By Daniel Zalewski
Published: Sunday, December 15, 2002
Wood, the very smart and very grouchy literary critic for The New Republic, has become increasingly exasperated with those enormous, encyclopedic novels like ”The Corrections” that contemporary writers keep churning out. These show-offy books — all longer than ”Ulysses” and teeming with zany-yet-brilliant characters whose improbably interlocked stories are punctuated by smarty-pants digressions on arcane topics like earthquake detection, Quebecois exceptionalism and the semiotics of hot-dog stands — are, Wood says, ”perpetual motion machines” that are ”ashamed of silence” and pursue ”vitality at all costs.” He has even coined a damning phrase for the genre: ”hysterical realism.”
In hyperdrive novels like David Foster Wallace’s ”Infinite Jest” and Thomas Pynchon’s ”Mason and Dixon,” Wood complains, ”the conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted and overworked.” In other words, today’s novelists suffer from the literary equivalent of attention-deficit disorder, and it’s way past time for the Ritalin. Even a book Wood admires, like Jeffrey Eugenides’s latest novel, ”Middlesex” — which somehow manages to combine a boisterous, decades-spanning chronicle of Greek-American immigrant life with the strange psychological case history of a confused Detroit-born hermaphrodite — is sadly ”a child of its moment” in its ”occasional recourse to those excitements, patternings and implausibilities that. . .should be called hysterical realism.”
Wood’s caustic phrase is catching on with other critics. This March in Newsday, Adam Kirsch smashed Viken Berberian’s novel ”The Cyclist” with the hysterical-realism hammer, condemning the book’s ”insistent whimsy” and frighteningly excessive fascination with outré topics like ”the genealogy of the apricot.”
Wood blames the hysterical-realism scourge on Don DeLillo, even though he (grudgingly) admits that DeLillo’s sweeping ”Underworld” is a work of ”epic social power.” In Wood’s view, ”the DeLilloan idea of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer — a cultural theorist, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry — has been woefully influential and will take some time to die.” Wood’s efforts to hasten that death may be working. After Wood skewered Zadie Smith’s first novel, ”White Teeth,” as a prime example of hysterical realism, she publicly admitted that Wood had introduced a ”painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own.”
Wood has even used 9/11 as a pretext for waging his war against hysterical realism. Writing in The Guardian, he exhorted novelists to stop trying to explain ”how the world works” — the terrorist attacks proved, he argued, that there is no way for mere novelists to keep up with today’s seismic events — and instead tell us ”how somebody felt about something.”
Wood has a point when he notes that novelists often ignore character in favor of spiraling subplots and half-baked musings on chaos theory. But his utopian vision of a literary world organized around Chekhovian contemplation is arguably just as limited. Indeed, if novels are meant to reflect the heat of a culture, it seems appropriate for at least some of them to be anxiety-riddled, emotionally confused and intellectually scattershot — in a word, hysterical.