An Interrogation of Influence in “The Fraud” – Chicago Review of Books

Influences are strange things. They’re active, sought out, even entreated. But they’re also elusive, enigmatic, disguised. In art, in life, in social media, influences are all the rage, personified as nouns and stacked in neat Wikipedia sidebars. The bizarre nature of language, the way in which it follows patterns and shape-shifts into a facsimile of whatever the writer last read, means that in literature, influences are both ubiquitous and conspicuous. Like our fine cousins, we have in our remote wing of the artistic house our schools, writers in groups like disaffected teenagers hanging around the public square. She writes like this, he works in that tradition. But how does the writer find something new to say, strike the balance between the courting of tradition and the transcendence of the old? Much in the way that a first book is oft a thinly disguised autobiography, it seems that every major novelist eventually comes home, turning to deal with her lineage directly. In The Fraud, her first foray into the historical, Zadie Smith reckons openly with legacy, history, and inspiration, an amusing and endlessly self-aware book from our most influential current writer.

The Fraud is Smith’s seventh novel and twelfth book, all of them written in the long shadow of White Teeth, one that, for as frustrating as it must have been to escape, has provided ample cover for her to, essentially, do whatever she wants. Smith is as good an approximation as the twenty-first century will allow of a literary celebrity, and her quest to find something new is felt on nearly every page of The Fraud. Set in 1873, during the true story of the “Tichborne Claimant,” an incredibly Victorian drama about a butcher’s avowals of his true identity as a member of the gentry, the novel follows Eliza Touchet, cousin to a middling novelist and moderately neurotic overthinker in the Smithian mold. The book takes up all manner of suitably outlandish plotlines and plot fragments and plot ghosts, but is really about Zadie Smith, a writer who’s accomplished everything and is therefore completely free.

One way to measure Smith’s stature in the current literary landscape is to read, what else, The New Yorker. It is a rare novel indeed that can support a meditative thought exercise wrangled into an article on its own genesis. For our purposes it is rather informative. Smith writes of her long reticence towards writing a historical novel, the germination and eventual flowering of her idea, and above all her complicated relationship with Charles Dickens. A writer she admires, from a world far removed from her own, with some views she abhors and a legacy she has felt her entire life, Dickens is a quintessential influence, with all the messy attraction of family. With The Fraud, Smith has found a way to explore if not quite exorcise this entanglement, fashioning a novel in a pointedly Dickensian manner that nonetheless manages to wink knowingly at the modern day.

Eliza has long served as the editor-without-pen for her cousin William, a figure emerged directly out of a Virginia Woolf nightmare, the type of overstuffed, pompous, bumbling writer who would take one look at poor Mrs. Brown and demand to know what line of work her father was in. The exchanges between them, Eliza and William, are amusing and illustrative, among the strongest moments of the novel as Smith teases playfully those dusty Victorians amongst whom she grew up:

‘Zounds!’ he mentally ejaculated. ‘I suspect the little hussy means to refuse him.’

Eliza had long understood her cousin to be beyond the reach of editorial intervention.

‘Your notions are strictly orthodox, Colonel, and meet my entire approval,’ rejoined Her Ladyship. ‘I wonder you do not give effect to them.’

By now she read him only notionally, skipping over pages – whole chapters.

‘Amen!’ ejaculated Oswald, fervently.

The point was to grasp the fundamentals of the story so as not to be caught out in an interrogation.

The trick works on multiple levels here. Narratively, it is an engaging look at the type of novel a contemporary audience will all pretend to have read in high school, but the real fun is in the composition. Smith delights in both inhabiting William’s absurd style and the narrative entity’s (closely allied with Eliza) ridicule of it. One can sense her amusement at creating William and mischievous glee in exposing his ridiculous manner, and the result is that the modern reader will enjoy these exchanges—not to mention the one- to three-page chapters that, in the Victorian tradition, constitute The Fraud’s highly committed structure. As the storyline moves along through mystery and intrigue, momentum is maintained by Smith’s light touch and fast pace, a wealth of researched detail sprinkled in with a keen balance.

As deeply infused as its temporal setting is, The Fraud does not lose sight of modernity, offering astute comments on our current age. William’s new wife, Sarah, is a former maid (concerns with class consciousness and social mobility perhaps wandering into anachronism) with a great interest in the Tichborne case and a nonexistent filter:

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And that’s all I need to know, William. No one can change my mind – it’s set. And the rest is only conspiracy and lies and prejudice, is what it is. If poor Lady Tichborne said this man is her son, who are we to disagree?

The parallels to the current epidemic of fake news and idiosyncratic realities are clear, and carried across the book. The Fraud is the product of intense historical study, and Smith manages to fully inhabit late Victorian England while offering something of relevance and application to the world that receives her work.

And perhaps that extensive period of research and reflection into the past that went into writing The Fraud has left a bit of a mark on its author. The novel is somewhat nostalgic, aware of the long tail of history and the difficulty of ever truly understanding those people—be they ourselves or others—from whom we are separated by time. The Fraud includes passages that seem to reflect Smith’s own career; at the risk of committing Barthesian sins, this reviewer at any rate sees much of the author in the novel. “The truth is, William, fiction is made of fascinating characters and you have been surrounded by fascinating characters all your life,” Eliza says to William in an early scene. Zadie Smith has lived by this maxim throughout her career, even if her characters have never quite matched the raw intensity and intelligence of their creator, betrayed as she has always been by the brilliance of her literary criticism. There is a fearlessness in Smith’s best nonfiction, a novelty of vision buttressed by total conviction, that is more often absent from than found in her novels. In her fiction we see this duality belied by what is perhaps a predictability, an element likewise found in The Fraud. Her great hero, David Foster Wallace, has long haunted her worldview, but there too is more than a hint of the Dickensian and the Victorian in the people who inhabit these fictive places.

Smith’s latest work, more than anything else, is an accomplishment of history and legacy, both personal and societal, crafted by a writer as contemplative and thoughtful as any, who has done all that perilous homework and turned in an assignment that merrily eludes the original question. The Fraud is less concerned with its story than how it began telling it; Smith is more interested in what it means to write such a book than in the book itself. It is a novel that finds success on its own terms, one perhaps that will be better met by long-term fans of its author than anyone, but which above all stands as a thoughtful commentary on that timeless, ineluctable, ever-haunting spirit, influence.

The Fraud
By Zadie Smith
Penguin Press
Published September 5, 2023

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