the rather tired chaos theory motif of the flapping wings). The plot manipulates its characters toward a final showdown scene whose paradoxical point is the ever present possibility of escape from expectations.

Shamsie’s line is much more serious. Though we hear the voice of a narrator, who tells us what the character experiences, the language is straightforward, not too different from the voice of the character whose point of view is being described. Whereas Smith’s language performs what it represents (the form is energetic so we feel its energy), Shamsie’s is close enough to the everyday speech we think her characters would use that we believe what it tells us (the form is realistic, so we accept its content).2

Something unexpected is revealed here too, but the new in Shamsie’s fictional world is terrifying rather than liberating. The plot draws its characters to a final set-piece with more tragic inevitability than madcap coincidence. Because of the tighter plotting – a gift of the source material – the denouement is more dramatically satisfying than that of White Teeth, though the only escape offered is death. In Home Fire, the veil over those whose lives are ruled and broken by our political and economic orders is decidedly torn off.

Puncturing the Fourth Wall

Despite these thematic and stylistic differences, there is a point of convergence between the books as they end. The final chapter of White Teeth begins, ‘It’s just like on TV!’ and sustains the comparison throughout: ‘better than TV’, ‘all on TV’, ‘much like TV’, ‘unusual, even for TV’. In the final scene of Home Fire we witness two characters via a third, who watches their actions play out over and over on rolling news.

Both are commenting on ‘the great difference between TV and life’ (White Teeth) that is obscured by hyperreality. Smith wraps up her story in a passage that says, ‘If it were TV, the credits would be rolling.’ But which goes on, past that point to remind us that life doesn’t wrap up neatly like a novel – though she has her cake and eats it, giving us happy endings and telling us ‘these tall tales [are a] myth, [a] wicked lie,’ destabilising our reading.

Home Fire ends with an act of terrorism. Karamat, the UK Home Secretary, suddenly sees in the hyperreal media world he inhabits, via the TV screen, the consequences for his own family of his legal and political game playing. Baudrillard again: ‘It is the terrorist model to bring about an excess of reality, and have the system collapse beneath that excess.’

These terms are intriguingly reminiscent of those Woods uses to describe hysterical realism: ‘The conventions of realism are … being … exhausted, and overworked’ by an ‘excess of storytelling’. Perhaps there is a distant parallel.

The act of terror is nihilistic. The terrorist feels powerless and violated by the world order. He doesn’t expect to defeat the enemy – if he had the power to do that then terrorism would be unnecessary. The act of terror works as a sign of pure destruction: if I am powerless against the conventions of the world, I will take the world down with me. Thus the terrorist attack is felt as an attack on convention, on ‘our way of life’.

As Woods has it, hysterical realism is a crisis in how to depict character. Novelistic conventions seem outdated and are criticised and parodied by writers who nevertheless don’t know how to get beyond them and so whose writing lacks sincerity. Is there an unconscious desire in these writers to overload and collapse the now empty conventions of literary realism that bind them? The comparison is considerably exaggerated, but I hear a faint echo.

It isn’t entirely fair, and probably not entirely accurate, to have made these books representative of changes in the world between 2000 and 2017. Still, having read them one after the other the contrasts were obvious. ‘Who would choose to be dead?’ asks Heaney’s Creon, wondering why anyone knowing the consequences would disobey his order. The characters inhabiting White Teeth would wonder with him, looking up from the 90s at the millennium, even if to do so would be to fool themselves: even Archie, whose attempted suicide is orderly, ‘proper’, and to be carried out ‘before the shops opened.’ Those of Home Fire would have answers.

1 Quoted from The Independent newspaper: ‘Isis has deliberately tailored its propaganda to appeal to those with little religious knowledge [while] foreign fighters in Syria tend to … “lack any basic understanding of the true meaning of jihad or even the Islamic faith”.’

2 Shamsie has described her intent in this regard in an interview with the Scottish Review of Books: ‘I started my first novel when I was twenty-one so I really look back and think of it as juvenilia. At a sentence level, I used to be much more interested in a lusher kind of writing. Now, I prefer language more pared down. My sentences say ‘look at what I’m saying’ rather than “look at me”.’ Again, I don’t mean to imply criticism of Smith. The preference or not for lush writing is just that, and many great writers write lushly.

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