Zadie Smith’s career has been a 15-year psychodrama. An advance of hundreds of thousands of pounds on a few dozen manuscript pages when she was still at Cambridge made her a celebrity before she was 25. I read White Teeth while working on the copy desk at Us Weekly; I remember having to check her birthday for a profile and thinking I’d already wasted my life. And she was more glamorous than most of the actresses in the rest of the issue. ‘A genre is hardening,’ James Wood wrote in his review in the New Republic, and suddenly Smith was the epigone of ‘hysterical realism’, the misbegotten progeny of Thomas Pynchon and Salman Rushdie. When he repeated the charge in the Guardian after the 11 September attacks, she responded that the term was ‘painfully accurate’, and mounted a defence of David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo, as if the prescriptive Englishman posed the already canonised Americans a grave threat. ‘We cannot be all the writers all the time,’ she wrote. ‘We can only be who we are … Writers do not write what they want, they write what they can. When I was 21 I wanted to write like Kafka. But, unfortunately for me, I wrote like a script editor for The Simpsons who’d briefly joined a religious cult and then discovered Foucault.’
But it turned out she could be some writers some of the time. Her second novel, The Autograph Man, suggested she’d been steeping in Bellow and Roth. To Wood, she still sounded too much like Wallace, and his review, in this paper, was harsh enough (‘disturbingly mutant’, he said of the way she wrote like a Yank) to prompt a group of American writers to start a magazine, the Believer, devoted to asserting the wonderfulness of all writers, and cleansing what its publisher called the ‘fragile literary ecosystem’ of toxic ‘snark’. (Its portfolio has since diversified.) ‘I think it was a mistake for James Wood to accept that assignment,’ Heidi Julavits, one of the editors, wrote in the first issue. ‘Smith must have really pissed off an editor at the LRB.’ Then Smith went to Harvard as a fellow; perhaps she could be both Bellow and F.O. Matthiessen. But being in America occasioned a retreat into Englishness: E.M. Forster was the guiding spirit of On Beauty, though it was largely set in the US. It won her the Orange Prize and got her many emails telling her she didn’t know how Americans speak. By this time she was writing essays in the New York Review of Books and soon a column in Harper’s. Was she the second coming of Elizabeth Hardwick, or a kinder, gentler James Wood? In ‘Two Paths for the Novel’, she looked at books by Joseph O’Neill and Tom McCarthy. Realism, it seemed, was on the run, and it turned out that novels in English could still be vehicles for avant-garde ideas. Why not try to be James Joyce?
A bit wobbly and lopsided by design, NW is a hotchpotch in five parts. The first two sections are medium-size and set in the summer of 2010, under a ‘fat sun’, when ‘everybody knows it shouldn’t be this hot.’ The book begins with a woman called Shar scamming a woman called Leah Hanwell out of £30, then in a sort of Joycean pastiche, follows Leah for the rest of the summer. The next section is a series of comic set-pieces tracking a man called Felix on the late summer day when he ends up being fatally stabbed in the street. Shar and the murderer, Nathan Bogle, happen to be in cahoots, and both of them went to secondary school with Leah. The third section – about twice as long as the first two, in 185 numbered chapters, some a few pages, some just a sentence, all with titles that joke, pun, allude or explain (a bit like the ‘Aeolus’ chapter in Ulysses) – traces the life of Leah’s best friend, from her childhood in the early 1980s, when she was called Keisha Blake, to the present, when she goes by the name Natalie, and leaves her about to stumble on the scene of the murder. The last two sections are brief codas: one tracks Natalie and Nathan on a walk from Willesden across Hampstead Heath to Hornsey Lane; in the final part Natalie visits Leah and they piece things together.
This is less a plot than a set of hooks on which Smith can hang her portrait of North-West London and sketches of characters from various points on the class spectrum. She’s interested in the way people become estranged from their homes even when they stay put: ‘The face is familiar. Leah has seen this face many times in these streets. A peculiarity of London villages: faces without names.’ But then again: ‘You live in the same place long enough, you get memory overlap.’ Layering is Smith’s technique here, and it has the odd effect of diminishing the elements that hold the stories together, as the scam, the murder, even the friendship of Leah and Keisha/Natalie are overwhelmed by the two things that unite the book: North-West London and an assorted but all-pervading set of class anxieties. ‘I just don’t understand why I have this life,’ Leah says. Why am I so middle class? she’s asking. Why am I not? others ask. They all have to wonder: why am I so fucked up?
Why have I been such a conventional writer? Smith seems to have been asking herself in the process of writing the novel. Her first move is to dip into the modernist toolkit. The initial section has a go at stream of consciousness narration. Quotation marks are left out and dialogue is marked by dashes. When Leah thinks of a cherry tree, her thoughts are set on the page in the shape of a cherry tree. When she looks at a colleague’s mouth, a ring of words, ‘tooth gold tooth tooth gap’, is laid out in an oval around the word ‘TONGUE’. Downloaded directions are included for one journey, and another chapter takes the form of a list of objects seen and words overheard on a walk. Four chapters numbered 37 detail Leah’s memory of a female lover who thought the number 37 was ‘magical’, brought to mind as Leah looks in the window of 37 Ridley Avenue (this on page 37); an abortion Leah had; the spooky monologue of a statue, Our Lady of Willesden, ‘the Black Madonna’; and a scene at a pharmacy, when Leah is given the wrong packet of photographs, one with pictures of Shar. Hard to tell the significance of that 37: a prime number; the normal human body temperature in Celsius; the number of plays attributed to Shakespeare; the number, according to Wikipedia, that most people pick when asked to name a random number between 0 and 100. In years, it’s two more than Leah’s age in the novel, and Smith turned 37 on 25 October 2012. In the second section Felix sees a picture of his father on page 37 of a book of photographs, and in the third section the chapter numbered 37 is omitted (185 = 37 x 5). The number 37 bus (at least fictionally) used to go from Kilburn to Camden. (The real, current 37 follows a South London route, between Putney Heath and Peckham.)
The number may also have something to do with Leah’s biological clock. Her husband Michel wants children, but she doesn’t. The couple met in Ibiza in ‘the Nineties, ecstatic decade!’ and their faded hedonism makes Leah nostalgic. Michel is West African via France, a hairdresser, and sees starting a family as his ‘destiny’ and ‘next achievement’. Leah still thinks of him mostly in terms of sex – he’s ‘more beautiful’ than she is – and tends not to listen when he talks about his ‘destiny’. She feels guilty when he talks about fertility clinics because she’s had an abortion and is secretly on the pill: ‘The truth is she had believed they would be naked in these sheets for ever and nothing would come to them ever, nothing but satisfaction.’ Leah is the daughter of an Irish woman and an Englishman, the child of a council estate she still lives in sight of: ‘from there to here, a journey longer than it looks’. ‘Here’ is a more comfortable flat, with a garden, where Leah sunbathes, listens to the Kinks, and plays with her dog (until the dog dies). She has a philosophy degree and a job as an administrator with the local council distributing lottery money to charities. Invitations to dinner parties compel her to compare her lifestyle to that of her old friend Natalie: lawyer, wife of a banker, owner of a Victorian house, mother of two. When Michel engages Natalie’s husband Frank in conversation about his attempts at investing online, it’s mildly embarrassing. Leah doesn’t covet the lifestyles of bankers and lawyers (except the way they can afford to be ‘moral’ by buying organic food); she spends more time fretting about why she’s better off than people like Shar and Nathan.
This is thin stuff, and it’s hard to tell whether Smith has kept Leah’s story simple, even clichéd, as a delivery device for her modernist repertoire, or if the repertoire has got the better of the characters. My hunch is the former. Still, the results are mixed. Leah’s dealings with Shar and Nathan, who knocks Michel down in a confrontation in the street, are overdone: why all the dwelling on the loss of £30? And anxieties about whether or not to have children: ‘What is the fear? It is something to do with death and time and age. Simply I am 18 in my mind I am 18 and if I do nothing if I stand still nothing will change I will be 18 always. For always. Time will stop. I’ll never die. Very banal, this fear.’ Indeed. It’s the other stuff – Leah walking the streets of Willesden and Kilburn – that prompts Smith’s more effective writing, while the word pictures of the cherry tree and the mouth, the busted syntax and all the 37s do the job of keeping things interesting.
Standard punctuation returns in the second section as Smith reverts to the comic realist mode of her three previous novels. The doomed Felix Cooper goes to Soho to buy a beat-up MG from a posh overgrown boy called Tom Mercer who says he works in ‘brand management’. Felix is 32 and an addict in recovery, newly enmeshed in a happy relationship (he’s buying the MG as a present for his girlfriend). Tom, who’s suffering a hangover, drags Felix into a pub – Felix orders a ginger beer – and their awkward conversation shows them both to be good-hearted fuck-ups; the difference is that 25-year-old Tom is insulated by wealth and education, and Felix is buoyed by the self-help mantras going through his head. Bumming a cigarette, Tom asks Felix if he can hook him up with anything stronger. ‘My girl thinks I’ve got an invisible tattoo on my forehead: PLEASE ASK ME FOR WEED.’ Felix has little trouble coming out on top when negotiating the price of the car. His next encounter is trickier. He goes to say goodbye to a casual lover called Annie, in her forties and also posh, a client of Felix’s when he was dealing drugs. He ends up on the roof with her. She’s spread out in a green bikini. He delivers her a prepared speech about how he’s been stuck on ‘a level with a lot of demons’, tells her that he’s ‘moving up in the game’ and that he knows she’s not willing to do the same:
‘Yes, yes, I’ve grasped the metaphor, you don’t have to keep repeating it.’ Annie lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply and exhaled it through her nose. ‘Life’s not a video game, Felix – there aren’t a certain number of points that send you to the next level. There isn’t actually any next level. The bad news is everybody dies at the end. Game over.’
The few clouds left in the sky were shunting towards Trafalgar. Felix looked up at them with what he hoped was a spiritual look upon his face. ‘Well, that’s your opinion, innit. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.’
‘Mine, Nietzsche’s, Sartre’s, a lot of people. Felix, darling, I appreciate you coming here for this “serious talk” and sharing your thoughts about God, but I’m quite bored of talking now and personally I’d really like to know: are we going to fuck today or not?’
They do. (The scene has had me wondering what’s going on up there whenever I’m in Soho.) But for Felix it turns out to be a lapse without consequences: a few pages later he’s lying dead on Albert Road. He’s been knifed for telling two men on the Tube to make room for a pregnant woman to sit down. The murder, like the earlier scam, is the one part of the section that’s overwrought. Otherwise the Soho set-pieces stand out as flourishes in a novel more streamlined than any of Smith’s previous work; a book like On Beauty, which piles one of these on top of another, is bloated by comparison.
The long Keisha/Natalie section follows. ‘There had been an event,’ it begins. ‘To speak of it required the pluperfect.’ The voice comes from the direction of the author herself (who else would start insisting on tenses?) – it’s close to the one Smith uses in her essays. (It’s the sort of voice you don’t hear much of in fiction after Nabokov, since writing teachers and book reviewers have turned into the point-of-view police.) The event in question is Leah’s rescue from drowning by Keisha, both aged four: ‘the foreshadowing,’ Smith writes, ‘was suspicious.’ Keisha shares some superficial biographical details with Smith: age and birthplace; a Jamaican mother; a rise from a council estate through university to worldly success; a name change (Zadie used to be Sadie). It makes some sense for the move into parallel (or parody) autobiographical territory – as with all those not-me Nabokov characters born in St Petersburg around 1900 – to be joined to a distancing, essayistic and ironic narration. The mini-chapters allow Smith to pass quickly through time while getting the main events across: Keisha gets a Walkman (borrowed), a vibrator (a birthday present from Leah and cause on its discovery of the pair’s parent-enforced separation), a boyfriend (parent-enforced), good exam results (and a university place), a decadent streak (and a taste for Ecstacy), a law degree (she becomes a barrister), a husband (half-Italian, half-Trinidadian, and posh), a high-paying job (after a low-paying one), a mortgage on a flat (then one on a house), a daughter (and 14 months later a son), a smartphone (and an internet addiction).
Smith weaves in references to pop culture throughout the section to mark the passage of time. Some of these are explicit references – to Culture Club; Kurt Cobain’s death; various rap groups, the iPad; the briefly popular website chatroulette.com, which allows users to video-chat with random people all over the world, many of whom tend to be exposing themselves – and some are lightly coded in summary fashion: ‘That night they went to the Swiss Cottage Odeon to see a film about a man dressed as a woman so that he could keep an eye on his children for reasons Keisha found herself too distracted to even begin to comprehend.’ The movie is Mrs Doubtfire; Friends, The Wire and Amy Winehouse get similar treatment. (It’s a little bit like Smith’s essay for the Sunday Telegraph, collected in Changing My Mind, in which she reported on the Oscars without mentioning any actors’ names.) All the pop stuff smacks a bit of Nick Hornby, if not Forrest Gump. But then again the modernists had no aversion to pop culture ephemera. As Hugh Kenner showed in A Sinking Island, we might not have had Ulysses without Tit-Bits.
The internet turns out to be Natalie’s undoing. She takes to visiting a website (it might be the one Leah tells her about during an instant-message chat, ‘www.adultswatchingadults.com’, which is fictional), where she compulsively posts and replies to others. She eventually takes to using it to join threesomes: ‘Everyone’s seeking a BF 18-35. Why? What do they think we can do?’ Significantly, she identifies herself online as Keisha, as if trying to recover a lost, more feral self. She goes to meet a couple on the Finchley Road but runs away when they turn out to be older than she expects. A couple in Camden only seem to want to smoke pot. At the home of an attractive and wealthy couple in Primrose Hill (the first place she ever lays eyes on an iPad, which is playing porn), she hides in the bath. Finally she has mechanical sex with one of two young men who summon her to Wembley. Her husband finds out by snooping on her computer, and she walks out and ends up on Albert Road, where she meets Nathan Bogle, with whom she has impulsive sex on Hampstead Heath. The episode strains credibility, but that’s true of anything a bit perverse either in fiction or real life. Why would Natalie go in for weird anonymous internet sex rather than, say, sleeping with some neighbour’s husband, like they did in the old days? ‘You’re difficult to understand,’ Leah tells Natalie. ‘You have your work. You have Frank. You’ve got all these friends. You’re getting to be so successful. You’re never lonely.’ The lines echo an earlier remark: ‘They thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalisation.’
The internet material is in NW for its up-to-dateness, but it has another purpose. Natalie’s questing is an attempt to recover a lost self: Keisha the compulsive teenage vibrator-user. What Smith has done in this book but couldn’t in her earlier books – because she was too young – is show characters of her own generation through the passage of time. NW is full of split selves, people alienated from the very things they thought defined them. Their nostalgia – for old movies, old songs, buses they don’t ride anymore – is less a salve than a form of pain. You can always listen to an old record, but you’ll never again be your old self. This is Smith’s grimmest novel, and may be her best. I do have a complaint about the book’s first page: in two summers in London I’ve never seen a sun I’d call fat or a day I’d call too hot. That bit sounds more like Brooklyn.