What Ever Happened to Hysterical Realism?

Twelve years later, James Wood's famous essay holds up. And now we know what came next

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I’m currently reading Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace. I could blog about it now, but it’s not out till September, so that would just be annoying. (It may already be annoying, in which case: sorry.)

It’s a “balanced” portrait, by which I mean that along with all the stuff about Wallace’s brilliance there are also some unflattering surprises. For example: I didn’t realize Wallace was struggling with so much anger. A moment from the biography, circa 1990, which was a time of great personal and creative frustration for Wallace:

Big Craig [the model for Gately in Infinite Jest] happened to watch a car cut off Wallace one day when the latter was driving near Foster Street. In fury Wallace rammed his car into the other person’s. “He got out of the car, scratching his head,” Big Craig remembers. “Oh gee, what happened?”

Myself, I never met Wallace—I never even had a car accident with him—but I did speak to him on the phone once. This was in 1999, when Brief Interviews with Hideous Men came out, and I interviewed him for Time Out New York. We talked for maybe an hour; he had a soft, humorous, very appealing way of speaking that was hyper-articulate without beating you over the head with it. I’m sure the piece ran—I can picture it on the back page—but I can’t find any trace of it online, so it’s possible that I hallucinated the whole episode. What I remember most about the interview was how self-conscious the sound of my spring-loaded late-’90s keyboard made him as I took notes, and also how badly I wanted to be Wallace’s best friend by the end of it. I think he had that effect on a lot of people.

(MORELev Grossman’s Book-Buffer for June and July)

Reading Max’s book also caused me to re-encounter James Wood’s famous review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, published in The New Republic in 2000, which Max quotes. It’s the one where Wood coined the phrase “hysterical realism” to describe the big, hyper-inter-connected novels that Rushdie, Pynchon, DeLillo, Wallace and Smith were writing at the time (he could have included David Mitchell too):

The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence–as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned.

Wood, in case it’s not obvious from that quote, was not in love with these books. He felt that they fundamentally failed at the novel’s basic task of representing human beings. This conceit of describing people as hyper-connected nodes, defined by the mass of external details that stick to them and the chance connections that link to them to other people-nodes, overwhelms any sense of their interiority. They don’t create that ghostly illusion of actual living consciousness that novels are supposed to create.

Re-reading Wood’s essay now, it feels different than it did then, when I was enveloped in the fog-of-war that afflicts people like me (and not people like Wood) when we try to think about things that are happening in the present. There’s a certain crudeness and aggressiveness to the label “hysterical realism.” But then again literary criticism is nothing if not a crude, bloody business, in which innocent, free-roaming books are roughly herded together and hogtied and branded with buzzwords. There isn’t really another way to do it. And on the whole I agree with Wood. I think he was describing something real.

But what ever happened to hysterical realism? And what’s going on now? If I were to try to put a name to the kind of writing I see most often in contemporary fiction now it would be something along the lines of “unrealism.”

(By the way: I realize that I write posts like this—glib, massively over-generalizing arguments about What’s Going On with Books—somewhat compulsively. It’s a bad habit. I do it not because I should—not because I actually think I have a better idea than anybody else about what is going on—but more because I want other people to write them. I do it pour encourager les autres, in the hope that if we all do it then in some hive-mind-ish way we might collectively get closer to an understanding of what a literary map of the present moment would actually look like.

Why we would want to do that, I don’t know. Just curious, I guess.)

What I see now when I look at books like White Teeth and Infinite Jest and Underworld is—among many other things—an attempt to gesture at the infinite, overabundant, overwhelming complexity of reality, and the increasing force with which that complexity is borne in upon us by means electronic and otherwise (i.e. by the overabundance of blogs like this one). Those books rarely end without a suggestion that they could have gone on and on indefinitely, because the world’s narrative resources are just that inexhaustible. You rarely meet a character, even a minor one, without getting the impression that the camera could wander off with them, instead of with whoever the hero of the moment is, and the result would be as rich and interesting a novel as the one the author actually wrote. You can imagine those books as endlessly ramifying trees of story, their branches dividing and dividing until the reader gets the point, which is that they could branch and divide forever and still not capture the full complexity of the world around them.

(READ: David Foster Wallace: The Death of a Genius)

Which is, of course, leaving aside Wood’s aesthetic objections, true. The world is that complex. In a way the basic premise of these books is their own failure to capture that complexity. (I learned from Max’s biography that Wallace wanted Infinite Jest to be published with the subtitle: A Failed Entertainment. (Wiser or at least more market-savvy heads prevailed.)) Hysterical realism is basically synecdochic: it substitutes a finite part for an infinite whole.

When I look at the novels that have crossed my desk in the last year—to take a semi-arbitrary handful, Gone Girl, Wild Thing, The Rook, A Hologram for the King, The Age of Miracles, The Lifeboat, At Last, The Song of Achilles, The Night Circus, The Absolutist, The Fault in Our Stars, Gold, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Bring Up the Bodies, The Uninvited Guests, Home—I don’t see so much of that. The swelling has subsided. There’s a lot less of that “let me introduce you to all these disparate characters and then slowly reveal how their lives are interconnected” approach to storytelling. (Though I did see it, or least catch a whiff of it, in Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men and Mark Leyner’s The Sugar Frosted Nutsack.)

I have droned on well-nigh endlessly about the American novel’s return to storytelling and its re-embracing of plot, but I’m going to do it again, because dammit, it’s relevant here. What we’re witnessing is a pruning of that endlessly branching narrative tree. What I see more of now are novels whose outlines are crisply defined, with two or three narrative arcs in play at most. Characters are gifted with one or two defining traits, and go two or three levels down, but that’s it. They’re slightly cartoonish, in the way that Dickens characters are—they’re very character-y. These books are content to stipulate to the endless complexity of reality and then write it off which is either a grievous lapse of novelistic integrity or the basic compromise with reality that is necessary both for conventional storytelling and for maintaining a more-or-less sane, functioning consciousness, depending on how you want to look at it.

(MORESeason’s Readings: Best Summer Books)

In case I haven’t already showed my hand, I am in sympathy with this trend. Hysterical realism treats the world as an infinite network, but we already have an infinite network, the Internet, and our nose is rubbed in it on an hourly basis. We don’t need more of that—more hysteria. We need novels that help us manage hysteria instead. If the hysterical realist novel is a synecdoche, the unrealist novel is a metaphor: it tries to represent the world as (i.e. it substitutes for it) a shape, a pattern, a dramatic arc, that reveals the simplicity that underlies the complexity. The Mandelbrot set is infinitely complex, its borders ramify without end, but it still has a shape, an outline that’s instantly recognizable. That’s the shape of the Unrealist novel.

(Or finite realism? Is that better? Maybe that’s better.)

As such the unrealist novel is less tightly fettered to the real world. It’s given up on representing the world directly, and that frees it to be overtly unreal: vampires, aliens, magic, preposterous capers and heists, and so on are fair game, and they crop up with increasing frequency even in “mainstream” literature. The goal isn’t to convey information but to conjure up the human ghost through the mystical rite of character, and everything else is secondary. Unrealist novels are avowedly fictional, but we care about them anyway because the drama, and the emotions, are real. (At this point, if I had read David Shields’ Reality Hunger, I would probably say something about how this argument flies in the face of what he’s saying. Which I think it does. But I haven’t read it. So.)

Or at least I think this is what’s happening. I have on my night-table at home a copy of NW, Zadie Smith’s new novel, which is—like that biography of David Foster Wallace—due out in September. Smith, being smarter than me, has no doubt thought these things through more fully and precisely than I ever could. With any luck Wood will review NW too, and between them they’ll figure out the rest of it, and we can all read about it at our leisure in September. Until then, this as as far as I’ve gotten.

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If I want a long boring story with no point to it, I have my life - Jerry Seinfeld


Well... I for one have an active dislike for this, whatever it is, "unrealist novel-ism". Why? Exactly because it's both TOO intentionally "unrealistic" and TOO intentionally "novelistic", how to put this... it puts its objectives of unrealism and dramaticism too primarily in its scope. (Does that make sense?) In essence, what all of these anti-realistic "novels" are doing is sacrificing the richness of story in the name of drama and cheap tricks/thrills. At least that's how I perceive it. And since when are people reading books for the thrills? And was this essay wrote because if the need to fulfill someone's dramatic thrill? Did I come to read this article for the thrills I was expecting it to provide me with? NO. Hell no.

To put it in another way, let me explain it like this: a "hysterical realist" novel (say, by Wallace) can be, and it already has in itself (in various places) all the qualities and emotional range that these "unrealistic" novels have today. But does an unrealistic novel have the mind-boggling bloom of sensory, emotional and perceptive richness that the "hysterical realist" novels have? No they don't. Does a hysterical realist novel possess the unrealistic drama that unrealist novels have? Yes it does. 

That right there, to me, delineates which literary trend does better justice to what literature is (a kaleidoscopic omni-referential artistic lens). To make myself clear, the hysterical realists do more honor to the novel than these... pills that come into the shapes of novels.

And I also cannot but not think of the motivation, or the reason why one would read a novel. Obviously there are lots of people out there who would read novels as a sort of therapy (emotional or mental, uh), hence the advent of the "unrealistic novel which primary function seems to be the prompt medication of its readers... to this I can only say that, if you're in need of rest, or therapy, perhaps you should use a pillow. Or, yeah, grab an unrealistic novel if you really must. But let's not bastardize literature by making it a servant to the whims of market or public demand. As much as books should comfort, they should also inspire; as much as they should make us feel, they should also make us think; as much as they should focus on this one special thing, they should also remind us that we, everything and everyone, is interconnected.

And, as a final aside: the fact that readers are in the need of thrills and unrealism and emotional stimulation speaks volumes about their real lives and their personal and our collective narratives. And I don't think it paints a nice picture. And I don't think that retreating into the world of heavily dosed ludicrous fiction will suddenly put some color in our greyscale lives. But then again, maybe it will. Here's hoping.

P.S. I don't really agree with the "hysterical realism" vs the "unrealism" category split. If anything, I find those hysterical realist novels very unrealistic... at least in their manner of presentation (I have felt too often that ethereal golden glow that oozes from their narrative ether once you immerse yourself into that rich world. Suddenly a pen becomes an epiphany.)


I feel "unrealism" (and, yes, "finite realism" IS better) is critical not just to novels, but to the lives we subjectively lead. Nor is it new, except in the sense that everything old is new again. (Most of the rest of this comment is adapted from a personal letter to a friend which I wrote a couple months ago.)

A chapter Fanny Burney's 1780-something novel _Cecilia_ begins, "Mrs Mears, whose character was of that common sort that renders delineation superfluous....” I was enchanted to read that. Yes, it’s unfair to the said hostess, but it’s a way for the author to cozy up and put the reader at ease while simultaneously conveniently keeping the story’s focus narrow. 

I haven't read any of the books Wood was originally criticizing in the "hysterical realism" tendency, but I have read _The Known World_ by Edward P. Jones, which really does flesh out almost every human form. It's mindblowing -- but it’s not just lack of talent that prevents everyone from writing so. Readers don’t want their minds blown. Most want their minds filled or emptied. A good author can hope to fulfill one of those desires while also getting in a little bit of mind expansion or re-shaping or toning on the sly. To tell a story, you have to *not* *tell* a million stories.

A well-crafted world leaves a reader like me with no doubt that the other million stories exist within it. Still, I don't expect I would like novels like Smith's or Wallace's, because it sounds like they TOO EXPLICITLY call out the multifariousness of their worlds and ours. We don't think about that so consciously in our daily lives, and neither should we have to think about it particularly consciously in our reading.


"You rarely meet a character, even a minor one, without getting the impression that the camera could wander off with them, instead of with whoever the hero of the moment is, and the result would be as rich and interesting a novel as the one the author actually wrote. You can imagine those books as endlessly ramifying trees of story, their branches dividing and dividing until the reader gets the point, which is that they could branch and divide forever and still not capture the full complexity of the world around them."

Which I gather is what Richard Linklater was going for, and achieved wonderfully, with his feature debut Slacker.  Except it wasn't a novel.  But still...


The other reason "hysterical realism" (really? That's what we're going with?) isn't terribly sustainable is that it's really, really hard, even for top-shelf writers. You need to be a little bit insane to even try it. But it'll always happen. Hell, by your definition of the form, William Faulkner was doing it decades before such silliness as the internet existed.

Don't worry about hysterical realism taking over literature (or Literature). But it's not going to disappear. Gird yourself accordingly.

Justin Sayings
Justin Sayings

David Foster Wallace was a genius. Should I rephrase that? Is David Foster Wallace a phase I'm going through? Because geniuses, you know, are like soup; you need them when you're sick, but don't eat too much of them or you'll get sick. Or should that be drink too much of them? And there's the rub, should we eat or drink David Foster Wallace? maybe we should slurp him while filling our spoons away from us, if you see what I'm saying.

Wild Swans at David Foster Wallace: