Penitential Realism

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It’s been almost fourteen years since James Wood warned us about “hysterical realism,” presumably the major novelistic mode of the late twentieth century. According to Wood, it is a mode devoted to information, coincidence, captial-P politics, various forms of irrealism (caricature, fantasy, metafiction), and a breathlessness of tone: Rushdie, DeLillo, Pynchon, Wallace, etc.

We’re well enough into the twenty-first century to begin speculating on its own trends.  Whatever remains of “hysterical realism” seems to have gone into Ted Gioia’s “fragmented novel,” with varying degrees of success. I think the mainstream of high literary culture these days celebrates a different mode entirely. (By “high literary culture,” I don’t necessarily just mean the Guardian or the New York Times book sections or what wins the Pulitzer or the Booker or even the Nobel Prizes, but also and maybe more importantly what’s published and promoted by the small presses and the little magazines and all their myriad Internet avatars.)

In homage to Wood, I would like to try to think more about this trend by baptizing it with an admittedly simplifying and eye-catching name. I am going to call it “penitential realism,” and here is a chronological list of examples from the last decade and half, a list encompassing old masters and young upstarts (including one ex-hysteric) and fiction from around the world, mostly in English but with excursions into German and French. Not every book on the list perfectly fits every characteristic I seek to ascribe to the category—literary criticism is not an exact science. Also, there are certainly books I haven’t gotten around to reading yet that would probably fit even better than some of these (by Ben Lerner, say, or Sheila Heti or Tao Lin).

  • J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace
  • W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
  • Tom McCarthy, Remainder
  • Don DeLillo, Point Omega
  • Julia Leigh, Disquiet
  • Laird Hunt, Ray of the Star
  • Teju Cole, Open City
  • Katie Kitamura, Gone to the Forest
  • Marie NDiaye, Three Strong Women
  • J. M. Ledgard, Submergence
  • Anne Carson, Red Doc>
  • Deborah Levy, Swimming Home

What do these 13 books have in common? Brevity, for one thing. Also an interest in violence and oppression, but usually with no overt political protest; the authors often—though not always—employ an allegorization that strips the represented violence and oppression of any specific historical referents, or, if they do use historical referents, they place them within so broad a temporal or existential frame that they might as well belong to natural history. We see too a resistance to the kind of holistic plotting that binds the narrative into a fully meaningful structure of co-incidence, pursued largely through partial perspectives. First person or subjective third person narration predominates, or else a highly fragmentary and brittle omniscience—this in contrast to the more grandly omniscient and/or often highly rhetorical narrator of hysterical realist texts. On top of that, they focus on moral ambiguity, on characters inextricably complicit in their societies’ sufferings, along with an emphasis on negative mental states and affects, in contrast to the hysterics’ high spirits: shame, guilt, embarrassment, repression, anhedonia, etc. Above all, these novels exhibit a benumbed tone, disenchanted, inert, and baffled, not least by themselves; it’s the voice of a wounded humility, of a reticent elder who’s been to war.

If Dickens and certain maximalist strains of modernism (Joyce, Faulkner, Ellison, Woolf, Nabokov, Borges, and García Márquez) were the progenitors of hysterical realism, penitential realism can boast of its lineage in a more austere modernism—Conrad, Hamsun, Kafka, Hemingway, Beckett, Sartre, Camus, Spark, Duras. Penitential realism does from time to time appropriate other genres (the imperial romance in Coetzee and Kitamura, the domestic novel in Leigh and Levy, the science-fiction dystopia in Ishiguro, the American minority/immigrant Künstlerroman in Cole), but its authors remake these prefabricated narratives with their downbeat dysteleology and intransigent irony. That Coetzee and Kitamura subvert colonialism may be no surprise, but Ishiguro and Cole even undo the certainties of less obviously problematic teleological narrative archetypes concerned with fighting oppression. The overall aesthetic effect sought seems to be a stupefied melancholia–not just an inability to act but the recognition of the frailty and ultimate meaninglessness—or inherent oppressiveness—of all action.

But the aestheticized despair in these sleek, bleak books is like a pearl woven around the irritant of former progressive hopes. Despite their refusal of teleology, their demurral from any attempt to triumph over a universe of death (to cite Harold Bloom’s Blakean definition of Romanticism), these novels nevertheless generate a certain minimal solidarity, a community of affect, precisely by transmitting their attitude of sorrowful, guilty reverie, as if to model the chastened feelings proper to a world that will have avoided some of the worst mistakes of our own—the guarded feelings, ultimately, of the penitent. While, as I said, I mostly admire these novels, I also fear what they suggest; I worry—in the spirit, no doubt, of an obsolete humanism—that they may represent the literature of the penitentiary.



  1. Superb post, John. I’ve read enough of the titles in the list to see the connecting strains. I wonder too whether you could make a distinction between instrumental and expressive violence. It seems that the novels I’ve read on that list employ expressive violence, i.e. The use of pain/injury as an end in itself, as opposed to violence used as coercion.

    • Thanks, Anthony! (And thanks for the Tweet, too.)

      I wonder if maybe some of these books aren’t trying to question the instrumental/expressive distinction, insofar as I understand it, or at least to suggest that the one produces the other–that instrumental violence is what expressive violence is an expression of. For instance, last time I read Never Let Me Go, I noticed all its micro-climates of violence, even down to descriptions of characters’ off-handedly torturing flies–yet the protagonists are subjected to extreme instrumental violence, which is supposed to be supplemented–rendered radically non-expressive–by the notion of “caring.” I think a similar argument could maybe be made of Open City, too, where Julius’s rape could be described both as instrumental (it allows him to control women in a direct sense) and expressive (it salves his sense of dislocation by making him master). I also suppose in many of these books, a fragile hope is held out about various forms of art, that they could be non-violent forms of expressiveness, though embedded in instrumental contexts. Well, sorry to go on–but it’s a thought-provoking question, and one I hadn’t thought of.

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