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.”
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…
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