Anomie in the UK
Zadie Smith’s enthralling NW gives us a profound portrait of a society in which the ties that bind have loosened to a disturbing degree.
NW, the fourth novel by one of Britain’s brightest literary talents, Zadie Smith, opens with a visitation loaded with unease and danger. Redheaded thirtysomething Leah Hanwell opens the door to find a dishevelled and distressed woman requesting her help. The stranger, later known as Shar, has unknowingly hit on the right door bell. Leah, it seems, will help anyone out. She has a firm allegiance to a two-mile-square area of north-west London and the people who inhabit it, flaws, foibles and all.
That burst of local pride so early on is an obvious reflection of 37-year-old Smith’s own enthusiasm for the local area. After living and lecturing in America, Smith has hit headlines over here for campaigning to prevent the closure of a local library in Neasden. She also turned up in London Time Out magazine working as a roving reporter in Willesden and doing street interviews with residents. NW itself is north-west London, though the narrative concentrates largely on Willesden and Kilburn with occasional geographical meanderings over to Archway and Hornsey over in ‘N’, or north, London.
NW is split into three sections, as if they were already three novellas simply pierced together as a book-bound compilation. Although not as sure-footed as her previous On Beauty, and lacking the bolt-from-the-blue freshness of her debut White Teeth, in post-riots London NW is timely and necessary. It explores that all-pervasive sense of disorientation which engulfs many people’s lives in twenty-first-century London. It is an insightful novel in places, identifying corrosive trends which we haven’t fully understood, let alone resolved.
The main character in the first section is the aforementioned Leah Hanwell. She’s in her mid-30s, from an Irish background, and was brought up on a rough council estate, which she still lives close to. Leah has a philosophy degree but works in a mundane office with Afro-Caribbean women who resent the fact that her husband, Michel, is a dependable, good-looking black man who belongs to ‘their community’. The first section details Leah and Michel’s courtship, marriage and inner romantic lives exceptionally well. A string of bouncing phrases captures well the rhythms of their marriage, their hopes and their fears. And it is through Smith’s expression of this inner world that their worries ‘out there’ are teased out and shared.
Still, section one is rather an acquired taste. It is brittle and bitty, stopping and starting fitfully in stream-of-consciousness mode. The characters’ dialogue also comes without speech marks, which adds to the confusion. There is a cute design quirk whereby Leah’s wandering thoughts are presented on one page in the shape of a tree and an ignored monologue from Michel continues on the next page. Yet it all adds up to a sense that you are waiting for the book to start properly.
Given that this echoes the predicament of the main protagonists, who are also waiting for their lives to start properly, perhaps Smith does frame the entire book more neatly than it first appears. Michel, who experiences an ugly altercation with a young hoodlum, is keen to start a family and move out of Kilburn altogether. Leah, though, doesn’t want children. Neither of them is committed to finding an agreeable path from their mid-30s to their early 40s. Smith shows that as they wait for their lives to start properly, they, like many of their peers, could end up watching life happen from the sidelines.
In NW’s first section, the people are noticeably bound together by ties from the past, not the present or the future. By the start of the more conventional second section, we become aware of just how cut loose each character is. They have no binding relationships to once formidable but now dead institutions in British society, be it the church, trade unions, the Labour Party, pubs or just some sort of common culture. And this is where NW is at its strongest, as a study in all-pervading anomie, an unnerving portrait of absent social solidarities. Consequently, day-to-day interactions in NW are shown as tricky to negotiate, and even harder to understand.
In the opening scene, for instance, Leah seems half complicit in being conned by drug addict Shar. The act of doing good is an opportunity to provide some meaning and order in a life singularly lacking in both. Leah’s good intentions appear as a form of retro-solidarity which, despite the fact that Leah half-knew she would be conned out of £30, provides an opportunity to affirm the existence of civilised boundaries. All too often in NW, though, the codes of civilised life come up against the retrograde codes of New Britain: aggressive narcissism, self-esteem issues and an unearned demand for ‘respect’. There are three scenes in NW which, in a non-melodramatic or sensationalist way, highlight a crisis of intergenerational dialogue and adult solidarity. A Rastafarian youth worker, for instance, struggles to deal with youths refusing to curb their anti-social behaviour near a primary-school playground. His biggest surprise is the refusal by other adults to help keep such incivilities in check.
Section two, ‘Guest’, is based around likeable ex-drug addict, Felix Cooper. A friend of old radical lefties and black nationalist ‘brothers’, Felix’s world is not as anchorless, in terms of values and ideas, as Leah’s and Michel’s. The fixed political certainties of the Cold War era articulated by his friends provide shape to a more conventionally structured section. Nevertheless, for Felix the personal is, in his words, ‘eternal’, but also more distracting and exacting than he’d like it to be. He visits his reluctant lover Annie in Soho, the only relatively posh character in the book. Felix is frustrated by Annie’s rather matter-of-fact cynicism towards intimacy and relationships. He wants to take their relationship ‘to the next level’, as he fears that too many people ‘can spend their whole lives just dwelling’. Annie fires out contemptuous retorts that relationships are ‘mealy-mouthed, pathetic’; they are what people embark on ‘when they can’t think of anything else to do!’. It seems even Felix’s attachment to radical certainties provides little protection against Annie’s atomistic cynicism towards intimacy. Felix leaves Annie feeling as disorientated and out of joint as Leah and Michel do about their lives.
The final section is taken up with Leah’s friend Keisha/Natalie. Again, Smith superficially uses a bitty structure, this time augmented by an upwards counting system like subheadings in a style magazine. Initially, this section seems contrived, but it gradually becomes clear that Smith is mapping important changes in British society through a lovely and warm portrayal of lifelong friendships. She is attempting to show how and why British society became so rudderless and empty. For all the strange distance from her characters, this the most satisfying segment in NW.
Natalie and Leah are working-class girls drawn to philosophical ideas and a clear-eyed aspiration for a better life. Growing up at the turn of the 1990s, they are connected to wider political ideas and, in Natalie’s case, her local Pentecostal church where she meets earnest wannabe theologian, Rodney Banks. They all do well at school, attend university and embrace a liberal education just as it is being shot down by relativism. Apparently, Natalie drops religion to embrace politics, books and cinema at the same time as middle-class students dropped politics, books and cinema. In a fine dig at instrumentalism within English education, Natalie is told later that she’s an ‘inspiration’ to working-class black girls in Willesden to attend university. But it is to study tourism and hospitality, not English and philosophy, that is the preferred post-school route. Good observations such as that one – as well as a sly dig at US cop show The Wire – are enough in themselves to make NW a recommended purchase with your Xmas book tokens.
But any novel as ambitious as NW will have cracks. The preoccupation with struggling couples or completely defeated individuals resembles the more pitying terrain of a Ken Loach or Mike Leigh script (just when Leigh is abandoning those clichés). The middle-class dinner-party scene in section one appears to ridicule grown-up aspirations, presenting them as a betrayal of authenticity. (How did something as conventional as having guests round for dinner become suspiciously exotic?) Likewise, the portrayal of Annie as a trustfund slummer is a cardboard creation lacking Smith’s usual nuance and conviction. Although she gets the inflated hurts of the street robbers and hoodlums just about right, Smith doesn’t do enough to probe the pernicious influences of therapeutic norms on contemporary society. Perhaps betraying her years living in America, there’s often little sense of what has replaced Old Britain values and institutions. What has really eroded intergenerational socialisation? Why has narcissism become so ingrained?
Smith’s strike rate here, then, is uneven, but she remains on firm ground. NW avoids the automated, one-dimensional characters of John Lanchester’s Capital or the offensive and dumb pseudo-satire of Martin Amis’ Lionel Asbo: State of England. Smith provides convincing snapshots of a city that isn’t as cocky or confident as it was in the 1990s, or even in Smith’s own White Teeth. There’s a more subdued and pensive mood to Smith’s writing here, which helps her explore the characters’ angst and unease. NW takes many detours, but its acute map-reading of contemporary moral uncertainties ensures a consistently enthralling journey.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.
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