I have long considered myself a fan of Zadie Smith, though she is not a writer I’d ever want to have a drink with. I have this strong feeling that she’s a bit of an arrogant bitch. It may very well be misplaced, but I’ve felt that way since before NW. That feeling, I believe it started after reading a Salon interview with Smith, hasn’t stopped me from devouring her novels like the gut-wrenching candies they are. White Teeth still stands strong on my list of all time favorites. Autograph Man, some markedly different from her first novel, was a specialness I’d like to see her revisit. On Beauty was essentially a retelling of White Teeth that shows how Smith had grown as a writer. And NW is along the same vein, though it shows not only the growth of a writer, but Smith’s physical aging as a woman.
Once upon a time, I read an African novel Nervous Conditions. The novel, and the title, explained that awkward existence of trying to maintain one’s culture while being “westernized.” While reading NW, I couldn’t shake the idea of it being a “nervous condition.” Smith’s novels are full of people suffering from this condition. The character of Natalie Blake is an excellent example: Nat is a black girl. A lawyer. A mother because that is what was expected of her. (The descriptions of her interactions with her two children show how disconnected she is from the idea of “mother.”) Nat has it all. But Nat is really Keisha, the second of three children. She changed her name when she decided to change her life. “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have,” is how Michell, Nat’s best friend’s husband, describes the name-change. Michell means it as a compliment; it’s something he admires in Nat and something he strives for in his life. He also is struggling with the “nervous condition” as an African trying to make it in England.
Nat’s best friend, Leah, has her own nervous condition. She’s white. In her 30s. Often times dead in the eyes. She never lived up to her potential. She smoked her way through school, constantly trying to reinvent herself, but never really succeeding. Parts of the novel are told from her POV and remind me of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Much like Nat, the pressure to have children is like an elephant on her tiny chest. Michell wants kids. Her coworkers constantly tell her “she’s next” and make her feel incomplete because she has not procreated. So they are “trying.” But trying for Leah means stealing Nat’s birth control and sneaking off for abortions when the pills are unsuccessful. She’s had three. Michell only knows of one. Leah and Michell are only able to communicate with their bodies. She is envious of Nat’s life, but even she doesn’t know that Nat frequents the Internet seeking threesomes. (The encounters she has are both comical and heartbreaking.)
The novel contains a cast of colorful characters, all broken in some ways. They either tried to get out of the life they’d been given (Nat and Leah) and they fall victim to it (Nathan.) The sections on Felix are fantastic. I’ve always thought Smith did well with men characters, and I wish there were more. I won’t tell you about Felix other than to say it involves an old car, a Rasta father, a whore, cocaine, and a knife.
Smith is still Smith. She has a way with words that can leave you gasping for breath. But her ending is shit. It would appear she didn’t know how to bring her story to a close, so she neatly packages up a reconciliation between Leah and Nat that involves them turning on someone they grew up with, someone whose life could have very well been theirs. The idea isn’t shit, the execution of it was.