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Natasha Lewis: Zadie Smith’s NW and Big Ideas

September 7, 2012

Despite what Kakutani says, Smith’s new novel is not "Mrs. Dalloway Lite."

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Image from Flickr via david_shankbone

By Natasha Lewis

The first section of Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, fizzes with modernist urgency. Sentences jump from observation, to contemplation, to frustration, first giving a glimpse into the mind of Leah Hanwell, a thirty-something redhead who was brought up in the public housing of Caldwell estate, in North West London: “Birds singing the wrong tunes in the wrong trees too early in the year. Look up: the girl’s burnt paunch rests on the railing. Here’s what Michel likes to say: not everyone can be invited to the party. Not this century.” It’s hard to follow at points and the reader is forced to slow down. Critics have compared Smith’s style in the book with the stream-of-consciousness Virginia Woolf used in her modernist classic, Mrs. Dalloway, and Smith herself cited the novel as an inspiration in an interview this summer.

Description, dialogue and sounds from the radio are not distinguished from thoughts, and all act to immerse the reader in the perspectives of Smith’s characters. Gradually, we learn the personal histories of the four main characters—a selection of stories about race, class, choice and luck—and the reader comes to understand each as a product of their past.

Just as On Beauty was more than another Howard’s End, it would be a mistake to read NW as a mere repackaging of a classic.

We follow Leah from home to work, around North West London, to the home of Natalie Blake, Leah’s childhood best friend. As children, the two felt the same despite their different racial backgrounds—Leah is white, Natalie is black. “Like most children, theirs was a relationship based on verbs, not nouns…Together they ran, jumped, danced, sang…sneaked a cigarette…wrote the word FUCK on the first page of a Bible.” They lived in the same place, went to the same school and their mothers—who both worked as nurses—had similar understandings of their own class: “Neither woman was in any sense a member of the bourgeoisie,” Smith writes later, “but neither did they consider themselves solidly of the working class either.”

As adults, their friendship has changed. Leah lives with her husband, a black French hairdresser, round the corner from her childhood home. She went to university, but works a low-paid job for which her degree is almost useless: “An unpaid, growing debt,” writes Smith in a scene set in Leah’s workplace, “Along with a feeling of resentment: what was the purpose of preparing for a life never intended for her?” It seems that life is something broader than simply middle class comforts, but Smith leaves it here.

Natalie, on the other hand, turned a natural fascination for knowledge into personal success. She married a rich, privately educated mixed-race man and works as a well-paid solicitor. Natalie also moved back to NW but lives in a Victorian house of grandeur. Leah and Natalie now don’t often meet up, and it’s awkward when they do. When Leah reminds Natalie that she used to be called Keisha—a name she changed at college—“Natalie chews at a nail, hating to be teased.” From Natalie, Leah learns that it is polite to bring wine to a dinner party. And at the dinner party, Leah and her husband stay quiet in front of the middle-class guests, “letting Natalie tell their stories for them, nodding to confirm points of fact, names, times, places. Offered to the table for general dissection, these anecdotes take on their own life, separate, impressive.”
 
Another of the main characters, Nathan Bogle, appears for most of the book only as the subject of other people’s stories. He went to school with the two women and Leah makes use of Nathan as a character when she has nothing left to say: “All our mums knew each other. Very nice-looking, very mischievious. Played the drums? Quite well. He sat next to Keisha. Back when she was Keisha,” she says. Now, he lives a shadowy half-life on the fringes of society.  In his first physical appearance in the novel, Leah and her mum see him in the station—his afro shabby, a toe poking out of a sneaker, his eyes yellow: homeless and on drugs.
 
Felix, the final main character, is a thirty-two-year-old black man who takes the world as it comes, and seems younger than he is because of it. His section is the most humorous (until it’s not), and this humor comes not from Felix but from the mouths of those who speak to him, including a coke-addicted aristocrat whose posh accent always saves her from falling to the bottom, among others. When a young middle-class man tells Felix he works “for a company that creates ideas for brand consolidation? So that brands can better target receptivity for their products—cutting-edge brand manipulation, basically,” Felix responds: “Like advertising?”
 
Michiko Kakutani, in a review of Smith’s book for The New York Times, appropriately highlights the Virginia Woolf inspiration, but her characterization of the novel comes close to calling it “Mrs. Dalloway Lite.”  NW is not the first time Smith has used the conventions of an old form as a playground for fresh thought: her 2005 novel, On Beauty, took the structure of E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End as a model. Just as On Beauty was more than another Howard’s End, it would be a mistake to read NW as a mere repackaging of a classic.
 
Kakutani claims that the two heroines “share Clarissa Dalloway’s sense of isolation and nostalgia for a past that seems more vital or vivid than the present.” This is not entirely true. Leah is indeed reluctant to move forward—symbolized clearly by the contraceptive pills she takes behind her husband’s back—but Natalie is the opposite: her life is about deliberate progression, although where she imagines she is going is never made clear in concrete terms. Her journey is charted in the novel’s longest section, which is broken up methodically into numbers and steps with titles such as “Cocks,” “Ideology in popular entertainment,” and “The invention of love: part two.”
 

The recurring frustration with language suggests why Smith chose modernism… After the sheer quantity of carnage brought by World War I, artists and writers found traditional techniques inadequate for representing the world they could now see. In this novel, Smith is acting out a similar struggle—a struggle to talk about the twenty-first century with integrity.

Throughout the novel, class progression is represented partly by the achievement of “silence and privacy,” and Keisha’s (aka Natalie) childhood is especially characterized by its lack of both. As a teenager she battles her mother to be given her own room. When, as an adult, she buys a beautiful home with her husband, nobody calls Natalie’s movement class progression.  It is “into adult life,” that she steps, and it is adult life—rather than life in a wealthier class—that is “notable for its silence and privacy.”

Leah never achieves silence or privacy in any significant way. In the novel’s opening scene the thirty-something sits in the yard area she shares with neighbors and has her thoughts interrupted: “Four gardens along, in the estate, a grim girl on the third floor screams Anglo-Saxon at nobody. Juliet balcony, projecting for miles. It ain’t like that. Nah it ain’t like that. Don’t you start. Fag in hand. Fleshy, lobster-red.” The anonymous woman finds it difficult to make her silent interlocutor (“Sole sign of sanity: a tiny device tucked in her ear”—she is talking into an unseen cell phone) understand what she is trying to say. Her protests are a prelude to a frustration with language that recurs throughout the book and crosses social circles. “Everybody says the same things,” thinks Leah (and Smith?) as Leah scans familiar sentences from leaflets about addiction picked up at her work, as she rides the bus home, “Everyone says the same things in the same way.” Riding the tube, Leah gets sick of her mother’s telling of other people’s stories: “He’s not the one who killed somebody, now, no, that was somebody else. Sectioned, was he? At one point? Beat his father to a pulp, that much I’m sure of. Though that man had it coming or something like that. Leah lifts two free papers from the pile as the train pulls out because reading is silent.”

Silence isn’t ideal but perhaps it’s better than a deluge of insensitive and inconsequential chatter. Smith draws attention through the book to words and phrases as fashion: “It was the year people began to say ‘living the dream,’ sometimes sincerely but usually ironically;” “people began to say ‘literally.’” At Natalie’s dinner party, everyone has something to say about the evils of technology; “Everyone is suddenly an expert on Islam,” and, again, “Everyone says the same things in the same way.”

The recurring frustration with language suggests why Smith chose modernism specifically. Modernist art and literature came out of a need for new modes of expression. After the sheer quantity of carnage brought by World War I, artists and writers found traditional techniques inadequate for representing the world they then saw it. In this novel, Smith is acting out a similar struggle—a struggle to talk about the twenty-first century with integrity. Kakutani’s Times review claims that “NW avoids big issues tackled by White Teeth like the legacy of British colonialism or the weight of exile.” But Kakutani’s definition of what makes an issue “big” is different from Smith’s, and from mine.

For Smith, this library is not just a personal issue … it is significant because it’s representative of a wider change. Similarly, the workings of four lives—presented so closely as they are in NW—are each a big deal. Smith’s scrutiny allows us to care in a personal way; the broader view is our job.

In June, Smith published a piece on the New York Review of Books’ blog about the closure of libraries in London, and, specifically, Willesden Green Library in North West London, which was titled “North West London Blues.” The closure of one local library may not feature on Kakutani’s list of “big issues”—it certainly isn’t on the scope of the legacy of colonialism—but for Smith, it is big.
 
She asks disbelieving questions: “Did a Labour-run council really send heavies into Kensal Rise Library, in a dawn raid, to strip the place of books and Mark Twain’s wall plaque? Are the people of Willesden Green seriously to lose their bookshop, be offered a smaller library (for use by more patrons from other libraries Brent has closed), an ugly block of luxury flats— and told that this is ‘culture?’ Yes. That’s all really happening.” Smith wrestles with the knowledge that her expectations have been reduced to weak naivety: “In this economy who but a child would expect anything else?”

For Smith, this library is not just a personal issue (she’s a smart critic and knows that New Yorkers don’t have time to sob over one library, even if it’s the library where Smith studied as a teenager) but it is significant because it’s representative of a wider change. Similarly, the workings of four lives—presented so closely as they are in NW—are each a big deal. Smith’s scrutiny allows us to care in a personal way; the broader view is our job.

In her New York Review of Books piece, Smith finishes expressing a frustration with language that mirrors that of her characters in NW: “People have taken to writing long pieces in newspapers to ‘defend’ them. Just saying the same thing over and over again. Defend our libraries. We like libraries. Can we keep our libraries? We need to talk about libraries. Pleading, like children. Is that really where we are?”

It is significant that Smith was so long writing this novel. She began the first section (which is thick with references to the effects of class and inequality in the twenty-first century) in 2005, when no one else was talking much about inequality or class (even in the UK). Smith read two extracts from NW before it had a title, at an alumni event at NYU nine months ago. After the reading, in a Q&A section an audience member asked Smith whether she had felt compelled to join in with Occupy Wall Street. She replied that each of us has a responsibility to become involved with politics in our own way, and that writing was her way. She added,“You do have to believe that writing, in a more discreet and slow way, changes the way that people are able to conceive of their world. Not one novel, for sure, but hundreds of novels and hundreds of writers in a communicative, metaphorical way.” In NW, Smith has tried to contribute to this change, and, in the opinion of this Londoner, she has succeeded.

Natasha Lewis is a freelance journalist from London and graduate student at NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. She has written for Dissent.

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