Relative Weakness

The title of Zadie Smith’s new novel NW refers to North West London, an area encompassing the likes of both Regent’s Park and council estates, large projects of public housing from which the central characters of NW originate. Readers of Smith’s first novel ought to be familiar with North West London, since White Teeth is also set largely in two of its towns, Willesden and Kilburn.

NW is divided into five major sections, each of which Smith renders using different surface effects. In the first section, called “Visitation,” we are introduced to Leah Hanwell, a child of Caldwell, a rough council estate created by Smith that looms over the lives of her characters (“Even relative weakness in Caldwell translated to impressive strength in the world”). Leah is thirty-five, of Irish ancestry, bad with numbers, a onetime student of philosophy, and, as suggested by the style of “Visitation,” impressionistic:

In this weekend abandon there is always something manic and melancholy: the internal countdown to the working week already begun. In the mirror she is her own dance partner, nose to nose with the reflection. The physical person is smiling and singing. Oh how I miss the folks back home in Willesden Green! Meanwhile something inside reels at the mirror’s news: the grey streak coming out of the crown, the puffy creases round the eyes, the soft belly. She dances like a girl. She is not a girl anymore.

Stylistically this first section might be compared to one of Leopold Bloom’s chapters in Ulysses (which other critics have noticed, for good or ill), or perhaps to Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, thanks to the diligent but ultimately unconcerned consciousness informing the narrative style. But there is no ready comparison of this style to another of Smith’s novels. Unlike in her earlier work, there is not a single sinewy sentence in “Visitation,” in which it seems that, rather than exuberance (to borrow a word from Joyce Carol Oates), immediacy was Smith’s ideal; here her sentences are crisp and suggestive.

Leah and her husband were married before they were friends, which is another way of saying:

Their marriage was the occasion of their friendship.

They were married before they noticed many small differences in background, aspiration, education, ambition. There is a difference between the ambitions of the poor of the city and the poor of the country, for example.

At moments this writing style seems to be an homage to modernism. Smith renders one passage as a typographical tree, another as a printout from Google Maps, and another as a typographically dense monologue given by Leah’s husband, Michel, reminiscent of Molly Bloom’s chapter in Ulysses:

I don’t let this—I don’t let drama in my life like that. No way! I’ve worked too hard. I love you too much, this life. You are what you do. This is how it is. I’m always thinking: is this me? What I’m doing? Is this really me? If I sit and do nothing I know that makes me nothing… Here, you can move. You still have to work! You have to work very hard to separate yourself from this drama below!

These moments aren’t uncommon in NW, and, on account of the fact that they seem to suggest Smith’s growth as a novelist, are my favorite moments of the book.

The plot of NW begins with Shar, a woman around Leah’s age with a sob story about a sick mother and needing a loan, which she of course will be paying back. Leah recognizes Shar from where they went to school together. Circumspect yet fundamentally generous, Leah decides to help:

In reply, Leah says something she has never said in her life: God bless you. They pull apart—Shar backs away awkwardly, and turns toward the car, almost gone. Leah presses the money into Shar’s hand with defiance. But already the grandeur of experience threatens to flatten into the conventional, into anecdote: only thirty pounds, only an ill mother, neither a murder, nor a rape. Nothing survives its telling.

It takes Leah one month before she admits that her faith was betrayed. When Leah and her husband Michel later come across Shar, they confront her about the theft, which leads to the couple’s dog getting fatally kicked. It’s almost as though by Leah’s facing her moment of failed sentimentality, she inadvertently destroys another cherished token of her sentimental affection. In other words, to confront a myth is a great way to lose it.

Shar settles into the background of NW after “Visitation,” but never disappears. In a sense she becomes flattened into a geographical feature, symbolic of a part of Kilburn seen while walking through certain half-deserted streets (“ungentrified, ungentrifiable”), or when searching for an empty seat on the bus. Yet this is a part of Kilburn shared by almost every character in the book: her kind of desperation never seems far away.

“Visitation” follows with “Guest,” and tells a story of Felix Cooper. Felix, a thirty-two-year-old Afro-Caribbean, is, like Leah, a product of Caldwell. Unlike Leah, however, Felix never left the estate, having been caught up in drugs. But now we are to see Felix as a man on his way up, an optimist who has kicked his habit and found himself a girlfriend who is “politically conscious, racially conscious,” aptly named Grace. Felix works as a mechanic, and a large portion of “Guest” concerns his purchase of a beater from a posh young man named Tom whom Smith renders as one of the most awkward (if unbelievable) characters in the book, in order, I suspect, to convey a sense of their common difference, which is Tom’s aloofness to Felix’s reality.

But Felix’s section is less concerned with Tom than it is Annie, his one-time girlfriend and customer, and how he has changed since they used to spend time together. She lives in squalor, with prostitutes a permanent fixture on the steps leading up to her flat. Yet she carries herself with the nonchalance of a moneyed (and coked-up) aesthete. Felix can’t account for Annie’s ennui and evidently pointless existence. He sees his own life as a linear path from addiction to love and success.

“What a mealy-mouthed pathetic word, ‘relationship,’” Annie tells Felix.

It’s what people do these days, isn’t it? When they can’t think of anything else to do. No politics, no ideas, no balls. Get married. But I’ve transcended all that. Long time ago. Eons ago. […] I could be moldering in some Hampshire pile at this very moment, covering and recovering sofas with some Baron in perfect sexless harmony. That’s what my people do. While your lot have a lot of babies they can’t afford to take care of.

Ultimately Felix must face the facts of his own contingency and the contingencies of Kilburn, where if one wants to avoid trouble, respect must be constantly proved and re-approved. Even though Felix’s fate at the end has been telegraphed since the first section, I was no less affected by it. Smith has made Felix almost innocently good-natured, a nice guy who wants to do the right thing. His flaws are deep, but they are flaws of passivity, or perhaps even weakness; it’s easy to cheer for him because Felix is optimistic amidst a sea of unhappy endings and stalled beginnings. Yet Smith deprives us of Felix’s optimism because the neighborhood has deprived us of this. I wish there had been more of Felix, and I would guess that Smith wants me feeling this way. The council estates will continue creating young men like Felix, and they will also continue destroying them.

The final three sections in NW, “Host,” “Crossing,” and the second “Visitation,” concern the friendship of Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell, Natalie’s growth into and through adulthood, and Nathan Bogle, a man Leah had a crush on in childhood, and who like Shar hustles on the street to survive. Just as Shar, Felix, Nathan, and Leah, Natalie is a product of Caldwell. Like Leah, Natalie escaped the culture of Caldwell, assisted by her shedding her Caldwell self, Keisha:

She became Natalie Blake in that brief pause in their long history, between sixteen and eighteen. Educated herself on the floor of Kensal Rise Library while Leah smoked weed all the live-long day. Natalie always picked up the leaflets, the leaflets and everything else.

Natalie becomes a barrister, one of the few black English women to don the white wig of law. Her husband Frank is an investment banker, and together they made “money… for the distance the house put between you and Caldwell.” Although Natalie and Frank invite Leah and Michel to attend their dinner parties, Leah somewhat unfairly senses that that is because they provide “local color,” not because they rightly belong to that society of upper-middle class dinner parties where multiculturalism is fodder for abstract philosophizing over desert.

“Host” consists of 185 numbered sections in a style slightly reminiscent of a book of aphorisms, with an exuberance and humor that will be familiar to readers of Smith’s previous novels. Smith refers to Natalie and Leah as “Natalie Blake” and “Leah Hanwell,” which adds a kind of formal distance to the characters that seems to reflect Natalie’s desire for order and at the same time her sense of living as a function of her roles without a true center.

 170. In drag

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.

Smith gives us the friendship between Leah and Natalie from both perspectives, suggesting how even longtime friends can confuse the intentions of the other. This is due in part to the different ways their minds work, Leah the unrigid receptacle, Natalie the logical analyst. Even though I would be pleased reading an entire novel about Felix, one of the strengths of this novel, and what makes this novel enjoyable to read, is how plausibly nuanced their relationship is. Going back to Leah’s description of the dinner parties after reading Natalie’s, I couldn’t help but feel ill at ease knowing just how wrong each woman was about the other’s opinion of her.

The final two sections, “Crossing” and “Visitation,” are all of fifty pages in total, substantially the shortest sections of the book. In “Crossing” we hear Nathan finally speaking for himself, where before he was a minor actor in the mental life of young girls. Now Nathan has lost any innocence provided by age or ignorance. Natalie runs into Nathan while she’s out walking because Frank has discovered a sordid secret of hers and doesn’t want to go home. Nathan tells Natalie that his life has changed like hers would, because of his own mistakes:

“People don’t chat to me no more. Look at me like they don’t know me. People I used to know, people I used to run with… But I’m looking at myself asking myself Nathan why you still here? Why you still here? And I don’t even know why. I ain’t even joking. I should just run from myself.”

Some have decried the ending of NW as unconvincing, or at worst foolish and wrong-headed, because it creates an improbable flaw that perhaps too nicely connects the major characters, causing the novel, in NPR’s words, “to crumble in its final seventy pages or so, endangering its credibility and the wealth of its accumulated, smart observations about contemporary London.” While I myself couldn’t say the ending completely fails, I do agree that it leaves the reader scratching his head, wondering if it’s enough to say, in a kind of Rabbit-Angstrom-meets-Craigslist way, that “freedom was absolute and everywhere, constantly moving location. You couldn’t hope to find it in the old, familiar places.”

But we don’t read Zadie Smith for her endings; we read her for her dialogue and wit, her eye for place, her subtle humor, and (especially my favorite) her moments of enduring quotability (see: “Their marriage was the occasion of their friendship”). All this, NW does beautifully. This is Smith at her most restrained, and in flashes, most accomplished. I’m inclined to call this her best novel to date.

Stephan McCormick lives in Los Angeles.