Zadie Smith, NW – TLS
“My writing desk is covered in open novels”, Zadie Smith tells us in her 2009 collection of essays, Changing My Mind. She is the kind of writer who does not jealously guard her originality, understanding that central to what she puts out is what she notices and takes in. Like Christina Stead generating writing out of her Ocean of Story, or Salman Rushdie held afloat on his Sea of Story, Smith seeks out influence, “read[ing] lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigour when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight.” It’s a credo that places her in E.M. Forster’s convivial “echo chamber”, where writers freely associate, exchanging literary ways of being, even as it bears the trace of having come from somewhere, of having prior allegiance and inflection: that uptight tells us her writing is not placeless or ‘atopic’.
Complexity of this kind proliferates in Smith’s latest novel, NW, in which she returns to her roots in the London postcode where she grew up, and where her debut, White Teeth (2000), was set. Though by no means autobiographical, NW has the intensity of the personal, enacting Smith’s own journey from a council estate to university and ‘professional’ life, asking what happens to a person on such a journey, and to the people and community left behind? Half a century ago writers like Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart considered the same question in terms of class, but ours has become a more elaborate culture since then and Smith reflects this intricacy in the mixed people she represents and in the way her novel is told.
In NW’s “multiverse” self-suspicion is intense, irony inescapable, and interaction highly self-conscious (“Frank’s default mode with Leah is a sort of self-parody. Leah thwarts him by faking innocence”). Competitive claims leave the reader, along with the characters, working to ascertain: is this interesting, important, honest, true? Such indeterminacy makes similar demands of readers to those that the city itself makes, requiring flexibility, nuance and a willingness to experiment. Smith, now on her fourth novel and coming into maturity as a writer, is, as she announces on the first page, ready to “Take her liberty”, confident enough to be demanding (“Reader: keep up!”), and writing with a new, improvized looseness. There are signs everywhere of her learning and reading, but this time she has freed herself of the supports she hitherto relied on, most evidently in On Beauty, and is making her own way. This then, is a riskily open book, exhibiting all the novel’s defiant possibilities; a freedom that stands in instructive contrast to NW’s trapped inhabitants.
Smith’s five characters grew up on Caldwell, a Willesden council estate. As adults now in their mid-thirties none have strayed far, though the lives they lead are worlds apart. The novel, set principally in the present, pivoting on the Carnival weekend, also delves back over thirty years. It examines the respective fates of best friends Natalie and Leah, as well as Felix, and more peripherally Nathan and Shar, beginning when Shar unexpectedly turns up again in Leah’s life. Shar has become an addict, leading a rough street life, conning, begging and living in a squat. Hers is a world in which nothing and no one can be helped: about her beating and rape she is quietist, telling Leah, “Aint your fault. Is what it is.” The distance between the women’s lives is so great they puzzle one another. Shar is unfamiliar with Leah’s show of concern and she struggles to place it; to her, Leah seems “someone absurd…maybe a slacker, a lady of leisure”. In turn, Shar’s sudden re-emergence disconcerts Leah, making her reflect on her own existence, under-stretched in work with community groups and resisting the inexorable path to motherhood. When a young black man is stabbed close to her home, the question of who thrives in London and who is destroyed by it begins to plague her. Finally, she says to Natalie: “I just don’t understand…Why that girl and not us. Why that poor bastard on Albert Road. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Though dealing in such inescapably political material – and unlike many recent London novelists at last waking up to the others in ‘our’ midst, characterizing newcomers by their cultural difference and economic function (all those Sikh shop keepers, Polish builders and Brazilian au pairs) – Smith writes from the inside, allowing her characters modernism’s full range of techniques to explore their interiority. Which is a relief – and the more so, because despite her profound pessimism about the emerging twenty-first century self (we are an uneasy, imperious and defended bunch) her ability to say this is who we are, without “prettification”, feels liberating and encouraging. “The effort to name” either the world or ourselves, however, is not straightforward: it all but defeats Natalie. For her, life brings no helpful epiphanies, only rare moments of “clarity” that are difficult to retain. She understands what she has had to overcome to become a barrister and good, conforming bourgeois, but is less comprehending of the rigidity such will to power has enforced in her. Nor does she recognize how it has divided her from family and old friends who regard her now either as a role model or a traitor. (“Can’t go home, can’t leave home: a subject close to my heart”, Smith wrote in an elegy to her own father.)
Leah’s climb has been less emphatic: she still lives in a council flat in sight of Caldwell and is married to Michel, a French-Algerian whose immigrant eyes tell him that “not everyone can be invited to the party. Not this century”, so you’d better look out for yourself. The two women hold the novel’s centre of attention; indeed, NW is one of the strongest dissections of female friendship since Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, a novel that broke ground in 1962, and with which NW bears comparison – in its determination to face the present without illusion, in its discussion of apostasy, and in the way it apportions a fragmenting world.
The novel is written in five segments. Leah’s, called ‘Visitation’ (after Shar’s disturbing appearance), is dealt out in chapters, reflecting Leah’s more ‘old-fashioned’ concerns: she disagrees with her husband’s self-help philosophy, and looks for an “objective” way of understanding herself, of reaching out to others, even as she resists the idea that women are inherently full of “empathy”. Smith reproduces this effort in the novel’s narrative perspective, shifting from subjectivity to objectivity, from calling her Leah to Leah Hanwell, to Mrs Hanwell, to “the woman”, in a manner reminiscent of the nouvelle vague, and with much the same purpose: to step outside the interiority so pleasurably conveyed in the novel’s fluid opening pages, and locate a cooler, more detached point of view.
Natalie’s more contemporary character (anxiety-ridden, self-deluding) is delineated in modern style with briefer notes. These have allusive titles suggesting a mind-map of our disseminated consciousness: Buñuel and Godard jostle with Amy Winehouse and Nirvana; Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push it” follows on from the Nabokovian “Speak, radio”; a section about a vibrator takes its name from an Updike novel. Natalie herself is an inveterate note-taker and reader of signs, treating the world “anthropologically”, a form of objectivity different to Leah’s because it is self-absolving, denying her own bias in the equation. She shares this myopia with her privileged husband: in an argument each believe “their own interpretation to be objectively considered and in no way the product of their contrasting upbringings.”
For Smith, an inability to recognize one’s own contingency is one of the great modern sins. A lecture on Barack Obama (2008) saw her admiring the novelistic facility on display in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, and evident in his ability to speak to America’s different constituencies, without betraying himself. It is a gift she sees deriving from the President’s mixed-race, “double-voice” inheritance, one she hopes will enable him to tell various truths, devoid of contradiction but with “proper human harmony”.
In NW, Natalie’s apostasy echoes Lessing’s mid-century abandonment of the (communist) dream of human harmony in favour of the “small personal voice”; now, hers is the abandonment of the jostling place she came from in favour of a self-preserving one-sidedness. Though not, of course, forsaking that hard-won personal voice, Smith questions the solipsism into which its elevation has led us. The novel opens in didactic tableau: Leah, lying in a hammock, is attracted by a line she hears on the radio and thinks she should make a note of it: “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me”. But as Leah’s fist unfurls and her pencil drops, the spell of these incantatory, self-enclosing words is broken, and the idea of a private language jettisoned (Smith’s essays show her reading Wittgenstein); she “Takes her liberty”, never having written the sentence down.
The narrative perspective shifts again: in segments divided by place, rather than the women’s numerical depth, two male characters move geographically across the city. Felix, pulling his life together after a druggy period, visits Caldwell, where his jobless father still lives. A gift of a book of photographs of 1970s estate life, prompts the older man to reminisce about how rebellious and intrepid his generation of West Indians were in their youth (“style without money, without any means whatsoever”). For Felix there is the realisation that Black Power was not just “self-serving exaggeration”, there was once real community here. But the memories also bring pain, because something in the anarchic looseness of his parents’ life (“This was the heatwave. We just took off the door!”) and in the growing freedom of women, led his mother to abandon the family. She has become a perpetual absconder, prey to the superstition and paranoia often bred in exclusion, while his stay-at-home father now lives enveloped in weed fumes. Throughout the novel, Smith makes a point of refusing nostalgia, but she shows with great subtlety how his history feeds into the man Felix has become, suggesting that the desire for a more disciplined and orthodox life comes in reaction to the failed hopes of a previous generation.
It is a passage that also casts light on the emotional attachment to home ground of all Smith’s characters, their defensive allegiance to a particular manor (an important difference here between John Lanchester’s overview in Capital and Smith’s slicing through NW). This loyalty has the remnants of solidarity in it, but now exerts almost totalitarian power, where claims of territorial authenticity (“You can’t really chat to me. I’m Hackney, so.”) and a distorted code of ethics about who has the right to speak (“Why you tryna make it your business? Who you calling blud?”) rapidly decline into violence.
Felix’s subsequent journey from NW into the West End has its title in brackets, “(W1)”, as if Soho were a place of more dubious reality. It’s a joke of course, because to Felix, the well-to-do people he meets there – Tom, a rich kid in “brand consolidation”, and Annie, junkie descendant of an earl – do live in a kind of fairyland, protected from the life and death reality that awaits him on his return to NW. Growing weary of Annie’s privileged bohemianism, her lofty denial of the constraints in his life, Felix asks her, “Why you always going on about shit that ain’t even real?” His section is titled ‘Guest’ and, like Natalie, he feels humiliated at being addressed on other people’s terms, at finding himself always on other people’s turf.
In Lessing’s novel, a breakdown of the old order leads to a newly unified reality (the Golden Notebook itself), but in NW there can be no decomposing of the world through the text. Natalie’s break out – she seeks sex with strangers via the internet, then takes a drug-fuelled walk with Nathan round the old Caldwell haunts – is a temporary affair; she quickly returns to business as usual. If there is a unifying idea in Smith’s compendious novel it is that of ‘the gift’, a notion emerging from anthropology, which the Situationists championed, about things (goods, ideas, talents) we have and give to one another freely, without commodification. In another essay from Changing My Mind, Smith discusses the gift’s importance in art, and particularly to David Foster Wallace, a writer she greatly admired: she shares the idea in NW, making it the bedrock of Natalie’s conflicted ‘personality’.
At a young age Natalie finds her intelligence and drive praised in a way that troubles her. These are accidents, unearned gifts, she thinks, and this discrepant account by others leads her into a reflexive trap. In the mirror she sees only a charlatan, someone “making it up as she goes along”. By adulthood, her autodidact reading in headstrong outcasts (James Baldwin, Jane Eyre and Jesus Christ), leaves her feeling put together wrongly, a kind of intellectual patchwork doll. What she seeks is tradition, a place where she can be learned without the stigma of eccentricity. But when she finally achieves success – when she is no longer a ‘Guest’ in life but takes her place as ‘Host’ (the name of her segment) – she finds that with entitlement she is locked into stifling conformity.
It is a characterization which at first seems highly specific to Natalie. But through these ideas the novel also reflects on Leah’s problem about who succeeds and who fails, proposing that talent, intelligence and aptitude have a lot to do with it, but that these are reward in themselves, not markers of moral probity making the possessor a more deserving person. In NW’s recursive world there is no easy way out from the defended self, and Natalie’s eventual reply to Leah – a politician’s sanctimony about just deserts – is in the worst bad faith. But Smith’s great gift for seeing people in their entirety means she will not simply consign Natalie to self-betrayal. The novel closes with another visitation, this one in the guise of an idea: in some ingenious manner that depends on Natalie’s gifts of detection and her double-voice she improvizes a way forward, “making it up as she goes along”. In this moment she becomes, however fleetingly, the person her strength makes her capable of being – not a host, presiding over others, but a potential saviour. Even in this solution, though, Smith’s book remains open, with enough ambiguity and mystery to leave room for doubt. To the end she demands of her reader (as Foster Wallace did in a short story of his own): “So, decide.”