Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Shiny Unhappy People: Zadie Smith's "NW"
White Teeth, Zadie Smith's 2000 debut novel, is a source of embarrassment and pride for me. The embarrassment stems from my reading of it (roughly ten years ago), and my continual plans to give it another slot in my ever-growing list. I remember enjoying it, but, since it was so early in my reading life, I have almost no memory of its content or plot, but more than once, I've placed it on a "best-of" list or mentioned it as a recommendation. However, there's a definite pride there, since it marked a stark change in my usual book habits, since my late teens and early twenties were marked by a devotion to transgressive fiction. While my college classes helped steer my tastes and outlook, my random perusal of White Teeth began a shift of my reading better books independent of school requirements. Frankly, I'm at at loss to explain why, outside of the occasional short story, I haven't read Smith's follow-up works, On Beauty and The Autograph Man. I adore her essays and critical pieces, with Changing My Mind being one of the better collections I've read in the last couple of years. However, this doesn't explain my lapse in reading her novels, and I hope I've made some amends by recently devouring her latest work, NW. I've read some blurbs and short reviews of NW, some glowing, and some that have reservations. Even with the occasional stumble or pause, I found it to be one of the more challenging, beautiful works of 2012.
The summary and characters could fit into a variety of descriptions pertaining to most novels: NW explores the lives of a group of friends from Northwest London who have returned to the neighborhood as adults. The book opens with Leah Hanwell, a white office worker who, despite her general faith in other people, finds herself as a slight outsider in a neighborhood beset by crime, despondence, and shady inhabitants. The novel opens with a memorable scene in which a neighbor, one who knew Leah growing up, knocks on her door asking for help. It's a careful balance between personalities, with the implied understanding that the neighbor is fleecing Leah with a bogus story, but showcasing Leah's instinct for care and trust, and how it shows her nobility and naivety.
"Together they look like old friends on a winter's night, holding their mugs with both hands. The door is open, every window is open. No air moves. Leah takes her shirt in hand and shakes it free of her skin. A vent opens, air scoots through. The sweat pooled beneath each breast leaves its shameful trace on the cotton.
--I used to know...I mean...
Leah presses on with this phony hesitation and looks deep into her mug, but Shar isn't interested, she's knocking on the glass of the door, speaking over her.
--Yeah you looked different in school, definitely. You're better now innit. You was all ginger and bony. All long.
Leah is still all of these things. The change must be in other people, or in the times themselves.
--Done well, though. How come you aint at work? What d'you do again?
Shar is already nodding as Leah begins to speak.
--Phoned in sick. I wasn't feeling good. It's sort of general admin, basically. For a good cause. We hand out money. From the lottery, to charities, nonprofits--small local organizations in the community that need...
They are not listening to their own conversation. The girl from the estate is still out on her balcony, screaming. Shar shakes her head and whistles. She gives Leah a look of neighborly sympathy (Smith 13-14)."
Smith's passages and styles are wildly yet creatively rendered in the early stages. There are pages of dialogue like the above sample, sometimes unattributed, sometimes in smaller font sizes than other pieces of dialogue, and giving readers unexpected hints to the novel's progression. Some chapters are only a page long, with maps and collected items giving the layout and atmosphere of the Northwest side of London. Smith goes all out early, which sometimes makes the more standard narrative chapters jarring in their simplicity. And as much as I dislike referring to fiction prose as "poetic," there's an undeniable feeling of that sometimes, with rhythmic, almost free-verse sentences. But what feels like improvisation is carefully written. The reader doesn't get the feeling that Smith is showing off, but the myriad of voices and styles are evocative of contemporary city life.
"From A to B redux:
Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only--quicker to walk! Escapees from St. Mary's, Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves fags. Everybody. Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life-size porcelain tiger, gold taps. Casino! Everybody believes in destiny. Everybody. It was meant to be. It was just not meant to be. Dead or no deal (Smith 42)."
Leah's childhood friend is Natalie Blake, who used to go by the name Keisha. Her life and complications form the majority of the novel. Originally another struggling child in a struggling NW family, she has worked her way up as a lawyer with children, a good husband, and security, but feels torn about her life, which she deals with in secretive, eventually damaging ways. She and Natalie bond early, find themselves separated by different interests and lives, and reconnect as neighbors. While Smith begins the novel with Leah's activities and devotes smaller yet equally detailed chapters to some of the minor characters, her obvious fascination lies in Natalie and her subsequent torments. Natalie's life and experiences are broken up into 185 chapters, sometimes three or four to a page, sometimes longer. Some of the chapters are random vignettes, but combined, they give a complete portrait of Natalie. A lot of Natalie's problems stem from her self-identity, but Smith is not blatantly obvious about this. Natalie doesn't feel guilty about being a successful black woman in a less-successful area, but there are hints to racial identity and its conformity throughout NW. For example, a quick chapter about her (then future) husband Frank uses careful wording to explore race, image, and status:
The dreadlocks were gone. His dinner jacket was simple, elegant. A starched pink handkerchief peeked out of the top pocket and his socks were brightly clocked with diamonds. His Nikes were slightly outrageous and box fresh. He no longer seemed strange. (Any number of rappers now dressed like this. Money was the fashion.) (Smith 255)"
But race is merely one issue of many for the characters, since their problems are much more complex and universal. Generational and societal conflicts abound as well. All of the characters, even the minor ones, have standoffs with youthful antagonists, some verbal, some physically violent. Even though the older characters are still in their twenties and thirties, there's a definite vibe of uneasy battles with "young punks." Taking this further, some of these scenes are about respect, both personal and societal--most of the conflicts arise due to casual, disrespectful behavior, and harsh lessons are taught to and by both sides. These chance encounters sometimes pale in comparison to the tensions between parents and their grown children. Again, family conflicts might seem like obvious traits in any novel, but Smith rarely crafts them as major blowouts. These are smaller moments, full of conversation, but they contain a multitude of layers. In one of the better sections, a character named Felix is visiting his father, and the dispensed advice is humorous, but showcases a difference of opinion and outlooks. It also showcases Smith's use of slang and dialects.
"It was that particular tone, inquiring and high--and suddenly Jamaican--coiling up to Felix like a snake rising from its basket. He tried to laugh it off--'Come on now, don't start that, man'--but Lloyd knew to place his poison with precision: 'I'm trying to train you up, right? It's not that you don't hear me, Felix, it's that you don't want to hear me. You're the big man these days. But let me arks you some ting: why you still chasing after females like they can save your life? Seriously. Why? Look at Jasmine. You nah learn. The man cyan't satisfy the woman, right? Don't matter how much he gives. The woman is a black hole. I've gone deep into the literature, Felix. Biological, social, historical, every kind of oracle. The woman is a black hole. Your mudder was a black hole. Jasmine was a black hole. This one you got now is the same, and she's nice looking, too, so she's gonna suck you all the way before you realize she's sucked you dry. The finer they are, the worse it is.' Lloyd took a large, satisfying slurp from his tea. 'You give me jokes,' said Felix, weakly, and just about managed to make it out of the room (Smith 125-126)."
While the chapters with secondary and minor characters are well written and imporant to the overall arc, the true basis of the book is reflected in the differences and friendship between Leah and Natalie. I read an online comment by someone who said he couldn't finish the novel because the characters were too self-involved and not sympathetic. However, I found the opposite to be true in a way. Yes, Leah (and especially Natalie) are extremely focused on themselves, but not in a way that makes them unsympathetic (again, Natalie comes into a clearer focus, since her mistakes have the bigger outcome and repercussions). I'm also at a stage in my reading life where I don't need characters to be completely lovable or in need of tidy redemption. In my review of Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, I didn't care about the characters, some of whom were even more selfish and problematic than the citizens in NW. However, there are too many amazing secondary details and sketches that make the novel go above the lives of the two women. While the focus is on London, the actions and strife could easily be transplanted into any major urban area. Smith isn't concerned with moralizing or whether or not the characters are redeemed. The novel is a careful collection of random and specific moments, and while some of the issues are left unresolved, it's a satisfying work. At times, we're repulsed by the actions, but there's an overall emphasis on honesty and reality. By combining these layers and interactions, along with a dizzying mix of craft styles, Smith has created one of the better novels of 2012. It's a careful blend of storytelling and experimentation in form, and while there's an occasional detour into the lives of the secondary characters that are left completely unresolved, the bigger picture is more important. I'm going to re-read White Teeth in 2013, and I'm going to catch up on On Beauty and The Autograph Man. Even if I find these works lacking in comparison to NW, I'm going to make sure I don't overlook Zadie Smith's fiction any longer. I can see how readers can have divided opinions on this new work, but I feel it's one of the more better executed works, in both themes and style.
Smith, Zadie. NW. Copyright 2012 by Zadie Smith.