I love finding old pocket paperbacks in thrift stores. That’s how I ended up with a 1960s-era British pocket Penguin edition of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. On the cover, the price is listed as “3’6” which, though I’ve been to England, I can’t decipher. On the first page, in pencil is the price – 50p – wanted by some British used book dealer years ago, and in pen, the name of one of the book’s former owners. I myself got the book for around fifty cents or a dollar from one of the neighborhood secondhand shops, and though I’d love to keep it on my shelf, I’m tempted to release it back into the wild so it may continue on its journey. The book does indeed fit in my pocket and so was a good one to take on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I read the book in its entirety on the plane ride home. I love reading books like that, in one sitting while in transit, because it feeds into a romantic notion I have of what I might spend my days doing if I had no other responsibilities. But, of course, I have responsibilities and so does Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Bellow’s book. Wilhelm, a failed Hollywood actor living in a New York hotel a few floors removed from his father, appears to be nearing the low ebb of a long downward slide. He has lost his job, owes money to his wife (who won’t give him a divorce), rarely sees his children, fell out with his mistress, and is so nearly penniless that he must ask his father to cover the rent. Tommy’s father, Dr. Adler (Tommy changed his name in Hollywood), sees his son as a big baby. Seize the Day reminded me of both Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. All the books of ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads. Wilhelm ruminates mostly on sorrows of lost opportunities, yet the book is shot through with humor as well, especially as Wilhelm gets more and more wrapped up in a stock market scheme. Bellow’s book is sad and funny and deserves to be read far more than it is. (Special thanks to Millions contributor Patrick who first pointed me to this book years ago – it just took a little while for me to get to it.)
Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, NW, sees her return to Willesden, northwest London, the same setting as her debut novel, White Teeth. Her first novel in seven years, NW signifies a departure for Smith in terms of her prose as well as her thematic scope: not only is NW a more poetic and abstract novel, but it is also one that calls iteratively to its reader to “keep up!” Indeed, it is in the pacing and in the gaps amid the fractured narrative structure that the reader locates NW’s most incisive social criticisms, insights, and its numerous laments about what it means to be “modern.”
A novel of visits and visitations, ghosts and hauntings, NW begins with the destabilizing visit of Shar, who rings the doorbell to Leah’s council flat to ask for money. This uncanny encounter sets off a chain of events and memories, a narrative spiral that occasionally feels out of control, but which comes full circle in a surprisingly satisfying way in Smith’s sure hands. When the narrative does return back to this initial moment, its effects are just as unexpected on the two main female protagonists as they are on the reader.
On the surface, NW is the story of two childhood friends, Leah and Keisha (who later changes her name to Natalie, to sever ties with the council estate on which she grew up), brought together by a “dramatic event:” as a young girl, Natalie saves Leah from near-drowning, causing the two to be joined together for life in spite of their different cultural backgrounds. United by this near-death experience and their shared socioeconomic status, the two girls grow up in a council estate in Willesden, northwest London, sharing their experiences with a host of characters ranging from Cheryl, Natalie’s sister who, despite several pregnancies, refuses the financial assistance of her now much wealthier sister, to the drug-addicted, morose Nathan Bogle, Leah’s childhood crush.
But NW is much more than a tale of a friendship. Indeed, Smith chooses to structure the novel in such a way that it textualizes the chaotic world of the estate and its inhabitants while, at the same time, dramatizing the intense anguish, emptiness, and despair found in the psychological lives of her protagonists. As Leah muses at one point: “She has forced a stillness in herself, but it has not stopped the world from continuing on.” She is ostensibly happily married to Michel, a Frenchman of African descent who works as a hairdresser, and yet secretly takes contraceptives to maintain control over her body and her life (“He is two feet away. He is on the other side of the world”); by contrast, Natalie marries the affluent, debonair Frank De Angelis strategically — or so she thinks — only to find her sexual desires wandering, enhanced by the technological world and myriad websites offering quick, anonymous sex with no strings attached. Technology is one of the major culprits in NW, causing rifts in our interactions with others and creating more distance when there should be more intimacy: “Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates.” Eerily enough, Smith suggests that the two women know one another better than anyone else does, and yet the secrets each keeps from the other enhance their states of isolation within a community to which each still feels indebted in often inexplicable ways, despite an ever-growing distance.
Several critics have already pointed out NW’s debt to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Both novels are concerned with female characters who are lost in their marriages and in their modern worlds. The pace of Smith’s prose, especially in the opening section, is reminiscent of Woolf’s, but in NW Smith creates a rhythm all her own:
Nothing to listen to but this bloody girl. At least with eyes closed there is something else to see. Viscous black specks. Darting boatmen, zig-zagging. Zig. Zag. Red river? Molten lake in hell? The hammock tips. The papers flop to the ground. World events and property and film and music lie in the grass. Also sport and the short descriptions of the dead.
The two different Londons are utterly incongruous in this intertextual alignment in rather jarring ways: Clarissa Dalloway encounters crowds in Hyde Park baffled about the modern aerial advertising upon which no one can agree as far as the trade name goes. “But what letters? A C was it? an E, then an L? Only for a moment did they lie still; then they moved and melted and were rubbed out up in the sky, and the aeroplane shot further away and again, in a fresh space of sky, began writing a K, an E, a Y perhaps?” As Leah journeys through the NW district, she is even more bombarded than Clarissa is; not only can Leah not escape the commercialization of the city itself, but she is similarly trapped in a multicultural space where different groups — while joined in similar socioeconomic circumstances — carve out different spaces, thus creating rifts of separation in a zone that is already a kind of No Man’s Land:
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. Deal or no deal? TV screens in the TV shop. TV cable, computer cable, audiovisual cables, I give you good price, good price.
As in Mrs. Dalloway, there is a death that sends a rupture through the community; however, unlike Woolf’s more direct approach, Smith has complicated the dynamics and inserted two characters who are affected by the death rather than just one. This demonstrates how contemporary identity is shared, collective, and yet also at risk of being subsumed beneath another’s; it also underlines how compartmentalized each of our identities become in our high-paced, technology-driven culture. Mrs. Dalloway does this in its own way, but Smith’s strength here in updating Woolf’s novel is in her hopeful pessimism: while Septimus Smith’s death allows Clarissa to see her own anguish reflected, the death in NW actually upsets the mirror images Leah and Natalie reflect for each other. As such, the individual stands both for and against the community, and the harrowing walk Natalie finds herself on toward the novel’s close — where Smith indicates the need to meet one’s own ghost, if only to prove that one is solely a ghost in this world — coupled with the two women’s final act suggests that living is at the cost of sacrificing a part of oneself and also a willful condemnation of one’s own subculture.
To stress NW’s debt to Mrs. Dalloway alone, though, would be to Smith’s great discredit. The reader is asked here to read between the lines, and the events are not given in chronological order; in fact, we begin with Leah’s adult life (which includes some memories of her past and her friendship with Natalie), and, after a rupture that places a marginal Felix front and center to centralize a noble kind of masculinity (a rare kind indeed in Willesden), we are then presented with a very postmodern bildungsroman that grants us access to Natalie’s formative years. As this section progresses with its deployment of short sections almost reminiscent of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse — a text that is about its author coming to terms with the end of a relationship, much as Natalie’s section is, too, in its own way — one gets a full sense of Natalie’s identity from the fragments themselves. Smith is able to build a very solid portrait of her protagonist from bits and pieces, implying that this is how we are all fashioned by our society and that perhaps such a form is the best way to render modern experience. To be sure, we are all shaped by devouring films, books, music, from our early love affairs, and from our traumatic experiences; it is no surprise that, in shaping Natalie’s subjectivity, Smith manages in a masterful way such allusions to figures as seemingly disparate as Jean-Luc Godard, Søren Kierkegaard, John Donne, and Michael Jackson.
Although her prose owes much to the modernist school and her structure to the postmodernist dissection of time and identity, Smith continually returns to “the modern” as a continuum: “At some point we became aware of being ‘modern,’ of changing fast. Of coming after just now. John Donne was also a modern and surely saw change but we feel we are more modern and that the change is faster. Even the immutable is faster. Even blossom.” As we witness Leah swallowing her pride and working for a charity despite her university degree, rendered moot in the economy; as we witness Natalie rising as a barrister despite her class status and in spite of an ambivalence she can never wholly express, one which she tries to correct or mask through motherhood; and as we witness how these women relate to the men in their lives (whether central or tangential), we are left with the sense that, like Anna in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, modernity wreaks havoc on individuals’ conceptualizations of their own identities.
Smith’s great skill in NW is not only questioning this — and, in so doing, allowing her prose to mimic the nuances, cadences, and occasional sing-song slang of the NW district, proving her yet again a master of dialogue and tone — but in the way she finds dangerous such a compartmentalization of experience, desire (“Desire is never final, desire is imprecise and impractical”), and subjectivity when it comes to how we relate to others in the world, whether these be the strangers we pass on the street or the ones with whom we share our beds. Smith seems to be calling us to unite these disparate parts of our lives, and perhaps NW’s strength is in her insistence: “Global consciousness. Local consciousness. Consciousness.”