Mental Weather, by Christine Smallwood

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The many voices of Zadie Smith

Discussed in this essay:

NW, by Zadie Smith. The Penguin Press. 416 pages. $26.95.

Zadie Smith is a writer much given to acts of public self-examination. In 2008, Smith gave a lecture to students at Columbia University in which she disowned the spirit of meddling investigation that characterized White Teeth, her thunderously acclaimed 2000 debut novel, written when she was twenty-four. Back then she had a quotation from Gravity’s Rainbow hanging on her door.

At that time, I apparently believed it was the duty of the novel to rigorously pursue hidden information: personal, political, historical. I say apparently because I don’t recognize that writer anymore, and I find her idea of the novel oppressive, alien, totally useless.

Oppressive, alien, and useless—well, apostasy does require stronger language than conversion, and one irony of precocity is that it gives you so much to apologize for later. When the lecture rolled around, Smith had traded Pynchon for a Derrida screen saver: “If a right to a secret is not maintained then we are in a totalitarian space.” She explained that “it’s awful to me now, that passion for human dissection I had, always entering the brains of characters, cracking them open, rooting every secret out . . . I know that this new novel, that I’ve hardly begun, will be shameful and strange to me soon enough.”

The years are gone and that book is done. NW is her fourth novel, after White Teeth, The Autograph Man (2002), and On Beauty (2005). Its stream-of-consciousness style forgoes the management of interrelated clans that has hitherto been Smith’s specialty, preferring the illusion of direct mental access to the illusion of omniscience. Here, self-knowledge is opaque and patchy; no one is more ignorant of a secret than its bearer. Actions that Smith would once have tied to genealogy or capital-H History are immediate and local, value judgments more obviously matters of lifestyle. The limits are geographic too: unlike her first three novels, all of which hopped continents, NW barely leaves the neighborhood. And unlike those books, which located violence in the past, NW is a crime story. Before we are through, one man and one dog will be dead.

NW is a series of monologues, a love letter to a city, a clock out of joint, and a four-hundred-page work of literary theory. First, the facts. Keisha Blake is a Jamaican Brit from Locke tower block in the Caldwell council estate in North West London. Her best friend growing up was another Locke kid, a white girl named Leah. (The estate is in Willesden, off Kilburn High Road. All the towers are named for philosophers.) In high school Leah got lost in ecstasy and Joy Division, while Keisha was pulled into a Pentecostal church group and the demands of working twice as hard to get to the same place as the white kids. They went to university. Leah talked Kierkegaard stoned and became a social worker, Keisha changed her name to Natalie and became a corporate lawyer. Still old friends, the kind that kind of hate each other.

Leah married Michel, a French-Nigerian hairdresser she met on a dance floor in Ibiza, and they live with their dog (innocent, doomed) in a council flat with a shared garden a spit away from the one she grew up in. The first section of the novel is narrated from inside her head. (“Mental weather,” a crackhead puns.) Natalie married a rich biracial (Italian/black British) man named Frank and, despite her keen belief that they were destined for each other, became very unhappy very quickly. They live in a gentrifying bit of NW, a quick ride from the old towers. Natalie’s story, which constitutes the second half of the novel, is narrated as a series of numbered fragments, some as short as a sentence, a few as long as a few pages. These have titles like “Ideology in Popular Entertainment,” “Tonya Seeks Keisha,” “Technology,” “Speed,” “All the mod cons.” There’s also “Rabbit, Run,” about a vibrator; “Speak, Radio,” about listening to the BBC; and “That obscure object of desire,” about Keisha’s passion for a pair of red-and-white Nikes. Despite the new seriousness of tone in NW, Smith’s knees are as weak as they ever were for a literary joke.

Leah and Natalie are divided by tastes and by class. Their stories are divided, too, by a day in the life of Felix. Felix wakes up in the apartment of his girlfriend, Grace, a go-getting half-Nigerian who encourages him to think positive and receive good vibes. He visits his Rasta father’s filthy, sweet-smelling flat and buys a junky MG from a silly white boy with a silly job (“Cutting-edge brand manipulation, basically,” insists Tom; “Advertising,” concludes Felix). He then stops to see his ex-lover Annie, a coked-up former ballerina he discarded when he got clean. He accidentally sleeps with her, then offends her—she’s in the twilight of her fertility—by suggesting that an over-the-counter emergency contraceptive may be in order. On the tube home, a pregnant white woman asks Felix to intercede with two black men, one of whom is blocking a seat. He does. When he exits the station, the men follow. One of these hooded reapers turns out to be Keisha and Leah’s schoolmate Nathan Bogle. We meet Nathan Bogle again in the last section of the novel. He’s a criminal, an addict, the problem W.E.B. DuBois spoke of, the past everyone else left behind, and the only one who doesn’t tell lies.

On its surface, NW looks like another contemporary narrative of the unrelated interwoven events of one fateful day, in which a man is stabbed, marriages are threatened, and friendships tested, all in one small corner of the city. At their most vulgar, such plots throw all meaning overboard, so that the mere fact of “the network” is an end unto itself. But NW is not unduly impressed that people who live in the same neighborhood run into one another. If anything, the architecture of four intertwined lives is a hat tip to the history of the novel, which found plenty of intrigue in going up or down a single flight of stairs. In NW Smith draws on certain aspects of anonymous or fleeting urbanity from Woolf or Joyce, but her heart is really in the tension of running into a cousin you don’t like, or what it’s like to take your mother shopping. To say that this novel makes North West London into a small town is not to insult its aspirations, but to redescribe what it is like to live in a city.

Smith wasn’t always sophisticated about connection, and her early work warranted the charge of “hysterical realism” that was levied against it. The endings of White Teeth and Autograph Man brought characters together like television shows in which everyone’s contracts require them to be in the finale. With On Beauty, a transatlantic rewriting of Howard’s End, she moved away from the mania of networked information to the Forsterian injunction: “Only connect!” That meant more than a plot of unexpected revelations and interrelations. For the Schlegel sisters, as for Smith, connection meant joining “the prose in us to the passion,” the unseen to the seen, the immaterial to the material—and then joining that life, imaginatively as well as by deed and sacrifice, to the lives of others. The experimental surface of NW looks like a departure from the Victorian narrative of On Beauty, but its terms remain Forsterian: its characters struggle to make their lives into stories, and, doubly impossible, to make those stories known to anyone else.

Of all the forms connection can take, Smith is most interested in sex. She is a great writer of female sexuality—she has language for being inside a female body and for desire, pleasure, and frustration. (She also writes very well about being fat, and it’s a small disappointment that there are no large women in NW.) Smith writes about sex easily and plainly, matter-of-factly and elegantly, without ridiculous adjectives or embarrassing dilations. People kiss each other a lot, and she just says so: Michel “puts his tongue in his wife’s ear.” She describes what a woman sees: “He looked like he was frantically tunnelling somewhere and hoping to reach the other side.” She makes sex something authentic: something that is and can’t be undone, that happens and has consequences, a touchstone. Her obsession with beauty—especially male beauty—finds justice in the rightness and fitness of two people’s belonging to each other. “If the world was just you and me,” Leah says to Michel, “we’d be happy all the time.”

Relationships, though—relationships are another story. They’re theatrical, worn-out, a pantomime of tired gestures and conscriptions. The Autograph Man: “This is what relationships are: stage shows that run and run until all the life is drained from them and only the gestures remain.” On Beauty: “Each couple is its own vaudeville act.” NW: Natalie and Frank are “like a double act that only speaks to each other when they are on stage.” A section called “Stage Directions” transcribes an evening at home as setting, action, dialogue. Waiting for Leah in the park, Natalie’s happy brood turns sour, causing her childless friend to miss “a perfectly staged demonstration of the joy of life.”

Smith’s weariness with the stage show may be due to her own imagination, which routinely relies on adultery to complicate and sex to create intimacy. Samad cheats on Alsana (White Teeth); Alex cheats on Ellen (Autograph Man); Howard cheats on Kiki, twice, and then Monty cheats on Carlene, for good measure (On Beauty). One miserable character in On Beauty seems to speak for everyone when she asks, “How did we get to the same place as everybody else?”

Adultery has always been the novel’s great subject, but it’s refreshing that NW has new ideas about infidelity. People still cheat, but pregnancy and even birth itself can betray, too—friends looking at one another uncomprehendingly; motherhood’s pleasures and disappointments. (We even get a pregnant animal, and she’s a fox.) Then there is the threat to marriage that a baby carries. Leah gets an abortion without telling Michel, and steals birth-control pills from Natalie’s cupboard. “She doesn’t want to ‘go forward.’ For Leah, that way is not forward. She wants just him and her forever”—an excess of sexual monogamy as destructive as any wandering eye.

Smith tries to care about intimacies besides sex, about siblings and friendships and teachers and students and parents and children, but the occasional flashing insight aside (On Beauty: “Kiki felt herself a whetstone that [her daughter] Zora was sharpening herself against”), such relationships are largely colorless. She writes friendship as a fundamentally inadequate relation. Without sex, Natalie and Leah are reduced to something like family—hard to talk to, impossible to get rid of. For them, friend feelings came easier with pipes and pills and powders, and NW is full of these, as well as two killer joints. They made connection passionate and egalitarian and important, and possible. But by the time they are in their thirties, drugs are mostly a memory. Instead, Natalie and Frank torture Leah and Michel with dinner parties, those dread social coliseums where experience is dismembered for the entertainment of other people’s friends. When the door shuts behind Leah and Michel they nearly choke on their gratitude to be with each other. Smith calls it the “camaraderie of contempt.”

Smith has always been a narrator who speaks directly to the reader over her characters’ heads. In NW, the game combines her usual intrusiveness (jokes, dropped knowledge) with the withholding of context. A series of cars blasting Michael Jackson indicate that it’s the day he died; the heading “Beehive” is a clue that the singer discussed is Amy Winehouse. From the section called “Box Sets”:

Everybody in both Natalie’s workplace and Frank’s was intimately involved with the lives of a group of African-Americans, mostly male, who slung twenty-dollar vials of crack in the scrub between a concatenation of terribly designed tower blocks in a depressed and forgotten city with one of the highest murder rates in the United States. That everyone should be so intimately involved with the lives of these young men annoyed Frank, though he could not really put his finger on why, and in protest he exempted himself and his wife from what was by all accounts an ecstatic communal televisual experience.

A novel about a wealthy black woman from a tower block whose life is criss-crossed with crack and crime and who refuses to watch The Wire that refuses to name The Wire—this is funny but also a little precious. Frank and Natalie know the show’s name, of course, but getting at what it means to them requires going around what’s familiar.

Then there are the things that conscience makes unnameable. Posing as Keisha, Natalie takes to visiting “the listings,” a website where she finds couples who are looking for threesomes. After much tormented reading, posting, deleting, and posting again—all of which is not narrated from within but described from the outside, as gesture and action—she goes on four assignations. The first three are bleak and funny with no consummation, and in the last she gets what she came for without consolation. She notices something: “Everyone’s seeking a BF [black female] 18–35. Why? What do they think we can do?”

It’s a question that the author may well have asked about her own career. Bits of Zadie Smith flicker through Natalie. There are, of course, the crude biographical facts: Smith, the daughter of a Jamaican mother, lived for a time in a council estate called Athelstan Gardens, off Willesden Lane, a ten-minute walk from the Kilburn High Road. She was born Sadie, and changed her name at age fourteen. But more important than these resemblances is that Natalie enacts a crisis that Smith has identified as belonging to the contemporary novel. Several years ago, in the essay “Two Paths for the Novel,” Smith wrote about the insufficiencies of “lyrical realism”—realist novels in which poetic flights of descriptive language spin soothing deceptions. Lyrical realism is overly optimistic about “the essential fullness and continuity of the self”; it tells a lie about “our beautiful plenitude.” In contrast, she praised Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a novel about a man who obsessively reenacts scenes in order to feel authentic. The truth of contemporary life, she wrote, has to do with “the damaged and the partial, the absent and the unspeakable.”

Like Remainder’s nameless narrator, Natalie experiences an ongoing crisis of authenticity. It begins when, as a teenager, she fears that her lack of interest in music, dancing, and drugs means that she has no “personality.” She has drive and ambition, but no passions, no pet causes. She accuses herself of lacking “a gift for living.” Like a novelist, Natalie has “a strong desire to slip into the lives of other people,” but, like NW, she can’t tell one coherent story—her life is broken into fragments, a list like she visits online. Natalie adopts different styles and different personae, perpetually living “in drag.” Early reviews of NW complained that its characters felt “engineered,” but what they really feel is burdened by self-consciousness. What’s more, the novel’s formal experiments—multiple narrative perspectives, lists, concrete poetry, instant-messenger chats—rhyme with Natalie’s sexual experiments, her fleeting, clumsy attempts to fill an empty self. In “Two Paths,” Smith wrote that one of the false tenets of lyrical realism is that “only one’s own subjectivity is really authentic, and only the personal offers this possibility of transcendence”—and indeed NW places personal transcendence tantalizingly out of reach. In the novel’s opening scene, Leah tries to copy out a phrase from the radio—“I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me”—but her “pencil leaves no mark.”

With NW, Smith has written a book that openly expresses dissatisfaction with her previous work. She has written a book that frankly and carefully pursues a new formal mode, and a book that is obviously beholden to new influences, namely McCarthy, as well as Ann Quin and the British experimentalists of the 1960s. It’s a very good book, witty and smart and fun to read. NW is proof that the novel is the best—the most living—form an argument about the novel can take. But why, a dozen years into her career, does she need new arguments? Why is her voice still changing?

In the last sentence, Natalie places a call to the police: “ ‘I got something to tell you,’ said Keisha Blake, disguising her voice with her voice.” The point isn’t that there is some authentic self Natalie has tragically lost touch with. It’s that all voices are learned, and there’s no speaking that would be the real thing. This is why Smith never tries to hide the process: for her it’s all process, and the novel, as Natalie stands in for it, is inevitably disguising one voice with another. All these voices are the writer’s own; there isn’t anything else to use. NW discards the all-knowing quick-draw of the character sketch, a form Smith had just about perfected, and instead performs a polyphonic chorus peppered with “innit”s and “you know”s, the rhythms and rhymes of vernacular. Smith writes Caribbeans, white Britons, black street drawl, and where she once would have told us who those people are and what they think, now she cares only for how they sound. It’s like what she says of the spleen-spewing, powdered-up, Renaissance-poetry-quoting Annie: “it didn’t matter what nonsense came out of her mouth, her accent worked a spell.”

This is a gift, and Smith is proud of it: “I believe that flexibility of voice leads to a flexibility in all things,” she wrote in “Speaking in Tongues.” As an author, Smith can catch a personality in a single ventriloquized phrase—Felix’s former rival in love is dismissed as “I’m-a-male-nurse-I-find-hip-hop-too-negative-I-can-cook-curried-goat-I-want-to-move-to-Nigeria”—but her characters are less nimble. They talk without connecting. At one key moment Nathan Bogle tries to explain to Natalie what it was like for him to grow up. “Everyone loves up a bredrin when he’s ten,” he says, high and mighty. “With his lickle ball’ead. All cute and lively. Everyone loves a bredrin when he’s ten. After that he’s a problem. Can’t stay ten always.” Natalie doesn’t get it, and Nathan Bogle’s voice holds a sadness so deep it can appear only as swagger.

The epigraph of NW is taken from John Ball, a leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 who gave an outdoor sermon at Blackheath: “When Adam delved and Eve span,/ Who was then the gentleman?” Ball went on to speak of injustice and oppression, arguing that God did not create bondsmen. “And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.” The voice of John Ball is an indication that the class tensions of NW are not just social and economic ills but problems of freedom, of a kind of liberty that only nature can grant and rebellion can restore. It’s worth noting, though, that NW has little hope for the black men who huddle in its doorways and phone boxes and bus stops. Felix and Nathan Bogle are the first characters in a Zadie Smith novel to be really ruined—to be finally, irredeemably done away with. The novel begins with Leah being ripped off by a former classmate turned crackhead, and it breaks off, mid–phone call, as Natalie and Leah unite in turning Nathan Bogle over to the authorities. It’s not that they’ve done the wrong thing; he’s guilty—but he’s something more than guilty too. He’s the price of reconnecting the friends to each other, and Natalie to herself. Female interiority and intimacy are thrown into relief against a backdrop of male violence. The greatest moment of terror arrives not when a black man is senselessly murdered for his fake-diamond earrings, but when Natalie loses her two children in a pet store. She finds them, safe and sound, in front of the rabbit hutches—cages where, presumably, bunnies are being made.

Natalie stands in for the problems of writing but also for its privileges. NW grants her two epiphanies, small comforts. Both are classically novelistic—one about empathy, one about freedom. The former is for Leah, appropriate given her generosity. (Leah and Natalie neatly divide the tasks of reading between them: empathy to the social worker, judgment to the lawyer.) Natalie explains Leah to Michel, and in so doing understands her, briefly. It’s a connection.

Clarity. Bright, blinding, free of judgment, impossible to contemplate for longer than a moment, and soon transfigured into something else. Still, for a moment it was there.

Then, one page later, on the 98 bus, traveling to Leah, to a scene where she will not live up to the promise of that insight, but also not fail it completely:

The bus came. Natalie sat with her forehead rumbling on the glass. The Cock Tavern. McDonald’s. The old Woolworths. The betting shop. The State Empire. Willesden Lane. The cemetery. Whoever said these were fixed coordinates to which she had to be forever faithful? How could she play them false? Freedom was absolute and everywhere, constantly moving location. You couldn’t hope to find it only in the old, familiar places. Nor could you force other people to take off their clothes and give it to you like a gift. Clarity!

The usual novelistic epiphany begins with a detailed description of a taste or smell or sight. While the character stands still, her mind travels to retrospection and is rewarded with self-discovery. Smith makes the whole thing move. There is not one image here, nor is there static aesthetic contemplation; a bus rolls down a street, taking Natalie for a ride. The epiphany is meaningful but passes, and meaningful because it passes. There is no “beautiful plenitude” to hold. No reason to look back. Natalie carries all that past—the fast-food place she frequented as a kid and the betting shop and the old stores and all the dead bodies of NW—with her, and will carry it lighter the less tightly she holds. This is a self-knowledge that dispels, not a secret that could be given once and for all. You could take a scalpel to the mind, but why bother? Nothing stops wiggling long enough to cut open.

Breaking directly into Natalie’s breakthrough is the unmarked speech of a crazy lady. This lady can hear her dog talk.

And when I realized Mindy-Lou could actually speak to me through my mind, well, then I really had a moment, like in a story-book or a film, and I knew I would always be watched over and loved by everybody I met forever in the end. OK, said Natalie, and lifted up Naomi and maneuvered the buggy to the doors. It was nice chatting with you. We get off here.

There is joy in the juxtaposition between Natalie and the dog whisperer, joy everywhere in NW. For all the blunt and sharp things it looks at—fear and death and addiction and poverty and estrangement and deceit—it has soft landings. “The damaged and the partial, the absent and the unspeakable” sounds awfully somber, but Smith has always delighted in language rather than mourning its loss. She has always delighted in the world, and the cities people make in it. Towers are traps and success is empty and streets are deadly, but there’s something like liberty in seeing the city, and naming what is seen.

After Natalie’s husband discovers the secret of her online life, she leaves home, clad in leggings and slippers like a crazy lady, the kind of lady who would talk to a dog, and runs into Nathan Bogle. They walk together. Kilburn High Road, Hampstead Heath, Hornsey Lane. It’s not paradise, it’s only the world—and she’s in it. It’s happening. This is it. “It struck Natalie that she was no longer crying or shaking, and that dread was the hardest emotion in the world to hold on to for more than a moment. She couldn’t resist this display of the textures of the world; white stone, green turf, red rust, gray slate, brown shit. It was almost pleasant, strolling to nowhere.”

has written for Bookforum, The New York Review of Books, and other publications. Her last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Heartache and the Thousand Natural Shocks,” appeared in the November 2010 issue.

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