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Cards of Identity

NW

by Zadie Smith
Penguin, 401 pp., $26.95
Our pre-eminence: we live in the age of comparison.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in NW

How to present, in language, the shimmering, ever-shifting life of a place? The most obvious means, the documentary film, has its limitations: the filmmaker can record hours of visual imagery, he can interview subjects, and we can overhear subjects speaking, but we cannot hear their inner voices, and we cannot see the world inside their heads. A kaleidoscope of fascinating and “authentic” images can pass before our eyes as viewers, but we can’t interpret these images through the prism of consciousness, with its myriad histories, that is the soul of a place. We are forever viewers, voyeurs. We “haven’t a clue.”

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Dominique Nabokov
Zadie Smith, New York City, May 2012

Only an assiduously calibrated work of art, of the ambition and artistry of James Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, can take us beyond the dazzling and distracting surface, into the mysterious region in which place and personality bond: that region in which those born to a place are irremediably defined by it, and might be said to be its offspring. In Ulysses, inside Leopold Bloom’s ferociously buzzing head, we experience the “Hibernian Metropolis” of midday Dublin in a way no mere tourist could:

IN THE HEART OF THE HIBERNIAN METROPOLIS

Before Nelson’s pillar trams slowed, shunted, changed trolley, started for Blackrock, Kingstown and Dalkey, Clonskea, Rathgar and Terenure, Palmerston park and Upper Rathmines, Sandymount Green, Rathmines, Ringsend and Sandymount Tower, Harold’s Cross. The hoarse Dublin United Tramway Company’s timekeeper bawled them off.
—Rathgar and Terenure!
—Come on, Sandymount Green!
Right and left parallel clanging ringing a double-decker and a singledeck moved from their railheads, swerved to the down line, glided parallel.
—Start, Palmerston park!

In its assiduously detailed evocation of the multicultural neighborhood of Willesden, in northwestern London, where in 1975 she was born and where she now lives for part of the year, Zadie Smith’s NW is a boldly Joycean appropriation, fortunately not so difficult of entry as its great model. In NW you will find what is called “stream-of-consciousness” prose (in which the reader is privy to the meandering thoughts of a white resident of Willesden, Leah Hanwell, who’d grown up there), snatches of overheard conversation (represented in reduced type), as well as prose-poems (“Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock…. Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World…. Here is the school where they stabbed the headmaster. Here is the Islamic Center of England opposite the Queen’s Arms”) and fragmentary, disjointed passages that read like notes for a novel, as well as the lengthy section “Host,” consisting of 185 numbered vignettes seemingly modeled after the “Aeolus” chapter of Ulysses, which is the novel’s heart, and involves its most engaging characters.

There are pleats in time, rearrangements of chronology, views of characters whom we’d believed we knew from sharply different perspectives. An aphorism shifts its tone from positive to sinister across hundreds of pages—the initial, seemingly visionary “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me” becomes, in the cool summary of a young black girl’s “decline and fall,” the terse “I am the sole author”—that is, the sole author of one’s decline and fall.

The novel’s sketchily poetic opening, which seems to presage both hope and disaster, will be clarified, to a degree, near the end of the novel; the second chapter, taking us into the thoughts of Leah Hanwell, must be understood as preceding the opening chapter by several weeks, which isn’t evident at a first reading. Many of the novel’s passages don’t yield their meanings readily but contribute to its polyphonic density.

Like Zadie Smith’s much-acclaimed predecessor White Teeth (2000), NW is an urban epic from the perspective of “endangered species,” as one of Smith’s characters, the son of a Caribbean-born train guard and a well-to-do Italian woman, calls himself and others who, in England, are perceived as persons of color: the objects of well-intentioned social planning that has as its goal, however inadvertently, the extinction of racial identity. (“‘We have a very effective diversity scheme here,’ said Dr. Singh primly and turned to speak to the blonde girl on her left.”)

Unlike White Teeth, however, NW is not an exuberant comedy in the mode of Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, nor does it contain the racy ebullience of Smith’s The Autograph Man (2002) and On Beauty (2005); in place of farcical/sexual escapades, there are, in NW, joyless couplings between individuals who scarcely know one another, sudden, paralyzing epiphanies (“I just don’t understand why I have this life”), and darkly Nietzschean aphorisms (“What a difficult thing a gift is for a woman! She’ll punish herself for receiving it”). A beloved dog dies of a thug’s random kick, precipitating its owner into depression; a man who’d once lived in northwest London returns to the neighborhood and is mugged and murdered over a trifle, winding up as breaking news on local TV. Where Ulysses ends with the famously triumphant “yes I said yes I will Yes,” NW ends on a clandestine call to the police—“I got something to tell you.”

Despite its postmodernist features, NW is essentially a bildungsroman with two protagonists who become friends as four-year-olds in a council estate called Caldwell in northwest London—the “white” (Anglo-Irish) Leah Hanwell and the “black” (Caribbean-background) Keisha Blake (“Natalie” when she leaves Willesden for a university). As in Smith’s fiction generally, individuals don’t come undefined by their families, and so, in NW, there are two primary families—the Hanwells, who prosper just enough to leave the Caldwell council estate when Leah is still in school, and the Blakes, who are trapped in Caldwell, in perpetual economic distress. (The Hanwells have a working father; the Blakes have an absentee father. The Hanwells are upwardly mobile, or wish to think so; the Blakes are encumbered by Keisha’s sister, who can’t seem to avoid becoming pregnant, and her brother, who is unemployable.)

In addition to Leah and Keisha/Natalie there are two black Caldwell boys whom we follow into dubious manhood: Felix Cooper, a self-styled filmmaker/drug dealer, and Nathan Bogle, whom Leah has a crush on in middle school (“the very definition of desire”), who has become a homeless drug-addled pimp by the novel’s end. Neither male character is portrayed with anything like the minute and loving detail Smith lavishes upon the girls, whom we come to know intimately in the novel’s most fully realized section (“Host”), itself a novel in miniature, following them from early childhood when, acting instinctively when Leah is drowning in an outdoor pool, Keisha saves her life by grabbing “these red pigtails” and pulling her to safety. As a consequence of this “dramatic event” the girls become “best friends bonded for life…and everyone in Caldwell best know about it.”

The novel’s few transcendent moments are shared by the women, who are clearly “sisters” in the deepest sense of the word. On an excursion together with Natalie’s young children, Natalie and Leah discover, in an urban roundabout, an extraordinary “little country church, a medieval country church, stranded on this half acre”; inside the church is the shrine of “Our Lady of Willesden, ‘the Black Madonna,’” whose histrionic voice is imagined as the voice of a pre-Christian, animist power:

How have you lived your whole life in these streets and never known me? How long did you think you could avoid me? What made you think you were exempt? Don’t you know that I have been here as long as people cried out for help? Hear me: I am not like those mealy-mouthed pale Madonnas, those simpering virgins! I am older than this place!… Spirit of these beech woods and phone boxes, hedgerows and lampposts, freshwater springs and tube stations, ancient yews and one-stop-shops, grazing land and 3D multiplexes. Unruly England of the real life, the animal life!

At the opening of NW, Leah and Keisha/Natalie are in their mid-thirties. Both are married, and both are dissatisfied with their lives. Leah, who’d studied philosophy in college (“Philosophy is learning how to die”) but didn’t distinguish herself academically, feels undereducated, having prepared herself for “a life never intended for her.” She is visited by her deceased father, whose words she can manipulate: “I love you don’t worry it’s nice here…. I can see a light.” Her work is in the “public sector”—she’s poorly paid for her idealism—“the only white girl on the Fund Distribution Team” in a dreary workplace in which, at the end of the workday,

women spill out of every room, into the heat, cocoa buttered, ready for a warm night on the Edgware Road. From St. Kitts, Trinidad, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, India, Pakistan…still open to the sexiness of an early summer in a manner that the women of Leah’s family can never be. For them the sun is fatal.

In mockery of herself Leah doodles “I AM SO FULL OF EMPATHY.

Leah is married to a hairdresser of French West African extraction named Michel who is “more beautiful” than she, as Keisha/Natalie is married to an exceedingly handsome “Negroid Italian” from a bourgeois background. Both women are ambivalent about virtually everything in their adult lives: their work, their mothers, their husbands, the prospect of motherhood (“Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell were of the belief that people were willing them to reproduce. Relatives, strangers on the street, people on television…”). Natalie has children with a husband whom she doesn’t respect; to please her husband Leah pretends a wish for children, but has a secret abortion from which she is slow to recover psychologically. Both, as girls, are involved in underage drinking; both take recreational drugs as adults. By the novel’s end both women have sabotaged their marriages.

The tangled plot of NW begins with the intrusion, into Leah Hanwell’s life, of a cunningly manipulative girl in a “headscarf” named Shar who tells her an upsetting story calculated to arouse her concern; naively, guiltily, Leah gives the young woman thirty pounds though she’s suspicious of her behavior and her relationship with a man waiting for her on the street. Subsequently, Leah catches sight of the girl in the neighborhood, and incurs the wrath of a belligerent man—“a tall muscled threat”—who knocks down her husband and gives her dog a fatal kick to the belly. So much in Smith’s narrative is inward and contemplative that these sudden eruptions into violence are all the more startling.

Of the two women Leah Hanwell is the less coherent as a character, as she is the less convincing and interesting: the author seems to have imagined her as a foil to the more vibrant Keisha/Natalie, but her “white-girl” personality lacks resonance. It’s claimed for her as an adolescent that she is a “generous person, wide open to the entire world,” a paragon of multicultural idealism:

Within Brayton [a school in Willesden] she befriended everyone without distinction or boundary, but the hopeless cases did not alienate her from the popular and vice versa…. A little of this universal good feeling spread to Keisha by association, though no one ever mistook Keisha’s cerebral willfulness for her friend’s generosity of spirit.
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