Monday, September 17, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“N.W.” by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton – Penguin $NZ37)

            N.W. means North-West London and when a novel has a geographical location presented assertively as its title, it is reasonable to suppose that the author intends some sort of social comment on the place. So it proves with Zadie Smith’s latest. N.W. follows the lives of three or four Londoners who all come from the same London N.W. estate.

            Leah Hanwell is a white woman in her early thirties, married to a French-African. She’s come to the point in her marriage where her husband really wants children, but she herself is still clinging to the hedonistic image she had of herself when she was younger - the banality of copulation without reproduction, the cult of youth and the attempt to pretend that we don’t age and that the biological clock isn’t ticking away relentlessly. As Zadie Smith puts it in one of the sort-of stream-of-consciousness monologues she gives to Leah:

            “To be very objective about it, it is the woman’s fault that they never discussed children. For some reason it had never occurred to her that all this endless and wondrous screwing was heading towards a certain, perfectly obvious destination. She fears the destination. Be objective! What is the fear? It is something to do with death and time and age. Simply: I am eighteen in my mind I am eighteen  and if I do nothing I will stand still nothing will change I will be eighteen always. For always. Time will stop. I will never die. Very banal this fear. Everybody has it these days. What else? She is happy enough in the moment they are in. She feels she deserves exactly what she has, no more, no less. Any change risks fatally upsetting this balance. Why must the moment change?” (Pg.22)

            Leah and her Irish mother and her family are defined in this novel by the wider community they inhabit, now very definitely multi-cultural and as Caribbean as it is ancestrally British.

            One of Leah’s old school-friends is the Jamaican Felix. He takes up the second section of the novel, which Zadie Smith chops up with precise geographical markers indicating which parts of London each piece of narrative is set. NW6, W1 and so on. Also in his early 30s, Felix is a former small-time drug-dealer who has dabbled in those ephemeral things that young people think are glamorous, such as being an errand boy on film sets and pretending he is part of the film industry. He now wants to grow up, settle down and have kids. But his environment doesn’t help him. When he visits his father, he finds a dope-smoking old man who still thinks he is part of the cutting edge of consciousness because he spouts late hippie slogans. He visits the pathetic white woman Annie, posh heir to a decaying estate, still doped in her forties, still attempting to party and refusing to recognise that her life is going nowhere.

            If Leah wants time to stand still and let her remain a kid, Felix desperately wants time to reach some sort of fulfilment, but he is thwarted for various reasons – not least his own weaknesses which keep him in the dopey environment. Its not unreasonable to see ageing and the encroachment of a genuinely adult consciousness as one of the novel’s main concerns.

            But N.W. is at its sharpest and most readable when it reaches the third and longest section. Divided into brief and sometimes bite-sized observations and episodes, we are given the life story of Leah Hanwell’s best friend from school, the Jamaican Keisha Blake, who has apparently achieved all the things her proud parents and community wanted her to. She has been to university, adjusted to its residual snobberies, qualified as a lawyer and learnt how to get on in what is still largely a male and white profession. She even seems to have negotiated the problem of balancing career and home life – after a little initial resistance to the idea, she and her West Indian-Italian husband have produced a family. 

            Unfortunately, all this comes at the price of a raging identity crisis. Zadie Smith doesn’t put it as starkly as I am doing here, but basically the successful Keisha – who has re-made herself under the name Natalie – realizes that in succeeding as a professional, she has totally alienated herself from the values of the community in which she grew up. When she looks at the clothes she wears for various occasions, Keisha-Natalie reflects:

             “Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes, she struggled to think what would be most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic.” [Pg.245]

            There are another couple of characters who recur in this novel – I haven’t mentioned the more shady Nathan Bogle – but you will understand from this what the basic structure of N.W. is. Three or four lives are interwoven to take the pulse of a whole community.

            There are some things that Zadie Smith does extremely well. She can enter into the consciousness of her minor characters by letting us hear the way they think. Here, for example, are the dated prejudices of Leah’s old mother Pauline as she tries to adjust to a non-white community:

            “All of them are Nigerian, all of them, even if they are French, or Algerian, they are Nigerian, the whole of Africa being, for Pauline, essentially Nigeria, and the Nigerians wily, owning those things in Kilburn that once were Irish, and five of the nurses on her own team being Nigerian where once they are Irish, or at least Pauline judges them to be Nigerian, and they’re perfectly fine as long as you keep an eye on them every minute….” (Pg.15)

            Zadie Smith can also capture the collective stream-of-consciousness, as in this account of a journey across part of the city:

            “Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock, 98, 16, 32, standing room only – quicker to walk! Escapees from St Mary’s, Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves fags. Everybody. Polish paper. Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life-size porcelain tiger, gold taps. Casino. Everybody believes in destiny!.....” (Pg.34)

            The micro-communities she creates are micro-communities with a believable self-consciousness, as in this sketch of one of the law-firms for which Keisha-Natalie works:

             “At RSN Associates the law burst from broken box files, it lined the hallways, bathroom and kitchen. This chaos was unavoidable, but it was also to some extent an aesthetic, slightly exaggerated by the tenants, and intended to signify selflessness, sincerity. Natalie saw how her clients found the chaos comforting, just as the fake Queen Anne sofas and painted foxhounds of the Middle Temple reassured another type of client. If you worked here it would only be for the love of the law. Only real do-gooders could possibly be this poor…. Wins were celebrated in-house with cheap plonk, pita bread and hummus. When an RSN solicitor came to see you in your cell, they arrived by bus.” (Pg.215)

            The novel is certainly panoramic and it is understandable that some have seen it as being in line of descent from the great state-of-London novels. To her credit Zadie Smith does not spell out time-specific cultural references (she lets readers get them for themselves) although it is possible that the novel will be best appreciated by those who know London well.

            She also makes her stabs at symbolism unobtrusive. The novel’s epigraph is the familiar medieval jungle from the Peasants’ Revolt “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?”  - that is, a reminder that social  class is an entirely artificial construct. It is not until we get to Page 190 that we have a direct reference to this epigraph and its social context when Natalie, becoming a lawyer, imagines history with “bloody peasants burning lawbooks.”

            Early in the novel, there is an extended image of an overgrown church with a vandalised graveyard. Late in novel we are told that the apartment blocks on the tatty estate where the protagonists live are all named after materialist and rationalist philosophers -  Smith, Locke, Bentham, Hume, Russell. Zadie Smith doesn’t milk either image, but seems to be implying that two distinct received philosophies (Christianity and rationalist humanism) aren’t up to fixing the problems of N.W.

            Unfortunately, for all its vibrancy and colour, there is much in this novel that jars. Nostalgie de la boue is one implicit theme as Keisha-Natalie, the novel’s most interesting character, tries to deal with her identity crisis and re-immerse herself in the community of her birth. But the way Zadie Smith resolves this character’s problems is improbable, melodramatic, slightly pornographic and a bit of a cop-out. I accept that casual drug-use and casual sex are parts of the communities that Zadie Smith is depicting. In this instance, however, it tips over into the sensationalist and is ridiculously out of keeping with the character Smith has built up. It is an act of desperation from a novelist who isn’t very good at resolutions.

            Even more difficult to take is the novel’s awkward narrative structure. Eventually we are given a coherent connection between the lives of Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan; but for most of the novel the links are arbitrary rather than necessary. Certainly it is established early that Leah and Natalie are friends. Even so, the result is more in the nature of three or four separate stories than a satisfying whole.

            Zadie Smith hails from a North-West London environment like the one in the novel, had an English father and a Jamaican mother and was educated at the University of Cambridge. There is doubtless much that is autobiographical in N.W. – especially in the character of Natalie - and the novel’s cityscapes and impressions of the community are convincing. But with the clunky and unresolved plotting, this ends as a book of brilliant but disconnected bits. It evokes without touching.

No comments:

Post a Comment