DH: It’s a strange thing to consider the life of a character as an obituary. In the first section of Zadie Smith’s NW, called “Visitation”, the local buzz of the day is that a 32 year-old man named Felix was killed on the street in a mugging. First off, you’re glad it’s not you, or a member of your family or even your neighbor, because that would be cutting it too close. It’s a relief to realize in our gut that it’s not us. Once again, for one more day, we’re safe. Especially if we live in a nice neighborhood.
The second section of NW is called “Guest”. It’s a chronicle of the last day in the life of Felix. The reader knows he’s going to die in a mugging. But a moment after Felix steps out of the bed of his new girlfriend, Grace, you forget that. Felix is in the deep shit of his life. When you are in it, there is no death. It’s all plans. You’re wrong if you think the dead don’t make plans.
Look, I’m gay, but even I was turned on by Grace. She’s says everything that the phrase “new girlfriend” should say. I liked it that Grace was already up and dressed as Felix starts up from the bed naked. Grace is going to spend the next night with her friend Angeline, getting ready for carnival with her. So Fee (Felix) will be out in the cold for a night. Grace has heart. She knows Angeline doesn’t have anybody so she promised her friend a night. It’s good to know there is more to Grace than fucking Felix. I liked her. Actually, I feel I know these women…Grace, the new girlfriend and the soon-to-be ex, Annie.
Felix seems like a sad ass who doesn’t have much to do. He’s struggles to get one day of work out of five from the company he works for. He the least experienced and lowest in seniority of those on call and the business doesn’t have enough work to employ all five of its regular workers for five straight days.
Zadie Smith doesn’t let you forget the neighborhood you are in. If you’re a middle class reader…and you probably are…you might project that background on to the story. And I don’t see how you could read this book if you didn’t have a solid middle class education. JR and I are finding NW a challenging read.
Grace has a line of figurines on the window sill by the bed. Felix has knocked down a few of the “princesses” to the floor, during sex you would presume. Smith says that Grace’s perfume bottle, shaped like a woman, is a cheap knockoff. Think pink telephone on a glass dresser. Four flights of rotten boards creak as the high impact of Grace’s heels lead her to the street. I sense Grace’s flair in making the best use of limited resources.
Lloyd is Felix’s father. The door on his flat reads “No Doorbell”. Smith says that seems like a deeper level of surrender than what it used to read: “Broken Doorbell.” This is not an environment where anything can be fixed. The flat is overheated and humid. I’m sorry that Smith told me that fungus grows on the ceiling of Lloyd’s kitchen galley that flakes down onto Felix’s head when he’s talking to his father…now I can’t forget it. The language is dense with Zadie Smith’s own brand of brilliance which includes leaving in the garbage.
In a startling intrusion in the text, Lloyd quotes Keats, Ode to a Nightingale. Lloyd says Keats was a Londoner…like them. It’s jarring to have a quote from elite English culture mixed in with the trash, mayhem and surrender of Lloyd’s living quarters. Lloyd picked up the Keats on his own, after the school system abandoned him. But Felix won’t know the Keats at all.
I sense the foundations of cultural relativism shake a little. Zadie has Lloyd say that Felix and his generation have hip hop in place of Keats. Zadie’s not willing to say that Keats is better, only willing to imply that there might be a question.
Felix and his friends are scraping by on underemployment. From their perspective, there’s been economic regression, not progress. At least Lloyd and his older generation of friends had a dream of social progress and black power.
It’s seems like the people in NW with resources have rolled up their prosperity and culture like a ball and are running away with it. The haves and have-nots in NW don’t even talk the same language. That’s harshly difficult for a writer to pull off but Zadie does it.
When Felix is ready to reject his older girlfriend, Annie, he puts her down callously, saying he is moving on to the next level while she is not. His perspective on life is that of a video game. NW has characters, I guess the saddest of all, who are running in place while addicted to personal growth. JR, you have admonished me that time is limited for us all. But it seems to be the myth of the self-improvement market that you’ll have all the time in the world to make bogus changes that don’t amount to anything anyway.
JR: Felix, the poor boy. It is a rare thing to see someone go so far to change himself, or as far as a limited man like Felix can go, and then have it all end abruptly. But it’s not sudden! Sorry. Zadie hints at this in the first section, not only with the visitor at the door, the money that’s been stolen, but the near death experience on the way home from the market. (She does say it plainly, but that’s not what I’m talking about.) It’s all breadcrumbed in so carefully that even me, a guy who hates to see that, never saw any of this coming.
Again, I will admit that this is a sticky and difficult read. But we’re half way through and I’ve not lost my interest. Felix’s life is a perfect blend of nonsense and useless experience which everyone knows all too well, especially Felix. He’s left the film business, and decided on getting a car to fix up. He dips his toe into a kind of privileged world when he does this, but the scene in the bar is both void of any kind of sentimentality and hard on the fact of making a deal. Felix is a kid from the street that knows how to handle his vices and his talents. By the time you realize what Smith is doing, folding chapter one and two together like an origami folding finger game, it’s too late, because it’s over. I think Felix is probably the most likeable man in the book so far, and as characters go he’s tragic, without irony. He’s had a hard life, and life just smacks him in the face some more, because that’s life.
By the time we get to Annie’s house and up to the roof, we are entertained with a symphony of bullshit from a girl that will never change. Felix will move on, wants to, but is there to get in her face one last time; he has money, work, goals, a life, something to hold onto. I especially liked how he greets his neighbors that he’s known for his entire life. He doesn’t shit on Annie, perse, he does grant her one last sexual run through the hay, but it’s a sickening, and I will admit, an offense moment. I was openly shocked at this scene. I don’t know why, but it repulsed me. The place that they come together is squalid and foul, a deeply satisfying description that pushes Smith to a limit that I didn’t think she had in her (she’s always been brutally honest, but not like this). Annie is a true douchebag, and I mean that in the best way. She observes people across the street from her, shit’s on their wealth and hopes for their tragedy, and then demands Felix fuck her. She doesn’t really pay for anything and feels like the world owes her something. The man having sex with her knows the world doesn’t owe anyone anything, ever, and he’s going to go out there and take it. Like the car he just bargained for. This is a kill or be killed world, and there are no prisoners, just statistics. By now we’ve come to realize that NW is a savage place, gilded with Smith’s brilliant descriptions, tone, exuberant voice, and high-end vernacular. True menace is released here, and it takes almost 200 pages to realize that the reader is as much a captive as her characters. No one will get out of this book unscathed.