Review: Zadie Smith’s novel ‘NW’ explores black upward mobility

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Zadie Smith, NW

Author Zadie Smith and the cover of her new novel, NW. (Photo of Zadie Smith by Henry S. Dziekan III/Getty Images)

NW, the latest literary contribution from Zadie Smith – the critically acclaimed author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man, and On Beauty – does not quake with theatrical plot twists or crackle with the suspense of a mystery or adventure, but it achieves a slow burn that captures the small disappointments, encumbrances, betrayals, and self-deceptions that make up the utter “dailyness” of tragedy.

Tracing the lives of Leah, Natalie (formerly known as Keisha), Felix, and Nathan from their working class roots in the council estate (or public housing) of Caldwell in London, to their divergent individual struggles to become “adults”, or whatever it is we mean by that, Smith renders the idea of personal identity in the cacophonous, commercial and consumerist world in which we live, a frail and exposed thing.

The novel opens with Leah, duped into giving money to a former schoolmate who is now crack addicted and one part of a money making scheme where young women knock on the doors of residents claiming to need money for transportation to visit a sick relative in the emergency room. This scene establishes the stark contrasts the novel is based on. While not a crack addict, Leah’s life hasn’t turned out the way she’d hoped (a realization all of the characters face). Smart, generous of spirit and sensitive, she wonders where it all went wrong, and why she hasn’t achieved the level of success of her 30 something counterparts, namely Natalie (a successful lawyer and Leah’s best childhood friend) and her handsome and well-bred husband, Frank.

Leah still lives in a council estate, working at a government agency that provides various forms of public assistance to the working class of London. Her lover, Michel, an ambitious, if somewhat naive, black Frenchmen unabashedly seeks the social mobility he believes the right of anyone in a city like London willing to work for it (here is the naïve part), and dreams of having a child with Leah and moving their lives “forward,” a direction about which the novel is unerringly suspicious and critical, and that Leah herself rejects in body and spirit.

Michel finds a counterfeit model in Natalie and her husband Frank, who seem to have it all: a large beautiful home of their own, children, money, and success. What he doesn’t know is that Frank and Natalie’s marriage is mechanic, relying almost entirely on the routine of child rearing and the material rewards of their work-life imbalance, binding them in conventionality and an empty bourgeois bliss. Natalie, who changes her name from Keisha as a teenager in an act of assimilation (and in an attempt to author her own destiny?) struggles with her own identity as a black woman in a white dominated profession, her mother’s insistence on not giving the white masses a “reason” to question her success or belonging constantly nipping at her Christian Loubouton-clad heels.

Added to this mix of lost people and their incoherent strivings are Nathan – a young black man; well liked, clever, and charismatic as a child – who is reduced by a society that does not nurture men of his background to a drug addled and haunted man (and perhaps a murderer?), and Felix, similarly adrift, moving through life from one occupation to another, yet always, somehow, on the fringe of fortunes well protected skirts.

In NW, Smith, through her adept character studies, digs deep into the unstable societal and cultural constructs upon which people build their dreams, recreating – with streaming dialogue, thoughts, advertisements, and pop song lyrics – the thick cultural static that permeates contemporary urban life. At the center of this brew is the constantly nagging question “who am I?” This existential exercise is most poignant in Natalie’s case. Always a good student with a voracious appetite for information, Natalie (Keisha) quickly realizes that she wants more than what her working class neighborhood, and her god-fearing and miserly mother have to offer. But, as she climbs the ladder of success she is time and again asked to confront whether she is fulfilling her own destiny or if she is merely a shadow in a larger pantomime; are her goals and achievements her own or really the byproducts of a well cultivated idea of who and what she “should” be, borrowed from film, literature, and capitalist culture or worst still, is she a “special case” patronized by a self-congratulating social elite?

Smith’s writing is precise, and the insights of the omniscient narrator slice like a hot blade, echoing at times, structurally – with an emphasis on big themes and even bigger Truths -  the likes of Henry James and other late 19th and early 20th century novelists, including some of the more experimental and enigmatic rhythms of Joyce. Story telling from this perspective in Smith’s hands often feels both rare and fresh, if at other times a little heavy handed.

In addition to the big questions about racial and class identity that Smith skillfully surfaces, she also delves into notions of gender identity, and more interestingly the idea of gender as performance. In one scene Michel gets into a scuffle with another man in the neighborhood and after Leah intervenes, and the two men walk away from the fight, the narrator poignantly observes, “In this way the two men part…playing with the idea that they are not finished…It is only more make-believe: the presence of the woman has released them form their obligation.” Rendering gender yet another dimension of identity that can be put on and taken off like a costume, it appears that “all the world is [indeed] a stage,” and that we are all implicated in the dysfunctional performance of contemporary life.

Smith carefully excavates our contemporary culture, most of the characters operating on a flimsy idea of what it is to be an adult, what it is to be happy, what it is to be beautiful, and what it is to be successful that has be gleaned from pop culture and mass consumerism. While Smith’s style may not be to everyone’s taste – her occasional use of stream-of-consciousness sometimes alienating, nonetheless, perfectly suited to the sketching of lives formed out of regurgitated mass culture – NW is worth reading. Smith’s writing, smart and deep, aspires to those works of art that do not simply describe the things people do, but insists we examine why we do them.

Chase Quinn is a freelance writer, art critic, and budding novelist, who has worked with several leading human rights organizations in the U.S. and the UK, promoting social and economic justice. Follow Chase on Twitter at @chasequinn.