Every now and then, a poorer book will bring into focus rather vague thoughts about a better one. Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers is by no means a failure as a novel: its seaside setting in the fictional town of Hanmouth is simultaneously remote enough and contemporary enough to afford Hensher all the traditional pleasures of the English novel, such as class, sex, snobbery and sarcasm. On the other hand, it describes rather than exhibits the qualities of 21st-century England, and in this it is the ugly duckling to Zadie Smith’s intimidating swan, NW.
Hensher’s reader winds up a tad queasy that the abduction and sexual abuse of a young girl becomes one of the least developed of his many state-of-the-nation subplots. In Smith’s new novel, on the other hand, the shanking of a main character comes across simultaneously as a crescendo and an audacious, unheralded pulling of the rug. In Hensher, an over-powering emphasis on surveillance ironises the fact that all the CCTV and Neighbourhood Watching cannot pierce the darkest heart in Hanmouth; in NW, there is little clumsy pretence that a single narrative can be applied to human experience – and yet deeper truths than talking points from the Indie on Sunday make themselves known. It’s not that Hensher cannot write, but that Smith has written the novel of her career.
This is not necessarily because Smith has structured NW more ambitiously and more diversely than her other novels, although she has; it’s not that, in her revival of modernism, she does more than ventriloquise or satirise, as Will Self did in his oddly more noted novel of 2012, Umbrella; it’s not even that NW is a slimmer, snarlier beast than her previous, sometimes soft-middled, efforts. What raises NW so high is the utterly convincing way it inhabits the contemporary idiom. Here, for instance, is a monologue from Michel, the French Nigerian husband of Leah, a point of view character in the novel’s first, most high modernist, of four sections:
– which I’ve always believed. Look: you know what is the true difference between these people and me? They don’t want to move forward, they don’t want to have nothing better than this. But I’m always moving forward, always thinking of the next thing. People back home, they don’t get me at all. I’m too advanced for them. So when they try to contact me, I don’t let this – I don’t let drama in my life like that. No way! I’ve worked too hard. I love you too much, this life. You are what you do. This is how it is. I’m always thinking: is this me? What I’m doing? Is this really me? [pg. 25]
There is such life and vibrancy in Smith’s prose that it can at times be hard to keep up. Her novel sings with the jostling vitality of its two-mile stretch of London, to which Leah, a second-generation Irish immigrant, “is as faithful in her allegiance […] as other people are to their families, or their countries” [pg. 5]. When she and Michel visit her childhood friend, Natalie, Leah reflects that everything in this successful barrister’s home “is full and meaningful” [pg. 57], but here her prejudices show: in NW, everything is full and meaningful, to the extent that anything is. Indeed, in the novel’s third and largest part, Natalie becomes the viewpoint character, and in 184 numbered passages reveals herself to feel more keenly than anyone in the novel the hollowness of contemporary life.
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. While buying a samosa in the filthy shop inside Chancery Lane Station (one remnant of her upbringing was a willingness to buy food from anyone, anywhere) Natalie Blake once again checked the listings. By this point she was checking them two or three times a day, though still as a voyeur, without making a concrete contribution. [pg. 225]
The listings Natalie checks as she reflects on the impossibly fleeting substance of modern experience are those of a site linking swingers with other like-minded sex-seekers. As one might expect, to fill the void at the heart of her gentrified life (Natalie’s name was once Keisha, but as she rose through the social ranks she changed more than mere appellation), she soon ceases to be a mere voyeur. If anything, this is the weakest element of Smith’s book – Natalie’s crisis feels deliberate and authorly unlike anything else in NW – and Natalie comes to function as a figure in a story. Like Hensher’s own structural sleight of hand, however, this has a point: “all Natalie’s storytelling,” we are told, had as its aim “making the future safe” [pg. 213]; that is, Natalie is beginning to tell stories about herself in order to see a way through a multiplicity of contradictory selves – “Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag.” [pg. 245] – to a future which might, improbably, make sense.
Early in their courtship, Natalie’s husband – and now the father of her child – takes Natalie to “Marylebone. London doesn’t begin and end on the Kilburn High Road.” [pg. 192] She asks to be taken back, but he insists on staying, arguing that it is at times good to be uncertain. What he forces her to do, however, is adopt uncertainty as a way of life – and this seems to be the fate of anyone with the temerity to leave behind the constricting shapes and patterns of their inheritance. In the novel’s most entertaining, and perhaps most successful, part, Smith follows Felix, a no-longer-quite-young man embedded in the Kilburn of Leah and Natalie’s youth, but who through his current and previous work has connections with many well outside it. In one of the novel’s best scenes, his aristocratic sometime squeeze and erstwhile addict wails, “I’ve got more balls than are dreamt of in your philosophy. I was engaged at nineteen, I was engaged at twenty-three, I could be mouldering in some Hampshire pile at this very moment, covering and re-covering sofas with some baron in perfect sexless harmony. That’s what my people do […] but you can count me the fuck out!” [pg. 141] Instead, she lives a centreless, rootless existence in a bedsit slowly peeling off its own walls.
Outside of his context, Felix is routinely misinterpreted by others – “People thought he was on the verge of hitting someone when he was only nervous, or slightly annoyed” [pg. 130] – and the difficulty of truly knowing the other (to which we are all nevertheless encouraged to be attracted) is endemic in NW. Natalie, for example, “could not believe that she – Natalie – could ever be spoken about in the way she – Natalie – spoke about others” [pg. 201]; Leah, meanwhile, now “sees ten-year-olds and cannot believe they have inside them what she had inside her at the same age” [pg. 40]. Not only is the other unknowable – it will always let us down, be somehow less vivid to us than ourselves. All this rather mocks Michel’s constant focus on moving forward, instead positing that what we desire – that what we can accrue as we leave behind our pasts and communities in search of the elusive extra that is our right – will never be enough. “Desire is never final,” we read almost at the novel’s start, “desire is imprecise and impractical” [pg. 36]. By this rubric, the nostalgia for NW is the desire for lost desires.
“It must be comforting being able to divide the world in two like that,” sneers Natalie’s husband when Leah tries to oppose her poor to his rich [pg. 53]. But NW also shows us that, though each of us is a little like Natalie, divided and unrepresentative, we are also forever saddled with the traces of where we came from: whatever nonsense the aristocrat in her bedsit spouts, “her accent worked a spell” [pg. 125]; whatever education the barrister from the estates can gain, upon seeing her cousin on Harlesden High Street she will always experience “the same feelings of insecurity and inadequacy Tonya had compelled in her when they were children” [pg. 213]. Smith excels at sketching social change – “the Nigerians wily, owning those things in Kilburn that once were Irish” [pg. 15] – and yet simultaneously she shows the strength of the past’s vengeful pull, on Londoners and on London. It’s a dizzying balancing act, and it is all achieved through gloriously demotic language.
On the other hand, a reader of this review might spot the absence of a plot summary – Smith offers no real unifying narrative. The same reader might wonder where the fourth of the novel’s sections might feature in this review – and the answer is that the curiously enervated epilogue seems to end a muscular novel on a whimper. And, finally, it might be asked to what end Smith makes all this noise, whether, if unlike Hensher she avoids the grand gesture, there are any modest words of wisdom spared for her bruised characters. There are these, spoken by Natalie to Leah about an acquaintance of theirs, a small-time hoodlum who never made it out: “People like Bogle – they didn’t want it enough. I’m sorry if you find that answer ugly, Lee, but it’s the truth. This is one of the things you learn in a courtroom: people generally get what they deserve.” [pg. 293] We must allow for Natalie’s unforgiving, solipsistic character; but in the absence of a countervailing voice this is a drearily deterministic note on which to end so vital a novel.
NW is not, then, a work without fault. On the other hand, Smith is nothing but honest with her readers. When they crack the spine on this quite dazzlingly realised, serious, contemporary, and innovative novel, they will read on the thirteenth page Leah’s reflection on story: “the grandeur of experience threatens to flatten into the conventional, into anecdote. Nothing survives its telling.” NW is audacious indeed.