Zadie Smith: My beautiful neighbourhood

NW is a novel of delicate balances between perspectives and priorities.

Zadie Smith in 2006
Zadie Smith in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images

NW
Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, £18.99

The title of Zadie Smith’s new novel suggests a greater degree of particularity than we have come to expect from the author of White Teeth and On Beauty. Even her most conventional title, The Autograph Man, shows her caught between the comfort of specificity and the thrill of abstraction, a conflict played out in the novel itself. Throughout that novel, Smith’s gift for idiosyncratic detail (“The platform is all schoolgirls and cigarettes”) fought it out with her weakness for allegory and abstraction: “He reaches forward and asks a man called ‘KRYCHEK, GARY’ to take him on a detour through a square famous for its museums and prostitutes. It has, Alex realises for the first time, almost a metaphysical name.” There are a number of ways of putting a character in Times Square, and this, we may be surprised to discover, is one of them.

The setting of the new novel is a microclimate, not a microcosm or metaphor, and a place that defines itself in wilfully parochial terms, by what it excludes. It becomes clear early on that not everyone who lives in north-west London can lay claim to this tag. Leah Hanwell, the first character we meet, is described as being “as faithful to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries”. The area seems to comprise Kilburn and Willesden – Kensal Rise at a push. When a character suffers the inconvenience of having to travel to Camden, she thinks of it as “More N than NW”, though most of Camden is in NW1. Leah isn’t happy that her best friend, Natalie (née Keisha) Blake, lives in Queen’s Park, because, despite being within spitting distance of where they met and spent their childhoods, it’s not NW proper.

But in the narrowness of its associations, NW takes on a symbolic aspect. Towards the end of the novel, Natalie attends a funeral and notices “Caldwell people, Brayton people, Kilburn people, Willesden people. Each marking a particular period. Surely she was no more than a narcissistic form of timepiece for them, too.” Places become periods. It’s not that Natalie’s time at Brayton, the grammar school that she and Leah went to, doesn’t properly exist, just that as she gets older, places have taken on exclusively temporal associations (whereas for Alex-Li Tandem, Times Square had turned itself in advance of his visit to a kind of postmodern thumbnail).

The novel is divided into five sections, each of which dramatises, along with questions about luck and fate and authenticity, the movement of time. To achieve her desired effects, Smith draws on conventions from all over and the use she makes of them is, if not necessarily counter-intuitive, then counter-traditional – successful in the face of precedent. In the opening section, “Visitation”, modernist staccato – associative and parsimonious and presenttense  (“She keeps to the shade. Redheaded”) – is used to evoke several months in Leah’s life; while the next section, “Guest”, which concerns Felix Cooper, a recovering drug addict trying to get back on track, takes the modernists’ favourite time-frame – a day-in-thelife – but opts for a classical steadiness, longerwinded but similarly well-suited to evoking a mind as it catches itself out:

Felix stepped into the second carriage from the end and looked at a Tube map like a tourist, taking a moment to convince himself of details no life-long Londoner should need to check: Kilburn to Baker Street (Jubilee); Baker Street to Oxford Street (Bakerloo). Other people trust themselves. A variation of the same instinct had his hand deep in his pocket clutching a piece of paper with a name on it.

NW is less a patchwork panorama than a refusal of panorama; at times, its title seems to be freighted with irony, or fringed with shadows, suggesting all the disparity and distance that can exist within a “community”, the elusiveness of what we think we know. The novel assumes the emphases of whoever it’s with, not trying to link them for the purposes of plot. For Leah, the spring and summer of 2010 are defined by the repercussions, mental more than practical, of her encounter with a stranger, Shar, who turns up at her doorstep with a proof of address, a hysterical story and a desperate plea for money. Shar is a persistent presence for the rest of the section, which ends on page 84, and then recedes from view for the rest of the novel. Similarly, Felix Cooper makes one appearance in Leah’s section, and only by name, and is then given 70 pages all to himself, during which neither Leah nor Natalie receive any mention at all.

In the opening encounter, Shar, who, it emerges, went to the same school as Leah, describes Natalie, whom she remembers vaguely, as a “coconut”. A-hundred-and-sixty pages on, the question of whether Natalie is a coconut becomes, not arbitrarily but not inevitably either, a central concern. We know that Leah, who grew up wealthier than Natalie (just before she leaves for university, her family moves to “practically Maida Vale”), feels contempt for Natalie (“done too good, maybe, to recall where she came from”). But our loyalty to Leah’s perspective, in which contentment is cleanly equated with material comfort, is complicated by Natalie’s almost opposite view of things, which is given equal shrift – without ever allowing herself to express a sense of entitlement, or to relinquish her sense of guilt, she argues that the world behaves according to the rule of a kind of justice. NWis poised between these two characters and so gives similar weight to empathy and toughness, lingering pity and brisk pragmatism; it’s a thumbed nose to the platitude stating that the only thing a writer should display is generosity, unstinted and preferably indiscriminate.

In the longest section, “Host”, the reader is taken through Natalie’s life-so-far in 185 numbered instalments, many of which come in at well under 140 characters. We go from primary school and secondary school in the mid-1980s, through university (“The volume of techno or whatever it was made conversation a chore”), Natalie’s success as a barrister, her marriage to the black, preppy Frank De Angelis, right up until the evening of Saturday 28 August 2010, the night before the Notting Hill Carnival and the day we earlier spent with Felix. The Natalie section is an attempt to evoke an individual trajectory, not teleologically, or through even forward movement but as construed by hindsight – not 20:20 but squinty, lopsided, making moments long and years short and lacking all sense of “proportion”. In her essay “Two Paths for the Novel” (reprinted as “Two Directions for the Novel” in a collection entitled Changing My Mind), Smith asked of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland: “Is this really what a self feels like? Is this Bricks and mortar: Zadie Smith in Kilburn, 2006 how memory works? Is this how time feels? Is this really Realism?” NW is Smith’s answer to her own call.

Public history is registered but not as a tickertape of news headlines: “Keisha Blake, Marcia Blake, Augustus Blake, Cheryl Blake and Jayden Blake gathered round the television to watch the white boys walk free from court, swinging punches at the photographers”; “Of course, Natalie was aware of the Bosnian conflict, but it would be fair to say that the war had not been uppermost in her mind”.

Class differences are pegged with a single exchange. “You read this?” Natalie asks Frank, of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. “I think he knew my grandmother in Paris,” he replies. Natalie’s relationship with Frank makes her feels more black, by contrast, rather than less black, by contamination; what Leah sees as dilution, she experiences as an opportunity for reassertion. Whole periods of adolescence and early adulthood are represented by a single party or encounter or paraphrased life lesson. Years are identified as, for example, “the year people began saying ‘literally’” (1999, by my calculation).

In the “Paths” essay, Smith describes a moment in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema when Slavoj Žižek directs “our attention to those cinematic masters of the anti-sublime (Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, David Lynch) who look into the eyes of the Other and see no self at all, only an unknowable absence, an abyss” – and Natalie is, if not quite in a Žižekian way, a character who feels less like a bottomless self than a Barbie doll: “Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag . . . when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic.” Even in the novel’s closing pages, Natalie finds herself unable to give Leah “an honest account of her own difficulties and ambivalences” (what Leah earlier thinks of as “inconsistencies” and “hypocrisies”): “Natalie Blake’s instinct for self-defence, for self-preservation, was simply too strong.”

But alongside all this delicate balancing of perspectives and priorities, there is a great deal of nudging and winking and coercion. Smith may never quite tell her readers what to think but she is not above directing their attention. Leah studied philosophy at university, so when two and a half hours under anaesthetic feels - like ten seconds, she is able to reflect that it came as “a greater revelation than the confusing lectures on consciousness, on Descartes, on Berkeley.” The numbered instalments in “Host” include “Speed”, “Time speeds up” (twice) and “Time slows down”. Elsewhere in the novel, we read, among countless examples: “Where did time go?”; “Where had the time gone?”; “the nasty way time has with human materials”; “She had been eight for a hundred years. She was thirty-four for seven minutes”; “How could Tonya be twenty-six? When had Tonya stopped being twelve?” The fetishising of subtlety has become a vice in itself – why shouldn’t the characters give a little thought
to a novelist’s themes? – but it might be fetishised a little more than this.

Smith tends to write from her own experience, but only ever in the third person and usually with an authorial purview less omniscient than know-it-all: part E M Forster, part Martin Amis. Forster’s inclination is to use his characters as a platform, while Amis simply talks over them, alerting the readers to nuances they didn’t understand, in terms they wouldn’t use. Forster never used the first person, which is hardly surprising, given his interpretation of the novel as something like a campfire sermon. Amis has used the first person only once in the past 20 years, the relinquishing of what might seem his natural mode coinciding with his adoption of a more stentorian, informative, apocalyptic voice. It’s not as if he ever bothered withholding his eloquence for the sake of plausibility but using any kind of dummy, however lazily ventriloquised, eventually proved too much of an effort, just a laborious way of communicating insight. Amis is a demagogue where Forster is a pedagogue but they are about equally far from fulfilling Flaubert’s demand that the novelist should be present everywhere and visible nowhere.

Smith has inherited from both writers an inability to let a detail lie still or be itself, which comes across in Forster as (usually wise) didacticism, in Amis as bullying and a lack of technique, and in Smith as sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes a fusion of the two. There are moments of circumspection and allocution and even direct address: “Reader: keep up!”; “Now watch Natalie recalibrate the conversation”. One of Natalie’s employers is identified as “R senb rg, Sl tt y & No ton” – then we’re told that “half its stencilled letters” had “peeled off”. Smith points out that characters use different terminology – “To Leah it was sitting room, to Natalie living room, to Marcia lounge”, “Some schools you ‘attended’. Brayton you ‘went’ to” – rather than allowing her dialogue to do the talking (as it were).

NW is full of moments that are at their most charming or amusing at just the moment that Smith starts bothering them. In much the same way that Forster wrote that Mrs Moore was less disappointed by India than Miss Quested because she knew that “Life never gives us what we want at the moment we consider it appropriate”, so Smith moves repeatedly from the particular to the homiletic, from scene to noun. Witnessing an incident on Willesden Lane, she is sure to “store the details for Michel” – “which is one of the things marriage means”. A memory of Keisha pronouncing the “t” and “s” in Albert Camus give ways to “such are the perils of autodidacticism”; a possible memory of one-pound notes allows the thought that “nostalgia is such a distorting force”. There isn’t a single occasion on which a detail wouldn’t have been better off without its chaser – if an editor’s blue pencil had put a strike through all of the phrases that are as good as underlined.

Smith has not exactly been reticent about declaring her debt to Forster and Amis, but while Forster is more often invoked as a  model, Amis has had the greater impact. In pursuit of what Forster called “a general truth”, Smith often ends up producing an Amis-like generalisation, not the wringing of something universal from an incident or encounter or passing thought but its flattening into something merely typical: “Michel exercises his little store of hard-won colloquialisms, treasure of any migrant.” She makes Amis-ish allusions to book titles and anthologised poems and well-known phrases (Natalie’s brother has “a room of his own” rather than “his own room”) as well as Amis-ish recourse to terms such as “a metaphorical figure”, “the pluperfect”, “Anglo-Saxon” (for swearing), “authorial omnipotence”,  “thematic coherence”. Walk-on characters give the writer a chance to shine: “One old man sat in the corner by the jukebox, in a shabby donkey jacket, with white paper skin and yellow hair and nails, rolling a cigarette – he looked like a cigarette.” Amis wouldn’t have settled for “shabby”, but that “looked” is practically an infringement of copyright.

Smith’s shortcomings as a writer mostly consist in her efforts to compensate for shortcomings she doesn’t have. At one point, Leah feels “the grandeur of experience” flattening into anecdote: “Nothing survives its telling.” At another, the Google Maps directions for a journey are followed by Leah’s impressions of the journey: not “Turn right at A5/Edgware Rd” but “Sweet stink of the hookah” and “I give you good price”. Felix feels that the Tube map fails to express his reality: “The centre was not ‘Oxford Circus’ but the bright lights of Kilburn High Road.” Life, these moments say, is less shapely than any definition or representation, but in telling us this so baldly Smith works to undermine all of the ways in which this novel is equal to the challenge of showing it – lightly, irreducibly.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer