Cards of Identity


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.”

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:


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.
Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos
Londoners watching Notting Hill Carnival, 1975

After the death of her dog, Leah becomes crippled by “terrible mourning” and at the novel’s end her desperate husband calls Natalie, when Leah seems to have become depressed to the point of catatonia.

Perhaps it’s because we come to know Leah through her meandering stream-of-consciousness thoughts that she remains indistinct and improbable, and not sharp-edged; the reader is constrained by her claustrophobic life for many pages, like a viewer standing too close to one of Chuck Close’s gigantic portraits comprised of pixels, and so unable to recognize a human face.

Keisha/Natalie, however, is initially seen from the outside, by an admiring Leah: “Sleek ebony statuary. Tilts her head directly to the sun. [Her husband], too. They look like a king and queen in profile on an ancient coin.” Much later in NW we come to know Keisha/Natalie intimately, as a willful child who is an excellent student because she can concentrate, without distractions; she is puzzled by “what she believed she knew of herself, essentially, and her essence as others seemed to understand it.” Perhaps there is no autobiographical core to Keisha/Natalie, but her personality suggests that of the quintessential novelist who suspects that she alone is lacking an identity:

(Sometimes, when enjoying [her friend] Pol’s capsule descriptions of the personalities of others, Natalie feared that in her own—Natalie’s—absence, her own—Natalie’s—personality was also being encapsulated by Pol, although she could not bring herself to truly fear this possibility because at base she could not believe that she—Natalie—could ever be spoken about in the way she—Natalie—spoke about others and heard others spoken about. But for the sake of a thought experiment: what was Natalie Blake’s personality constructed around?)

Here, too, is a convincing account of the fiction writer’s predilection:

Walking down Kilburn High Road Natalie Blake had a strong desire to slip into the lives of other people. It was hard to see how this desire could be practicably satisfied or what, if anything, it really meant. “Slip into” is an imprecise thought. Follow the Somali kid home? Sit with the old Russian lady at the bus-stop outside Poundland? Join the Ukrainian gangster at his table at the cake shop?…
Listening was not enough. Natalie Blake wanted to know people. To become intimately involved with them.

Just how intimately, and how recklessly, Natalie herself doesn’t yet know.

Keisha/Natalie is very likely the most sustained, sympathetic, and believable figure in all of Zadie Smith’s fiction, encompassing as she does an astonishing variety of characters and types. Particularly as a law student, and as a young (female, black) lawyer, she is an astute observer of the seductive atmosphere of the university in which she is an “endangered species”—both unwittingly and deliberately; we are made to feel the thrill of cultural assimilation, as the author herself may well have felt it as a brilliant young undergraduate English literature student at Cambridge in the late 1990s:

The bad wine flowed. An ancient Judge rose to give a speech…. Natalie was enthralled. The idea that her own existence might be linked to people living six hundred years past! No longer an accidental guest at the table—as she had always understood herself to be—but a host, with other hosts, continuing a tradition. “And so it falls to you,” said the judge….

It’s difficult not to exploit one’s racial identity in a culture in which, being black, Natalie and her husband “needn’t concern themselves too much with politics. They simply were political facts, in their very persons.” Painful ironies abound for one of Natalie’s sensitivity: “Something about Natalie inspired patronage, as if by helping her you helped an unseen multitude.”

Later, when she has a law degree and is looking for work, Natalie is counseled by an older, glamorous black woman lawyer, a paragon of multicultural success, that what is interpreted as a “passion” for justice in a white (male) lawyer will be interpreted by the presiding judge in a courtroom as “aggressive hysteria” in a black (female) lawyer: “The first lesson is: turn yourself down.” More importantly:

“I suppose you’re interested in a human rights set of some kind. Police brutality? Is that your plan?”
“I’m not sure,” said Natalie, trying to sound bullish. She was very close to tears.
“It wasn’t mine. In my day, if you went down that route people tended to associate you with your clients. I took some advice early on: ‘Avoid ghetto work.’”

Predictably, Natalie repudiates this cynical advice, joining a tiny legal firm in a squalid part of London as a paralegal; less predictably, she soon quits the firm to take higher-paying work as a commercial barrister with former classmates from law school. (Of course, Natalie takes time to do pro bono death penalty cases in the Caribbean, as befits one in her position.) Her fragile sense of identity is further strained by the responsibilities and hypocrisies of adulthood:

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 the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic.

By degrees, Natalie begins to see herself as inauthentic: she isn’t happily married, she secretly loathes her high-paying work as a barrister, and she even feels alienated from her children, who are so very different from the child she’d been in the Caldwell council estate not so many years ago:

She was surprised to meet herself down a dark alley. It filled her with panic and rage to see her spoiled children sat upon the floor, flicking through past images, moving images, of themselves, on their father’s phone, an experience of self-awareness literally unknown in the history of human existence—outside dream and miracle—until very recently.

Though claiming to loathe it, Natalie is irresistibly drawn to the Internet, where she creates for herself a shadow identity——and where she discovers that “she was what everybody was looking for.” Sordid, quasi-comic promiscuous encounters with couples of various genders follow in somewhat slapstick sequences that test the reader’s credulity. So carefully self-invented, Natalie begins to fall apart as if on cue. When her husband discovers her KeishaNW identity on her computer, Natalie’s seemingly perfect marriage is wrecked.

NW ends in confusion and disintegration. In a long nightmare sequence, perhaps in emulation of the brilliantly bizarre “Nighttown” chapter of Ulys ses, Natalie returns on foot to her childhood neighborhood, where she encounters a debased and drug-addled Nathan Bogle, for whom she’d once felt an attraction. An intimate encounter between them—however un- likely this would appear, under the circumstances—seems to dissociate Natalie from the death-bound figure of her childhood. Riding a bus she sees old familiar landmarks with a transformed vision:

The Cock Tavern. MacDonalds. The old Woolworths. The betting shop. The State Empire. Willesden Lane. The cemetery. Whoever said these were fixed coordinates to which she had to be forever faithful? How could she play them false? Freedom was absolute and everywhere, constantly moving location.

In the end, Natalie and Leah are joined together in a curious sort of conspiracy, as in a regression to their girlhood friendship in the Caldwell council estate.

NW is an unexpectedly ironic companion novel to White Teeth, a darker and more nuanced portrait of a multiracial culture in the throes of a collective nervous breakdown. Its perimeters are forever changing, like its accents and the tenor of its neighborhoods. In NW the mood is, if not precisely tragic, sober and subdued; one might wish to celebrate a truly “diverse” urban neighborhood like Willesden and yet—there are muggings, murders. There is a brisk drug trade. Bonded as individuals in NW might be, the “fixed coordinates” of their lives are finally suffocating and lethal. There are no farcical interludes here, as in previous works of fiction by Zadie Smith, as there are no paper-thin cartoon characters to enact them. Maturity may lie in the brave repudiation of nostalgia; the realization that “maybe it doesn’t matter that life never blossomed into something larger than itself.”