“Happiness is not an absolute value. It is a state of comparison.”
Zadie Smith has always been good at writing about her particular time and place. What we loved about White Teeth, in addition to its comforting “warm-heartedness,” was its ability to capture the complex nature of life in the mix of London’s population at the end of the 20th century. On Beauty gave us the dense but endearing world of academic Massachusetts, and her newest novel, NW, brings us back to London, smack in the middle of right now. But whereas those other books ultimately delivered some kind of hopeful truth about life beyond their particularity, NW doesn't seem to do that or, if it does, it’s not enough of a prize for so much time spent with this lackluster cast of characters.
NW begins with a section called “Visitation,” in which Leah Hanwell, a white woman of Irish descent, is visited by that common London feature, someone out to scam her for money. In this case the interaction with the young woman brings up feelings of empathy as well as lust for the protagonist; we learn that she is struggling with the fact that her husband wants to have a baby while she does not, though she hasn’t actually told him so.
This section is followed by “Guest,” in which we get to know Felix (unrelated to Leah though from the same NW London neighborhood) as he visits his dad, a guy about a car, and an ex-girlfriend. Leah’s section is moody, hazy, dream-like and often disjointed, while Felix’s is far more straightforward. Both Felix and Leah talk about a past fueled by drugs and sex, but Leah wants to hold on to that past, while Felix is grateful to finally be moving on. Juxtaposed with one another, it is hard to like Leah as much as the friendly, resilient Felix, who grew up in the projects with a Rasta father and a mostly absent, alcoholic mother.
After Felix’s short chapter comes the longest section of the book. In “Host,” we meet Keisha (later Natalie) Blake, a black girl, and Leah’s best friend, from NW London. Natalie’s section feels the most laborious to read, because it’s the longest but also because it’s the “flattest” in terms of character. We are told over and over again that Natalie does not have a personality, that she has no desire except to appear successful and well-adjusted to those around her. She is well aware of her posing, especially as she compares herself with Leah: “That’s you. That’s her. She is real. You are a forgery. Look closer. Look away. She is consistent. You are making it up as you go along. She must never know.” (Natalie’s beliefs about Leah differ slightly from my own. To me, Leah is “consistent” only in that she does not feel the need to make anything up at all, and therefore is drifting, rootless, while Natalie clings to reality, “albeit a contrived “reality.” Leah pushes all such grounding as far away as possible.) Natalie vaguely knows that she wants something real, but is conflicted about how to find it.
The novel suggests that Natalie is unaware of how much she has been shaped by the world outside herself, and that she fails to recognize anything inside as having value or meaning. “Natalie Blake and Francesco De Angelis [her husband] had opposite understandings of this word ‘choice.’ Both believed their own interpretation to be objectively considered and in no way the product of their contrasting upbringings.” It’s as if Smith wants Natalie to both actually be a stereotype, a stand-in for something larger than herself, and also a warning that modern life has a tendency to create such shells out of what might have been human beings. (“Something about Natalie inspired patronage, as if by helping her you helped an unseen multitude.”) Smith suggests that modernity is to blame for this predicament. In one example, Natalie hopes to find “the Real” through giving birth, but instead opts to medicate her pain away, such that she is barely even present at the births of her own children, and certainly not “conscious,” in the way Felix claims he is trying to be. “Pregnancy brought Natalie only more broken images from the great mass of cultural detritus she took in every day on a number of different devices, some handheld, some not.” Pregnancy, for Natalie, becomes yet another way to consume and internalize manufactured ideas of what life should be like.
Another example occurs when Natalie begins to seek sexual encounters via the internet. She actually goes to a few different houses in order to have sex with people she meets online. In one such encounter, she has hopes of having sex with two young men, but instead the men continue to jack off to “live” images on the internet, seemingly afraid of “the real thing right there in front of them.” All of this suggests that though Natalie, in our “post-racial” world, can now be the “host,” presiding at her own table, the leader of her own world, instead she slowly begins to realize that the world that has been sold to her is no more hers now than it ever was; it is only a story she has bought into, often quite literally.
The final section of the book is called, “Crossing,” and focuses mostly on Natalie’s long walk with Nathan, a man both she and Leah knew at school. All of the threads – Leah, Felix, Natalie, and Nathan – link in the end in an unexpected way. This union ultimately reinforces, rather than resists, the status quo, however. Leah and Natalie are no longer victims of the system, but enforcers of it.
Smith is excellent here, as she always is, at evoking the splendors and horrors of modern life – mentions of Amy Winehouse, a recurring gag about “the year people started saying --,” and Craig’s list ads all make an appearance. Reading the book on a malfunctioning e-reader on the packed, sweaty NYC subway, NW sometimes hit uncomfortably close to home for me. Such contemporary themes seem to emphasize the idea that some redeeming truth will soon be imparted. But if comfort is what I’m after, I’d better look elsewhere. Smith no longer seems willing to play the healer. Here she is, is quoted in a Guardian article from 2000: "When I was little, we'd go on holiday to Devon, and there, if you're black and you go into a sweetshop, for instance, everyone turns and looks at you. So my instinct as a child was always to over-compensate by trying to behave three times as well as every other child in the shop, so they knew I wasn't going to take anything or hurt anyone. I think that instinct has spilled over into my writing in some ways, which is not something I like very much or want to continue." In NW, I think, we can see that child finally battling back against the need to be “three times as good.” I might not like what she’s doing, but I do admire the will and tenacity it must have taken her to do it.
I agree with what Lana Wachowski said in The Village Voice recently; creating art is inherently an optimistic act. And so I’m inclined to look for that shred of optimism in NW, even as it resists such a reading. Did I enjoy NW? Not really. Do I think what Smith is doing here is bold, inventive, and important? Yes. Her novel never implores but instead hints that we should resist standard readings; that we should fight against the corporatization and digitization of society; that we should create our own paths or, if nothing else, refuse to follow one at all. In light of such a message it makes sense that Smith refuses to tell us another pretty story from which we can walk away with a smile and a laugh. She wants something from us, and those of us who hear and respond to that call will be anxiously awaiting her next work, hoping that in it she will have further developed the ideas and insights she began here - in another important, and perhaps more enjoyable, book.