“A Journey Longer Than It Looks”: Zadie Smith’s “NW”


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.


The Booker Shortlist 2012

In considering this year’s Booker shortlist, we should get the obvious out of the way first: Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies is head and shoulders above its competitors. Not only that: it is a better novel than Wolf Hall, which of course won the prize in 2009. These twin killer facts might suggest it is a shoe-in for the gong this evening, but it will surely be difficult for the panel to reward Mantel for two consecutive books when there is also a third on the way. It would risk turning Mantel into the China Miéville of the Booker, and this seems inimical to the prize’s vision of itself.

As one might intuit from this photo taken last night at the Booker’s event on the South Bank, many fancy Will Self to pip Mantel to the post. Umbrella, however, is a wrecking-ball of a novel, demolishing as it goes not just the cosy complacencies of the literary novel but also itself. Self’s suggestion that modernism retains currency feels confected and unconvincing, offering us in a weird kind of way the shock merely of the old. In the wake of Umbrella, I’ve been re-reading John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses, since Self seems to reserve special ire for it (“a curiously patrician form of pro-populism”): Carey may well cherry-pick his case, but what he demonstrates beyond doubt is that modernism proceeded out of its own milieu, not some Romantic eternalised present. Umbrella reads like radical nostalgia.

My thesis is, then, that Self and Mantel will frame this afternoon’s discussion between the Booker judges – but act as alienating poles between which a compromise will need to be found. On one level, almost any of the four remaining books could fit that bill: with the possible exception of Swimming Home (which nevertheless John Mullan was inexplicably enthusiastic about on telly last week), each has something to recommend it. Narcopolis, if bloated and over-stylised, is regardless the closest this shortlist gets to a fresh kind of literary experiment, whilst The Garden of Evening Mists, though overly po-faced and in some need of an edit, in many ways comes closest to Mantel’s brand of narrative interest. It seems to me, however, that one book more than the others is best placed to slip through the Symplegades of Self and Mantel.

The Lighthouse is a small but perfectly formed novel without baggage and with a high level of literary accomplishment. If, as a first novel, it is not as ambitious as either of the shortlist’s big names, it is certainly more successful in its aims, and on its own terms, than any of the books except Mantel’s. If we assume, then, that Mantel cannot win – and that she and Self will divide the panel into warring houses – then the moment may be Alison Moore’s. Compromise candidate or no, The Lighthouse would be a deserving winner – and its victory an exciting prospect for small press publishers.

ETA: I am in the event really very pleased that the judges went for the best book, regardless of the politics. They should be commended, as should Mantel. Bravo!

“It’s Progress That’s The Real Delusion”: Will Self’s “Umbrella”

In an interview with the Edinburgh Festivals published last year, Will Self huffed and puffed: “I hate umbrellas. I’m just the right height to get poked in the eye. I’ve never had an umbrella. Hate them.” It’s impossible not to remember this line, perhaps muttered off the cuff to an ill-prepared journo during an artificial recreation of Self’s famed tramps through the capital (or, dear reader, perhaps not), when reading his new book. In part, this is because it is entitled Umbrella. On the other hand, it’s because Umbrella is a novel that likes to poke the reader in the eye.

Ostensibly the story of Audrey Death, a twenty-something suffragette who at the dawn of the First World War goes to work in a munitions factory whilst her two brothers – the earthy science fiction-reading Stanley, sent to the trenches, and Albert, the eidetic civil servant managing the war from home – undergo two wildly different fates, Umbrella in fact takes place over three time periods: 1917, 1971 (when Audrey is Sacksishly awoken by Self’s recurring psychiatrist, Zack Busner, from an encephalitic sleep, having “borne the brunt of every successive wave of psychiatric opinion” [pg. 120]), and 2010, with Busner looking back on Audrey and the twentieth century with confusion and trepidation. In book blurb, interview and essay alike, Self has helpfully glossed this novel of Death’s century (geddit?) as taking up “the challenge of Modernism”, and the novel is indeed told in the kind of chapterless, paragraphless, tractionless mode invented by James Joyce.

Now, look: if I am not quite of the Dale Peck school of thought on the matter of Ulysses (“it all went wrong with Joyce”), I am certainly not convinced that modernism is the best means of representing consciousness – and certainly sceptical that it is the only way of unravelling “new and unsettling truths about our world”. We have, pace the Booker shortlist’s omission of Nicola Barker’s The Yips, moved on. All of this may mean I am not the ideal reader to assess the success of such a project, but Self is himself no Luddite, and so it is difficult not on one level to understand Umbrella as a kind of joke played on the literati, and upon the reader: “it was always, he thought, the fucking Irish”, Stan muses ruefully [pg. 150].  On the other hand, Joyce is not the only Modernist (even if Umbrella occasionally reads as if he is), and in particular the radical humanity of Woolf still has something to teach the modern novel. Self’s horror at the mechanised anonymity of the 20th century (“how can anything be beautiful or noble or romantic when it’s [all] the same?” [pg. 50] despairs Audrey, later reflecting that “impersonal tenderness and scientific concern” are “how she imagines the future for womankind [pg. 107]) is a potent encomium for the thwarted human spirit:

This, Zack had thought, is the whole of the twentieth century thus far: a white sheet thrown over our heady hopes, our disturbed dreams, our fleshly desires – with no sense of smell we touch only plush skin, rub it in, gargle the mucal ice cream deep in our throats, but without pleasure … This is our crisis of fixed regard: the zeppelin crashes to the cold earth again and again, a cathedral of rumpled buttresses, flaming arches, burning beams. [pg. 321]

But, but, but. The zeppelin, that canvas stretched over arching struts, is the umbrella (that nasty bit of extraneous technology) writ large, and Self has teased that his novel, too, shares this construction: beams of narrative proceeding, spoke-like, out of a central event; but a zeppelin also, of course, resembles the umbrella not at all – and Self’s novel, not coincidentally, reads for the most part as entirely without structure. Take the italics in that paragraph above: Jon Day has made a decent stab in the LRB at divining their purpose, suggesting they represent the characters’ consciousness breaking through the more general narrative voice; but in truth, whether snippets of song lyrics or great spurtings of over-written insistence (all that mucal ice cream), they come almost at random, adding little except texture to the page. There are awful lapses in this book’s prose – “the sun was out, still puissant enough to raise will-o’-the-wisps from the flowery meadows they clopped beside” [pg. 151], and “the caged bird fluttercheeps” [pg. 65] – which simply are not mitigated by a design only hinted at.

Perhaps this is deliberate. At Balham station, Stanley observes a fellow soldier: “Willis is snoring fitfully – he is an engine with no traction on the present, no means of drawing it into the future” [pg. 153]. This mechanical paralysis (evoked, in this interpretation of the novel-as-trick, by the pastiche idiom) is a recurring theme: in her encephalitic sleep, and like all her other fellow patients mistakenly locked away in an insane asylum, Audrey obsessively repeats a motion bewildering to her doctors but clear to the reader as the movements she learned by rote in the munitions factory; “repetitive actions sustained equally repetitive reveries,” we are told [pg. 164], and Umbrella‘s conception of modernity essentially comes to be one of obsessive compulsiveness, endlessly repeating the same mechanical rhythms without significant progress or change (again we come to doubt if Self really believes all this guff about reviving high modernism). Inspired by pulp SF, Stanley promises Audrey that “in twenty years’ time everyone will be an aeronaunt, Colonel Cody will perfect his war kite and there’ll be gazzetted aeroplane connectin’ all the cities of the Empire” [pg. 62] – in fact, of course, we are still waiting for our future. For Self, our fates are more properly set by our past (“a time bomb was primed in the future and planted in the past” [pg. 14]), and by our eternal present  (“Each era … new and old blended … the utterly familiar paintjob slapped on” [pg. 242]).

Self’s justification for this vision, and thus for his Joycean expression of it, however, is slim – in 1918, we glimpse “an advertisement for Germolene so large its letters loop across the end wall of an entire four-storey block” [pg. 59], and in 2010 we experience the realisation that “the post-encephalitics’ akinesia and festination had been the stop/start, the on/off, the 0/1, of a two-step with technology” [pg. 395]. Of course, Self’s novel – full of mid-sentence shifts in time (“he awakens to find himself an old man” [pg. 29]) and orthographic accents to make Thomas Hardy blush (“Or-dree, Or-dree, Ordee’s mammy gorrersel knocked up by a navvy!” [pg. 25]) – has a defense against this scepticism: it accuses the reader of Not Getting It. “Mind, Busner suspects, cannot possibly assimilate all this confusion – repels it in fact.” [pg. 376]   This from a novel so comfortable with cliché – “y’know Corporal,” opines a soldier at the front to Stanley, “that Frenchie and me, we were regulars, we’d seen war but it was war with hard blows and straight dealings – now we both knew, as we looked upon that curtain of fire, that everything had changed” [pg. 227] – that it just comes out and admits it: “simply because they were truisms, it didn’t mean they weren’t … true.” [pg. 396]   Sam Leith, a usually wise counsel, is intimidated enough to argue that Umbrella exhibits “an ambition of technique that I haven’t seen in him before”, but Self is surely just pulling our chain.

Which is fine, so far as it goes: Umbrella is in large part a satire, particularly of psychiatry and psychiatrists, which, like literature itself, offer such insufficient explanations for our modern condition (the post-modern here being banished). “They are possessed, he thinks,” we read of Busner’s diagnosis of the encephalitics, “by ancient subpersonalities, the neural building-blocks of the psyche” [pg. 13]; but this sort of erstaz, textbook Freudianism, “employing vocabulary purged of any upsetting words” [pg. 5], is insufficient to its task. (When Audrey awakes, she is left repeatedly to switch the lights on and off, squawking, “It’s magic! […] I do honestly believe it to be magic!” Busner sees this as a success. [pg. 300]) In short, banality may be part of Self’s project. But the novel lapses too regularly. Is the slickness of “Albert picks up the tankard from the table where he’d placed it among a slew of his tools: metal rulers, propelling pencils, slide rules, dividers … Audrey thinks: She hasn’t got the measure of him” [pg. 353] really, truly an evocation of modernism? Isn’t the jolly wit of “he wheezes wordy notes – he has swallowed the consumptive’s harmonium” [pg. 65] more Johnson than Joyce? And isn’t the following simply fluff, frankly unable to add meaning or metre to what is a staid old evocation of the English class system?

As it is, while Albert’s coat may be comme il faut for the Second Division – well cut by a tailor in Swallow Street – the cuffs of his trousers are a long way off on the rug, and fraying, something probably seen plainly enough by the grandees who peer down from the library walls with soon-to-be-cashiered eyes. The grandees lean on marmoreal pillars, ignoring open tomes and laughing their Harrovian laughs, A-ho-ho! A-ho-ho! at the upstart. [pg 111]

Really, this is too much: it’s the sort of pseudishness that might attract a Booker panel looking to burnish its high literary credentials, but it is also a great upwelling of verbiage designed to disguise – or, if Self is playing an elaborate joke on us, draw attention to – thin material. In his essay on modernism for the Guardian, Self has derided the contemporary novel, suggesting it is “as fusty as Victorian drawing rooms cluttered with over-stuffed furniture, and glass domes beneath which once-fluttering thoughts had been imprisoned”. He might be right; but retreating into a century-old mode of writing and pretending that style alone can enliven the same old content – the War, the mechanical, class and gender – is no solution, either. If Umbrella is a joke – on the reader, on the literati, on the novel – it is an unfunny and bathetic one; if it is meant as a serious repositioning of literature, it is misconceived. Self was probably right to avoid umbrellas.


A few months ago, I read in the Telegraph a review of a book called Aerotropolis. Written by Greg Lindsay, the management strategist and academic John Kasarda also appears on the book’s cover as co-author. This is because Aerotropolis is essentially a work of evangelism, Lindsay’s paen to what he sees as Kasarda’s revolutionary vision of a world gathered around cities which in turn gather around, and in fact revolve around, their airports. Leo Hollis, of the Telegraph, unsurprisingly has some time for the thesis:

John Kasarda has been promoting the idea of a new kind of city for the past 20 years, observing that as the world enters the information age, we travel more, not less, to do business – we now jump on aeroplanes to travel around the world the same way that our forebears took the train. This is having a huge impact on how our cities work.

He is also, however, rather sceptical of how holistic the vision might be: he dismisses the idea that George Clooney’s character from Up In The Air, who exists almost entirely between places, flying around the US merely to lay off the unfortunate ground-bound unwashed, could ever be a role model. He also compares Kasarda’s vision to that of JG Ballard. “By comparison with London Airport, London itself seems hopelessly antiquated,” Ballard wrote for the Observer in 1997.

All this is by way of introduction to Will Self’s characteristically lurid review of Aerotropolis for the LRB. He, too, can’t resist the science fictional aspect of Kasarda’s thesis:

I have called Aerotropolis a scientific romance because like some of the futuristic fiction of the 19th century it predicates social improvement on technological advance. […] A century later, Greg Lindsay has just about managed to match Wells by writing a sort of feelgood sequel to The Sleeper Awakes. With its vast cities interlinked by air transport and its kineto-telephoto-graphs lubricating our appetites, Aerotropolis is a classic example of the Fin de Siècle  scientific romance in its utopian guise.

Self, of course, has much less time for Kasarda’s thesis than a person writing for the Telegraph must have (“My response to this Xanadu,” he writes of a walk across the edges of Dubai, “was to stop flying altogether”).  He cites the form of the scientific romance – he namechecks Forster, Bellamy, Morris and early Star Trek in addition to Wells – because, as science fiction has itself, we have largely abandoned its assumptions and desires. After reading his review, however, one is left wanting to read Aerotropolis less and Matthew Beaumont’s Utopia Ltd: Ideologies of Social Dreaming in England 1870-1900 rather more.


guardian-logoAs Martin has already said over on Everything Is Nice, the Guardian’s Weekend magazine has had a makeover.  His Saturday ritual is very similar to ours – we spend much of ours sequestered with The Guardian, usually with Dan reading the news and review sections, and Anna claiming much of everything else.

Anna was very pleased to see the Weekend makeover, mainly because it saw Lucy Mangan lose her deeply annoying column on the page following Tim Dowling’s (and doesn’t he look older in the new photo?). Alas, we soon realised that Mangan has simply been moved over to the agony aunt column, which naturally Anna then read. Dan, meanwhile, got deeply depressed by the news section, particularly Ian Jack’s column about how Britain will be rubbish in the future (but not quite as rubbish as India). Then Will Self rambled a bit about W.G. Sebold.

Saturday was rounded off with us both discovering the Landmark Trust via the Travel section. Possibly this was the best thing about Saturday’s paper. That and, as again Martin pointed out, all the new white space in the mag.