I first discovered Zadie Smith when I was working at Random House and White Teeth was all the rage. Those were the days, cell phones were barely a “thing” and 9-11 was just only months away. The world seemed ripe for a great book. I remember trying desperately to read White Teeth, just like Emperor’s Children and A Visit From The Goon Squad, both of which I struggled mightily at first, and in the end read and loved. When I read White Teeth, I was sort of stunned at Smith’s talents. She spoke in tongues. At times, it was a beautiful mess of language; funny, sad, equal parts piss and sugar. Of course the world was throwing bouquets at her, and it must have been a weird time in her camp.
On Beauty came out, and I couldn’t read it, waited for the paperback, and presto, it hit me like a bolt of lightning. I walked around telling people about this book, it brought tears of joy to my eyes. (The party where Smith goes to 30 feet above the revelers and we see three different things, and finally the hand of one character sliding down the back of his mistress, while his wife watches: IS. FUCKING. MAGIC.)
I’ve read her non-fiction and find her thoughts on macro and micro writers profoundly accurate (Emily St. John Mandel and I talk about this every time we hang out). Then I saw her read from NW at NYU, and I think it was the very first part of this book that she read. Before you call the police on my obvious obsession with Ms. Smith, you should know my adoration is purely of the professional kind. In fact, it’s more awe. I just love the way she writes and what she writes about. I will say that her love of Netherland is vexing; I found that book to be a snore. Except the part where Smith talks about the naked guy in the woods out of the Amtrak window, and I guess she loved the talk about cricket.
Okay, with that disclaimer out of the way, lets talk NW. I had trouble with this too! Getting into it that is. But it’s interesting, once you find the rhythm, and it takes a few pages, it’s like eavesdropping without looking at the people who are doing the talking. Which is to say, this has its own rewards. In a way, Smith keeps us at a distance with her tone, even though the main character of the first section is really clear. Leah is alone in her place when a stranger knocks. Smith works a little magic by describing, “In the textured glass, a body, blurred. Wrong collection of pixels to be Michel.” How many ways could she write that? How many did she try before she wrote that? Leah opens the door and what happens propels the next hundred pages. After a few pages we realize that Leah is a good-hearted sort, and lends money to this stranger. I remember Smith reading this aloud at NYU; she used these great voices of the characters from the book, the woman at the door, Leah, and it reminded me of when I saw Michael Cunningham read from The Hours.
Leah and her man, Michel, are trying to be parents, and working middle of the road jobs that will bring them nothing more than, well, more middle of the road misery. Michel is betting on Internet stocks, and it seems shifty at best. Smith smears these two on us like grease that will help us maneuver better in this tight space. She writes about the landscape in a kind of reporter’s voice, a local reporter, with wacky vernacular, like Graham Greene in Brighton Rock. It actually reminded me of that book, more than anything else, save the murder and dirty deeds, but wait, now that I think of it, there are some dirty deeds!
I think, and hope, what she is doing here is to eviscerate the lower middle class of North West London, show us what it’s like to be an “also ran” to use a little horse racing talk. As she said in her NYU talk, London is all about class. That’s it. What class you’re in, and where you’ve come from. So far, she’s got Leah and Michel nailed to the floor. Smith describes a walk home from the grocery store, “On the way back from the chain supermarket where they shop, though it closed down the local grocer and pays slave wages, with new bags though they should take old bags, leaving with broccoli from Kenya and tomatoes from Chile and unfair coffee and sugary crap and the wrong newspaper.” She is really saying something nasty about the suburbs, how to get what you want you need to compromise, and eat outsourced food from faraway places. Sure, the local green grocer would have carried local fruit, vegetables, and had the right newspaper, but it was closed down by big business. Progress will change Leah and Michel. And it doesn’t matter what Leah and Michel want, it’s about what they will get. Even with the most embarrassing amount of offerings, Smith still finds ways for her characters to cry starvation with a loaf of bread under their arms.
DH: Zadie Smith’s On Beauty was the first book that JR and I discussed. This was before we founded Three Guys with our friend JC and became our initials. I expected NW to be storytelling along the lines of On Beauty only longer. But NW is more like White Teeth. Is it White Teeth made better?
The first section is called Visitation, a very Anglican word. If a bishop pays a formal call on one of his local parishes, that’s a visitation. But the visitation referred to in NW is more like a visitation from purgatory. Leah, who does a kind of social service work, is home alone. Her husband Michel is still out. The couple are moderately middle class in a mixed neighborhood that seems more down and out than anything else. As JR says, citing Smith, it’s all about class. In early 21st century London we are in a situation of social statics.
Leah’s visitation is from Shar, who thrusts out an envelope with a nearby address to prove to Leah that she’s a local. There’s something about being handed a paper to read that renders the recipient more passive. That’s an old con trick.
It’s a family emergency. Shar is desperate to get to hospital. Her mother has had a heart attack. Shar has left the children home alone and she’s not sure which hospital her mother has been taken to. Shar is generating the sort of semantic confusion that is typical of a high anxiety crisis.
She’s also speaking a kind of subliterate street slang that I found difficult to understand.
The influence of Charles Dickens on Zadie Smith has been noticed. In Hard Times, for example, Dickens would adopt underclass street dialogue into his story. NW reminds me of Hard Times.
Leah invites Shar into her kitchen while she makes plans to help her. There’s a long windowsill that extends along the wall on one side of Leah’s kitchen which Zadie Smith uses to inventory Leah’s moderate middle class status. Smith lists photos, knick-knacks, Dad’s ashes, vases, plants, herbs. You sense that Shar, who is dressed in clothes that are close to rags, has nothing. Is Shar staring at Leah’s windowsill decor and feeling her masked resentment? Is Leah’s class guilt being systematically played?
Shar ends up receiving 30 pounds from Leah. That’s way more than is needed to get to the hospital. It’s more than you would need to get to Heathrow. Leah, who has arrived at her front door for Shar’s visitation barefoot and in a clandestine state of pregnancy, has been conned.
Leah and her husband are economically vulnerable. Smith makes the fine observation that even a visit to the vet for their beloved dog, Olive, would mean a financial sacrifice. So how can they afford the children that Leah’s husband, Michel, dreams of?
Zadie Smith performs a kind of lexical swordplay by putting selected dialogues of her characters in a small caps font. It’s like she’s bracketing these conversations, pulling them out of context so you will notice characters flaying themselves through their speech.
Zadie says that Michel’s hope is exhausting. Michel thinks that the “true difference” between “these people” and him is that he always wants to move forward, to better himself. He doesn’t let drama into his life. “If I sit and do nothing I know that makes me nothing.”
Zadie tells us that Michel is always going to concerts, lectures, talks, special exhibits. Michel praises Leah’s mother Pauline, who got her family into a mortgaged flat. Michel hates that they live in a housing project called Brent Housing Partnership. Even the hammock in the backyard is rightfully shared by all the occupants of the building.
Michel wants to own. But you sense what was possible for hardscrabble Pauline in the 20th century may not be possible for Michel in the 21st. Zadie makes a great move by having Michel say in his grand summation (he has gone on and on…) that he is not going to sit on his “laurens”.
Leah, who has had at least an imperfect college education, corrects him to “laurels”. And you rest on them, you don’t sit on them. I open NW and I see wheels within wheels. These are Zadie Smith’s interlocking characters, who spin and spin but get nowhere.
There’s a chapter that begins “Elsewhere in London..” That’s where the prosperity is in NW…elsewhere.
Leah works at a threadbare Victorian dump at her social work job, dispensing grants. She sits in an old chair that was confiscated from the break room. Smith says it’s an office where the hole puncher will never be found. Leah is the only college graduate on the staff. Her classmates have
become doctors and lawyers. She has been at this agency for six years. It’s 4:45 and Leah’s busy clock-watching.
NW is a panorama of social dysfunction. Its underclass is handicapped by uncompetitive educations and a lack of material resources that they can never overcome….while the radio, Oprah-like, inanely drones on: “I am the author of the dictionary that defines me.” …Selling the myth of empowerment to people who are not empowered.
Zadie Smith’s characters are like sparrows trapped in a pedestrian tunnel. No matter how often they fly at the glass partitions, trying to find the sky that will liberate them, they can never figure out that you have to fly down a staircase before you can fly up. They’re utterly, vividly drawn characters, totally themselves every minute of the day. But that does not help them at all.
Not even Zadie Smith is the author of the dictionary that defines her. But I’d like to think that the characters in a novel function at least as editors of their own stories if not the writers. So I’m looking forward to following Leah, Michel, Pauline and the rest into the next section of the novel as they parse out their own stories and urge corrections to the texts that are their lives.