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Reader: Keep Up!

The identity crisis of Zadie Smith.

By Zadie Smith
(Penguin Press, 401 pp., $26.95)

In college, Zadie Smith began to lose her voice. When she “went up” to Cambridge—the British use a phrase suggesting ascension for enrollment at university—from the working-class neighborhood in northwest London where she grew up, she picked up a new way of speaking, “along with the unabridged Clarissa and a taste for port.” At first, she recalls, she used the two voices interchangeably: “at home, during the holidays, I spoke with my old voice, and in the old voice seemed to feel and speak things that I couldn’t express in college, and vice versa.” But the doubleness could not persist. At some point, the new voice hounded out the old, to her continuing regret. “I should have kept both voices alive in my mouth,” Smith says.

How hard it must be to speak with two voices at once! The idea of two voices in one mouth is almost viscerally discomfiting, with its suggestion of the physical and mental contortions that might be required. Yet if Smith once struggled with polyglottism, her fiction—itself multivocal—reveals no such tension. With each of her four novels, she has tried on a different literary voice. The madcap exuberance of White Teeth befitted a writer who had come of age immersed in both Dickens’s social realism and Rushdie’s merry hybridity. Not content to “rest on her laurens” (as a character in the new novel likes to say), for The Autograph Man she re-invented herself, far less successfully, as an imitator of Dave Eggers, substituting gimmick for character and shtick for comedy. And in On Beauty she veered back to give us an expansive social novel squarely in the English tradition—so squarely, in fact, that much of it is an extended riff on Howards End.

Whatever the opposite of the anxiety of influence is, Smith has got it. To be sure, she is always trying to distinguish herself from her precursor even as she imitates him. Perhaps there is no other way for a writer; but still Smith is too much the diligent student, the grateful epigone. The reader longs for a rebellion of some sort into herself.

Yet if all these course-changes and about-faces induce whiplash, it is not entirely Smith’s fault. For the path of her first three novels traces in microcosm the currents of literary fiction over the last hundred years. We started with good old-fashioned realism: the capacious nineteenth-century-style narrative, the size of a doorstop and just as dependable, an overstuffed suitcase leaking minor characters and throwaway details. Then the pendulum swung to what we have come uncomfortably to call postmodernism, a seed quietly planted by Woolf and Joyce that grew into a tree with many branches, from the slender cerebrality of Clarice Lispector and Georges Perec to the giant knobby bulges of Pynchon and DeLillo. But too much of the fruit plucked from that tree was not fully ripe; and what those novels lacked in warmth they only rarely made up for in intelligence. It was time to replant the garden, but how?

By beginning at the beginning. What is the novel for? What did it do for us in the past, and what has it done for us lately? These are the most important questions confronting literary fiction, and they are no less relevant today than they have ever been. Is the novel meant to soothe and console us during a lazy afternoon in an armchair, as Smith has suggested of Forster’s work? Or should it be an axe to break the ice within us, as Kafka—perhaps Smith’s most admired model—believed? Smith spent much of the seven-year break between On Beauty and NW wrestling with these questions, in criticism published in these pages and elsewhere, much of it collected in a book of essays called Changing My Mind. As the title suggests, Smith has no qualms about publicly re-evaluating her previous conceptions. Not for her the hobgoblin of small minds. And her struggle has been immensely interesting to watch. But until now she gave no clue where she might go next. If the pendulum has swung back from postmodernism, it has done so only partly, and we do not yet know exactly where it will come to rest.

Changing My Mind culminates with a previously unpublished essay about David Foster Wallace, whom Smith says had been her “favorite living writer” and whose work she analyzes with tenderness and admiration. The piece opens with an approving quotation from one of his interviews: “I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” (Neither Smith nor Wallace acknowledges this line’s strong resemblance to the old adage about journalism, but never mind.) Later she has this to say about Wallace’s method:

The ends of great fiction do not change, much. But the means do. A hundred years earlier, another great American writer, Henry James, wanted his readers “finely aware so as to become richly responsible.” His syntactically tortuous sentences, like Wallace’s, are intended to make you aware, to break the rhythm that excludes thinking. Wallace was from that same tradition—but, a hundred years on, the ante had been raised. In 1999, it felt harder to be alive and conscious than ever.

NW is Smith’s answer to the question of how to break the rhythm. It is a novel about identity crisis, and it is a novel with an identity crisis. It has the requisite amount of syntactic and structural tortuousness, although its moments of difficulty are never gratuitous, as one sometimes had the sense with Wallace. One of its characters is as fine and complicated a creation as any in Smith’s previous work. But for all its stylistic range, it is a peculiarly limited book: curiously soulless, finally more thought-provoking than moving. One needs to have what to think about in a novel, obviously; but there must be a reward in feeling, too. Is it so hard for those two voices, the mind and the heart, to speak at once? How can a great novel be written without them both, even if together they speak inharmoniously?

The first paragraph of NW seems calculated to frighten away any innocent readers who might have stumbled unknowingly into its pages:

The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.

Compare the friendly opening to On Beauty, which started with a nearly verbatim quotation from Howards End—“One may as well begin with Jerome’s emails to his father”—and went on to mimic, much too programmatically, that novel’s epistolary introduction, and more. NW, by contrast, with its almost Joycean stream-of-consciousness, marked by fragmented turns of phrase and omitted verbs, immediately announces its purpose. There is no disingenuously casual “may as well begin” here. “Reader: keep up!” Smith will exhort later in the book. She is not fluffing up the cushions on Forster’s armchair; she is brandishing Kafka’s axe.

The redhead is Leah Hanwell, and within the first few pages she experiences two potentially life-changing events. One, she has a positive pregnancy test, described with this novel’s characteristic blink-and-you-might-miss-it obliqueness: “Blue cross on a white stick, clear, definitive.” Two, a surprise visitor arrives at her door: a weeping woman her own age whom she vaguely recalls from her school days. They both live only a few blocks from the housing project where Leah grew up: “From there to here, a journey longer than it looks.” The woman, hysterical, says that her mother has had a heart attack, and she needs money to get to the hospital. Leah calls her a cab and gives her thirty pounds. The woman promises to pay her back.

In other words, Leah is your typical white middle-class Englishwoman, hounded by liberal guilt. She works at an organization that gives out grants to charities. She suffers the angst of contemporary shopping at a “chain supermarket ... though it closed down the local grocer and pays slave wages, with new bags though they should take old bags, leaving with broccoli from Kenya and tomatoes from Chile and unfair coffee and sugary crap and the wrong newspaper.” Her husband, Michel, an African by way of Marseilles, is impatient with her platitudes; he is a striver, interested mainly in his own advancement. “Not everyone can be invited to the party. Not this century. Cruel opinion—she doesn’t share it. In marriage not everything is shared.” In this marriage, it turns out, not much is shared. Michel fervently desires a child; Leah secretly aborts her pregnancy and begins taking birth control pills. Over the next few weeks, the two of them have a string of increasingly charged encounters with the woman who showed up at the door. In the end, naturally, there will be violence, with an unexpected target.

There is promising material here that Smith, in her old capacious-novel days, might once have mined deeply. But NW, for all its thematic richness, sacrifices its characters to its style. White Teeth and On Beauty sometimes seemed almost embarrassed by their own lushness of detail, in which even secondary characters were anointed with signature epithets and idiosyncrasies. But little love is lavished on this pair. And neither Leah nor Michel ever fully makes sense. Other than their “unusual, acute attraction,” described quite distinctively—“They had sex before either knew the other’s surname. They had anal sex before they had vaginal sex.”—little explanation is offered for how these two people wound up together, or how the drastic fissure in their marriage came to exist. It becomes apparent, slowly, that Leah is bisexual—but then why did she marry in the first place? One comes to suspect that Leah functions not so much as a character in her own right but as a sort of exercise barre on which the novelist is warming up.

“I want this life and another,” Leah mourns at one point. But for the characters in this novel, it is as impossible to live two lives as it is to speak with two voices in a single mouth. In her two-voices speech, Smith gestured, with tongue slightly in cheek, at the “horror of the middling spot,” the place in between two worlds occupied by “the mulatto ... the transsexual ... the contemporary immigrant” (here we might add also the bisexual): “tragically split, we are sure, between worlds, ideas, cultures, voices—whatever will become of them? Something’s got to give—one voice must be sacrificed for the other. What is double must be made singular.” That credo-like last line—the truth of which is not at all obvious: why must two necessarily be collapsed into one?—could be the epigraph of NW, in which the double, over and over, succumbs to the force of the singular, with predictably tragic results. Keisha, Leah’s childhood best friend, reflects on another girl they went to school with, who failed at university: “She had been asked to pass the entirety of herself through a hole that would accept only part.”

If Leah wants one life and then another, Keisha—who is the novel’s reason for being and its only fully realized character, dominating its longest and most substantial section—wants one life instead of another. Her re-invention extends as deep as her name: at university she will change it to the racially neutral Natalie. She and Leah grew up together in the Caldwell housing project, where they became best friends, intrigued by their differences rather than repelled. Many scenes from their early life have a nicely observed comedy: unaccustomed to talk radio, Keisha wonders why the DJ on the station the Hanwells listen to is always “between tracks.” But in high school Leah starts to drift, smoking pot and hanging out with a group of club kids, while Keisha remains an ever-vigilant student, wanting nothing more than to go to college and break out of NW. She has internalized her mother’s injunction that she must perform twice as well as any white student, “just to break even.”

Keisha dreams of achievement not only for its own sake, but for the visionary equality she hopes it will bring about. “I will be a lawyer and you will be a doctor and he will be a teacher and she will be a banker and we will be artists and they will be soldiers, and I will be the first black woman and you will be the first Arab and she will be the first Chinese and everyone will be friends, everyone will understand each other.” But the sense that she is a “forgery,” that she is making up her life as she goes along, continues to nag at her. She marries Frank De Angelis, the privileged son of an Italian aristocrat and a Trinidadian train guard, who loafs through law school confused and indolent: “He didn’t even know how to be the thing he was.” As her life moves further and further up the ladder of class and wealth—well-compensated career, lavish apartment, children, nanny—she starts to lurk, and then not only to lurk, on the sort of “casual encounter” website where people advertise in search of trysts, in what can only be an attempt to sabotage her gains. She uses the e-mail moniker “KeishaNW,” a concession that the past is inescapable.

“I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me”: Leah hears this line on the radio and writes it down, feeling that it might be true, or close to true. Natalie, however, will always feel defined by other people’s perceptions and attitudes. As an observer of the million tiny manifestations of racism and class bias that mark daily interaction, Smith is without peer. Another black lawyer at the posh firm where Natalie gets her first job, a woman with “an accent not found in nature—somewhere between the Queen and the speaking clock,” advises her to “avoid ghetto work.” She ends up leaving for a legal aid firm with letters peeling off the sign and shabby furnishings, which the clients find reassuring: “if you worked here it could only be for the love of the law.” After giving birth, she notices a dramatic difference in child-rearing attitudes among her acquaintances: “Caldwell people felt everything would be fine as long as you didn’t actually throw the child down the stairs. Non-Caldwell people felt nothing would be fine unless everything was done perfectly and even then there was no guarantee.” These observations are tonally perfect, conveyed with simultaneous sympathy and detachment.

At the novel’s conclusion, Leah wonders why some people are condemned to remain among the unprivileged while others can escape. “Why that girl and not us. Why that poor bastard on Albert Road.” “We worked harder,” Natalie tells her. “We were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on other people’s doorsteps.” But the novel argues strenuously against her logic. The “poor bastard on Albert Road” is the subject of its subplot, another former Caldwell resident whose stabbing is tenuously linked to both Leah and Natalie. The crime is entirely random. It has nothing to do with the man as a person or the life choices that he made—it is simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Natalie’s witnessing of it is not at all random. Everything that happened to her over the course of the novel conspired to bring her to that street corner at that moment. You can believe that things happen to you because you work hard or otherwise strive to bring them about, but at the same time your steps can be leading you to a destination of which you are unaware.

In an essay about Kafka published in these pages, Smith expressed skepticism about what David Foster Wallace once called “the central Kafka joke—that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey towards home is in fact our home.” She comments sardonically that “such an awfully rigorous joke loses much of its humor in the telling.... The laughs get even thinner when we try to employ ‘Kafka’s joke’ for our own aesthetic practice or as a way to comprehend our daily lives.” Yet this is precisely what Smith is doing in her new novel. Her characters’ endless and impossible journey toward establishing their identity turns out to be their identity. And the same may be true of Smith as a writer.

A few years later, Smith investigated Kafka’s interest in identity more explicitly:

Kafka’s Jewishness was a kind of dream, whose authentic moment was located always in the nostalgic past. His survey of the insectile situation of young Jews in Inner Bohemia can hardly be improved upon: “With their posterior legs they were still glued to their father’s Jewishness, and with their waving anterior legs they found no new ground.”

Alienation from oneself, the conflicted assimilation of migrants, losing one place without gaining another.... This feels like Kafka in the genuine clothes of an existential prophet, Kafka in his twenty-first-century aspect (if we are to assume, as with Shakespeare, that every new century will bring a Kafka close to our own concerns). For there is a sense in which Kafka’s Jewish question (“What have I in common with Jews?”) has become everybody’s question, Jewish alienation the template for all our doubts. What is Muslimness? What is femaleness? What is Polishness? What is Englishness? These days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us. We’re all insects, all Ungeziefer, now.

Kafka’s lines are cruel. It is an ugly image: the Mitteleuropäisch Jew flailing around with his legs in the air, unable to set them down on firm ground. (Certainly a lot more could have been said about the Central European Jew.) But if this is the condition of Smith’s characters—she leaves little doubt that it must have been in the back of her mind while she was writing this book—it is also the condition of her novel. It, too, is an exile in search of a home, its posterior legs glued to realism, and its anterior legs waving helplessly in the air.

The identity crisis of NW is evident in the novel’s form. The book consists of three major sections, followed by a short two-part coda. The first—Leah’s section— is broken into brief, elliptical chapters, always in Leah’s voice, many of them stream-of-consciousness. The second comes closest to a conventional narrative: we follow Felix Cooper, the “poor bastard” whose stabbing Leah has already heard about on television, through the last day of his life, as he visits his father in Caldwell, attempts to do a business deal, and ends a relationship. The language is smooth, the chronology is linear, the perspective is Felix’s: no funny stuff.

Keisha/Natalie’s section, the third, is the most radical. It is divided into 185 short vignettes—some more than a page long, others only a sentence. These have cool, literary, ironic titles: the one in which Keisha discovers talk radio is called “Speak, radio”; the one in which she tries out a vibrator Leah has given her is called “Rabbit, run.” The effect, naturally, is fragmentary. We are piecing together the story of Keisha’s life, not at all unlike the way she perceives herself to be piecing together her own identity out of disparate fragments.

We get it! The form reflects the content. Theorists have for a long time been telling us that literature is supposed to work that way. The story of a fragmented existence must be told in fragments. But there is something that feels a little too pat about it, too literal, too tidy about its untidiness. Were all literary characters prior to the twentieth century coherent and whole? Of course not. But their fragmentation—from the madness of Raskolnikov to the striving of Lily Bart—was expressed in the standard style of the time. Perhaps fragmentation is merely the standard style of our time. More likely, we have no standard style any longer, and our novelists are simply making it all up as they go along.

Then there is the question of who narrates these fragmentary passages. Sometimes we hear Keisha’s voice—indeed, both of her voices. But there is another narrator, too, a superego who hovers above the action offering commentary. Here is this voice on Keisha’s experience with the “rabbit”: “She had the dildo for only a couple of weeks but in that time used it regularly, sometimes as much as several times a day, often without washing in between, and always in this business-like way, as if delegating a task to somebody else.” Keisha is not making that observation, nor does she observe of her own mother and Mrs. Hanwell that “neither woman was in any sense a member of the bourgeoisie but neither did they consider themselves solidly of the working class either,” nor is it she who urges in the midst of a particularly complicated paragraph, “Reader: keep up!”

This, like the faux formality of some of the section titles (“Pause for an abstract idea”) or the occasional references to Keisha as “our heroine,” is a parody of the omniscient nineteenth-century narrator, who only occasionally poked her head over the fictional wall to offer a comment on the events within (“Reader, I married him”). But this narrator is stingy with her omniscience. She speaks in a coyly elliptical style, often neglecting to provide antecedents for pronouns in the assumption that we know what she is talking about. Many times, of course, we do. Here, in its entirety, is a section titled “Nirvana”:

Leah would surely be in her room, clutching his picture, weeping. Keisha found it difficult to suppress a feeling of pleasure at this imagined scenario. Then, in the middle of the news report, Marcia said something incredible, quoting a doctor at the clinic as a source, and the next morning Keisha went directly to the library to investigate. She was infuriated to find that statistically speaking Marcia’s boast was correct: our people hardly ever do that.

Readers of a certain generation will require only the section title to discern that the subject of this passage is the suicide of Kurt Cobain. The narrative takes for granted that we will be able to figure it out, since the information is necessary to understand the twist at the end of the paragraph: “our people hardly ever do that.” But do what? Commit suicide in general, or with a gun? And who are “our people”—all blacks, or all Caribbean immigrants living in Britain? It is a little too vague, too mannered. Still, we know more or less what is being talked about, or at least we think we do.

This method is repeated over and over; it is the novel’s dominant stylistic tic. At one point Natalie and Frank’s acquaintances are “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.” A pair of young men Natalie meets online introduce her to a website “like roulette.... You click and a human being appears, in real time. Click again. Click again.” The point of leaving out the proper nouns, it seems, is to force us to provide the context ourselves, from our own experience; in this way we admit our complicity in the society that it describes. We, too, know people who have dinner parties where “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. Pass the buttered carrots.” If we are honest, perhaps we will admit that we are those people.

The problem with this method is that it becomes, through overuse, quickly degraded. To do it several times is effective, but over a dozen is not. This is equally true of some of the verbal gimmicks that pervade this section. The novel repeatedly gets down in the muck of the degraded discourse: the language of advertising (“Let me show you round this advert for myself,” Natalie thinks as she displays her new luxury apartment), of television, of clichés that mask thought. “I have it for work.” “It was as if no-one had ever had a baby before, in human history. And everybody said precisely this, it was the new thing to say.” “That was the year people began saying ‘literally.’” “It was the year everyone was saying that such and such a person was ‘their rock.’” The language is emptied out of meaning, its idioms petrified into cliché almost as soon as they are spoken. It is also stunningly self-conscious, even self-congratulatory.

Smith’s language here is reminiscent of another contemporary novel that she has judged, preposterously, as “one of the great English novels of the past ten years,” and to which she obliquely pays homage in NW as one of her latest influences. The novel is Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, and the gist of it is this: a man has experienced an accident in which his entire memory was erased and as a result of which he receives a large settlement. He uses his riches to hire a series of “re-enactors” to stage moments from everyday life so that he can replay them over and over, which is the only way he is able to feel “authentic.” He reconstructs an entire apartment building based on a fleeting memory, with a woman continuously frying liver in the apartment below him and a pianist practicing above; he re-enacts an apparently minor errand of replacing a flat tire; and finally he stages a bank robbery. What he seeks is an illusion of normalcy, but he can bring it about only through increasingly elaborate means. And his concern is only with the details and the process; there is no interiority. To preserve the illusion, everything must be “seamless and perfect.” A single false note—in one instance, the parts of an escalator lying where they do not belong—is enough to send the whole thing “out of kilter.”

Remainder, in other words, is a fairly obvious parody of the realist novel. Smith invokes it in an essay that contrasts it to a more conventional work, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, in order to argue that realism is essentially dead. The kind of lyrical realism that O’Neill practices, she claims, is too perfectly done, “so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis.” Remainder, by contrast, offers a route to a new kind of novel by shaking the form “out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the deadwood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.” She calls this “constructive deconstruction.”

But it is entirely unclear what is constructive about Remainder. The book, in fact, seems to be predicated upon a fundamental mistake: the assumption that logistics—who goes where and when and how—is the most important element of realism. This is the same mistake made by so many elementary-level novelists who get hung up on the details: they spend a half-page propelling a character through every step required to get out the door. Smith is excited that Remainder pays attention to an aspect of the novel that normally goes undiscussed—the mechanism that constantly whirrs behind the curtain. But this is what great writers must always do and have always done: they are on the lookout for the gaps in literary history, the taboos of yesterday that remain unexplored. It can be done without tricks and games.

Whatever the cleverness of its conceit, it is impossible to avoid noticing that Remainder does not fulfill the first requirement of the novel. Once its schema is laid out, in its first fifty pages or so, there is no pleasure in reading it—not intellectual, not sensual, not emotional. The language is parodically plain. The narrator is a man literally without his own feelings or thoughts, so there is no psychological depth. It is possible to admire the book, but impossible to love it. This is what Smith believes to be the future?

The ends of great fiction do not change—cannot change—much. And Smith may still let her pendulum swing again, back toward the direction where White Teeth and On Beauty, two genuinely remarkable novels, beckon. But the latter of those lacked the intangible boost that might have catapulted it into greatness. What was missing, one now realizes, was the same thing that is missing from NW: the recognition that fiction cannot be written according to any particular program. A novel must be willing to discard its own preconceptions—structural, historical, thematic, stylistic— so as to encompass the untidiness of life itself.

A rich life, like a rich novel, is lived in many different modes, on many different levels. The double need not, should not, cannot be always made singular. Human existence is never that coherent; nor should a serious representation of human existence be so. Perfect authorial control is an illusion, or a trap, because it denies the truth of disorder. And so a rich novel is a messy novel—not messy in the chaos of its carefully composed vignettes, but in its fearless and perhaps foolhardy attempt to capture the entirety of life, the whole excess of it, by any means possible: the good and the evil, the linear and the fragmented, the emotion and the intellect.

Two voices in one mouth need not be cacophony; they can also be polyphony. But if they are cacophony, so what? If they are the voice of the mind and the voice of the heart, they must, in one way or another, coexist. Perhaps Smith will next attempt to join the voices, and prefer the dissonance to the blueprint, in her endless and endlessly interesting journey toward an identity as a writer.

Ruth Franklin is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 4, 2012 issue of the magazine.