Who Should Write Superman? Pt. VII
February 27, 2007
For this week’s installment of Who Should Write Superman? we at Yesterday’s Salad would like to welcome Zadie Smith to our pantheon of new Kryptonian Scribes. This might seem to be somewhat of a controversial choice among the Saladeers, as not everyone here at the Salad is enamored with her works, as at least one of us has openly referred to White Teeth as merely “okay,” (note: not me), and as devotees may have noted, we’ve already had a woman, and featuring more might be seen as overcompensating for something. However, many of the criticisms which are frequently lobbed at her oeuvre are in truth strengths dearly needed by the aging Superman franchise.
1. Hype. Much ado was made about Ms. Smith’s debut work, White Teeth. While the sheer volume of this hype and the total silence of any criticism toward the novel was enough to turn some new readers off of the book (viz. impossible expectations, as above), it also left the novels that Smith wrote afterward in the lurch, as if all of the criticism that had been owed to the former was being launched altogether against her sophomore works. Yet, unlike many of the other young authors whose debut novels have been met with similar acclaim, Smith’s following books, The Autograph Man and On Beauty, are actually pretty good, unlike the grand swan-dive come nose-dive that Jonathan Safran Foer took from Everything is Illuminated to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Thus, we are ensured that even though Smith’s first issue of Superman: Metropolis’ Lonely Hour might be hailed as a sure sign of the Second Coming, at least the rest of the series will be pretty good.
Furthermore, hype is good.* The last major stunt that managed to rejuvenate the franchise required the editors to kill off Superman, and a more recent attempt to ditch his iconic wardrobe for something more in keeping with the times was met with widespread derision. What Superman really needs is a change that will draw attention to him, but in a positive light, and the best way to accomplish that is to stop wiggling around with the concept of the character itself, but to place Superman in a perfectly well-developed, albeit picaresque, Sitz-im-Leben. Short of anyone from the Wire writing the story, it’s hard to imagine an author who would be more committed to fleshing out the rest of Metropolis.
2. Cultural awareness. Much criticism of Smith has focused on how multiculturalism serves as a cornerstone (or the cornerstone) of her writing, without which a Zadie Smith novel would be plot-less, and reading it in public would not get you any more kudos from passing coeds than a similarly-priced Milan Kundera novel. Yet, there are plenty of critically-acclaimed novelists who have written far more books on a much narrower topic (e.g. Tim O’Brien), and the multicultural interplay of Ms. Smith’s novels never descends into the identity politics or turgid writing of say, Homi Bhabha, even when poking fun at colonialism. Smith would do an excellent job of exploring Superman’s self-conception as a Kryptonian-American, such as his feelings of insufficiency stemming from when the people of Kandor discovered his scant knowledge of Kryptonian customs. Furthermore, unlike lesser writers, Smith would recognize that Superman is clearly Clark Kent’s alter ego, recognizing the former as a kind of mask that Kent/Kal-El puts on to help fit in with the American public’s demand for a hero to be forceful and anything but bookish.
3. Hysterical realism. Perhaps the most stinging critique of Smith’s work (even though it was probably meant to be incisive rather than malicious) was James Wood’s characterization of White Teeth as the exemplar of a kind of ‘hysterical realism,’ a distraction from more authentic novels, which (roughly) eschew the goal of verisimilitude in favor of absurd plot elements are juxtaposed with passages of exhausting detail. Yet, if there is anything that Superman needs, it is humor and an eye for detail. Past attempts at humor in Superman have fallen flat, whether by virtue of their corniness, or in the case of Bizarro, because they ran afoul of developmental-disability advocates. Smith would revolutionize this element of the narrative with cheeky British sarcasm (far more than can be found in Superman: True Brit), and in conjunction with her tendency to flesh out the often bizarre motivations and proclivities of her minor characters, we would not only know that Jimmy Olsen had the makings of an embittered smut magnate (as in The Dark Knight Strikes Again) but we would know why, namely how Perry White’s attempts to teach the boy some journalistic style resulted instead in delightful and unexpected failures.
So too, pages of giant battles between Superman and supervillains (which can go on for entire issues) would be interspersed with lengthy passages detailing the extraordinary origins of minute details of the Superman universe, including editorialized digressions into their relation to real life. For instance, an onlooker to Superman’s battle against the latest villain-of-the-week might utter the phrase “faster than a speeding bullet!” which would lead to a thirty-page discussion about the history of speeding bullets, their place in modern culture, and an explanation of how the limitations imposed by the sound barrier mean that every time that Superman does fly around faster than a speeding bullet, the citizens of Metropolis are subjected to a series of sonic booms, and that many secretly resent him for that very reason. Or perhaps this would simply provide the source for another digression, namely how absolutely all of the story and none of the story are both intimately linked to Mister Mxyzptlk’s cupidities and caprices.
* For instance, this entry will generate positive hype for Yesterday’s Salad because it is about a talented young author, rather than being about noted adult film star Brandy Taylor, whose name alone is still responsible for about an eighth of our daily hits. Thus, the hype that generally surrounds Zadie Smith will confer upon this blog a relevance (at least in search terms) to fans of modern fiction and away (or at least, not toward) fans of adult cinema. Now, some would point out that naming Brandy Taylor simply to establish Zadie Smith’s dissimilarity to her might be considered pandering to search engine terms; however, I can assure you that to do so would require me to type “Zadie Smith bests Brandy Taylor in pillow-fight,” or at least the more plausible “Noted author Zadie Smith bests Brandy Taylor in spelling bee.”