1NW (2012) is Zadie Smith’s fourth novel after White Teeth (2000), The Autograph Man (2002) and On Beauty (2005). Back in 2000, Smith was hailed as the symbol of multicultural, multiracial London and her first novel constituted an important landmark in British literature, in the same way as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children had inaugurated a new type of writing in 1984 in both Indian and British literary productions. White Teeth also holds a central place in what has been called “London Black British writing”, together with Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia (1990) and Black Album (1995), but also Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003) and Andrea Levi’s Small Island (2004). Talking to an American audience in Philadelphia, Smith jokingly described herself as “an English writer of third-person comic fiction, a scribbler of epic narratives populated by a colourful crowd of zany characters battling with a range of cultural issues, all speaking in the ponderous dialects of a world far removed from your own” (2001).
2The multicultural dimension is a central and persistent characteristic in Smith’s four novels, and although her writing should not be reduced to that unique perspective, NW continues to feature multiracial communities in London. Other recurrent themes and concerns in her work can also be observed in NW such as the issue of social class, the sense of place (here again, North West London), as well as questions of identity, authenticity and self-invention. Smith pays close attention to varying her narrative techniques and strives to ensure a faithful transcription of dialogue and local slang, an aspect that particularly impressed her in Zola Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which she read at the age of fourteen (Smith 2009b, 5). Finally, Smith develops a whole array of modes and strategies that are partly indebted to realist, modernist and postmodernist practices, and she mixes literary references with items of popular culture.
- 1 This is also his son Millat’s wish when he has to go from Willesden to Trafalgar Square (503).
3Bearing that diversity in mind, I propose to examine Smith’s fourth novel through the notion of crossings (the title of the fourth part), which can primarily be viewed as connections between characters, a Forsterian concept that is also related to the ethical gesture of reaching out towards the Other or else the failure of that Levinasean face-to-face. In addition, crossings are to be understood as geographical journeys across London (a physical crisscrossing) as well as movements up the social scale (crossing over to the other side), and weavings between various literary traditions and lineages, as well as between high and popular culture. Taking into account Smith’s previous work but also the context of contemporary British literature, I would like to determine to what extent NW, its characters, its structure and narrative modes partly follow Samad Iqbal’s prescription in White Teeth: “Just keep on walking in a straight line” (152),1 and partly abide by Salman Rushdie’s injunction which forms the title of his collection of essays Step Across This Line (2002). To do so, I will draw from David Lodge’s metaphor of the crossroads (when he wondered which directions the novelist of the second half of the twentieth century could take), as well as from Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of lines of “segmentarity” or lines of flight, along which individual and collective lives are ordered or fractured.
4I will start by placing NW in a literary context, paying attention to the literary and narrative paths Smith takes in order to assess whether she carries on following the lines traced by her elders or is venturing into new territory. I will then deal with the concept of crossing as suggesting encounters (or lives crossing) and see to what extent characters in NW meet but also fail to meet, and what it suggests about the ethical stance of the novel. A brief look at the geographical lines drawn in the city of London by the characters’ trajectories, will be revealing of the social mapping of the metropolis and will provide an opportunity to focus on the main issues of race and class, which still form the basis of Smith’s writing. This will lead to a consideration of the central issue of identity as one is often defined according to racial and social class lines, grids that sometimes prove too restrictive to characters who opt for self-invention.
5More than forty years after David Lodge’s seminal essay, “The Novelist at the Crossroads” (1969) and two decades after its follow-up in 1990, “The Novelist today, still at the Crossroads?”, the metaphor suggesting the variety of formal directions a novelist can take is still valid in the second decade of the twenty-first century. In an essay entitled “Two Directions for the Novel”, Smith uses the metaphor of roads and crossroads to refer to novel-writing: “All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us down this road the true future of the Novel lies” (2009b, 73). She adds: “In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene”, but she argues that our times are not particularly healthy. As a consequence, “[a] breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked” (73). What Smith has in mind when using the expression “lyrical realism” is the type of nineteenth-century realism of such very different writers as Balzac and Flaubert, Jane Austen and George Eliot. She describes it as a “literary form in long-term crisis” that has been subjected to the “theoretical assaults” of modernism, deconstruction, phenomenology and the Nouveau Roman, but has outlived them and relegated “American metafiction” to “a safe corner of literary history, to be studied in postmodernity modules, and dismissed […] as a fascinating failure” (74). Another route exists however, a “skewed side road” where Smith greets Georges Perec, Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard and David Forster Wallace, an alternative road that takes the conventions of the novel apart, a “constructive deconstruction” which does not “kill the novel stone dead” but shakes it “out of its present complacency” (94).
6When considering the main road of lyrical realism, Smith wonders whether this is “really the closest model we have to our condition” (74) and if it can still “blithely continue on its merry road” (81). Her impatience with that road could be related to the “novel-nausea” with which writers such as J.M. Coetzee, the US novelist-essayist David Shields and Smith herself have been afflicted. This nausea concerns what Coetzee calls the “well-made novel” with its conventional plot, its sentimental and bourgeois characters and its bad theatrical backdrops (in Smith 2009a). “Yes – oh dear, yes – the novel tells a story”, lamented E. M. Forster in 1927 (27), and Coetzee and Shields echo him eighty years later, arguing that the imaginative novel should be replaced by “the coolly superior, aphoristic essay” (Smith 2009a). Smith herself admits she has been writing essays out of that same “novel-nausea” or narrative scepticism encapsulated in Kafka’s catchphrase: “But then? No then” (in Smith 2009a). Seven years elapsed between her third and fourth novel during which she became more of an essayist and less of a fiction writer. In her comeback as a novelist with NW, what new lines is she drawing for herself and for what she calls “the future [of] the Anglophone Novel” (Smith 2009b, 72)? Is she taking the road of lyrical realism, the imaginative novel and the well-made novel, or the skewed side road of constructive deconstruction?
- 2 Hanwell was already the name of a character in two of Smith’s short stories — “Hanwell in Hell” (20 (...)
- 3 In this paper, the character will be referred to as Keisha when dealing with her as a child and tee (...)
7NW is divided into five sections, each focusing on characters whose lives sometimes cross, and each written in a specific narrative mode and literary tradition. All of the four main characters come from the same fictional district of North West London, Caldwell: Leah Hanwell2 and Keisha Blake — who renames herself Natalie while at university3 — are childhood friends who attended the same school as Nathan Bogle, now a homeless junkie, who will murder the former drug addict and alcoholic Felix Cooper whom none of the others knows.
- 4 Smith conducted a long interview with Ian McEwan in the spring of 2005 and is very familiar with hi (...)
8While the first part (“visitation”) focusing on Leah from April to August 2010 is mainly written in a stream-of-consciousness technique familiar to readers of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, the second part (“guest”) is a more conventional third-person narration, an analepsis during which we follow Felix’s wanderings in London over the course of one day, August 27th, 2010, at the end of which he is killed. This technique of a one-day narrative bears obvious echoes of Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway but also of Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005). The third part (“host”) devoted to Keisha/Natalie’s life from her childhood in the late 1970s and 1980s to August 27th, 2010, is divided into 185 short numbered and titled sections, the fragments maybe reflecting the fragmentation of her identity and typical of a more postmodernist vein — or more simply, acting as the parts of the “scaffolding” that Smith says she needs to hold her novels up (2009b, 105). The fourth part (“crossing”) takes place on the same day, after the murder, as Nathan and Natalie are crisscrossing North West London together and taking drugs, Nathan hiding from the police, Natalie having momentarily lost control of her life. The last part and coda (“visitation”) is a short, fairly conventional narrative that takes place two days after the murder and ends with Natalie and Leah phoning the police to denounce Nathan. Natalie’s last words — “I got something to tell you” (294) — strangely echo the title of Hanif Kureishi’s novel Something to Tell You (2008). In addition, NW as the chronicle of a death foretold (that of Felix, announced in part one) is filled with a sense of doom not alien to some of McEwan’s novels, and the last pages in which Natalie falls into a panic as she fears her children have disappeared in a supermarket (288-289) resonates with eerie echoes of McEwan’s The Child in Time (1987).4
9This brief overview of the novel suggests that Smith does not seem to be suffering from Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence and she readily admits in an essay that her “writing desk is covered in open novels” whenever she is writing one of her own. She thus lives up to Forster’s “literary echo chamber”, “in which writers speak so helpfully to one another, across time and space” (2009b, 103), and like Keats, she says she does not fear influence but rather “devour[s] influences” (104) in a joyful mélange redolent of the postmodernist inclusive episteme.
10After White Teeth, which had been “immersed in both Dickens’s social realism and Rushdie’s merry hybridity” (Franklin), and On Beauty, a social novel openly inspired by E. M. Forster’s Howards End, NW mixes techniques of modernism and postmodernism. In the first part, the stream-of-consciousness technique makes for a jerky rhythm as Leah’s mind keeps shifting quickly from one topic to another. In the first chapter, her mind jumps from the heat of the sun to the magazine she is reading to the radio playing to the girl screaming in her cell phone further away, and to the sure sign of her pregnancy in her hand, rendered in an elliptic way: “Blue cross on a white stick, clear, definitive” (3). Chapters 9 and 10 are a brilliant juxtaposition of contemporary technology and modernist narration: while chapter 9 is a pastiche of Google Map-type factual direction instructions to walk from point A to point B, chapter 10 is its stream-of-consciousness alter ego: “From A to B redux” (34). As Leah walks from one place to another, she observes, smells and hears people, scenes, objects around her, and the text simply records her impressions, written in a cumulative and enumerative mode that is reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses. In chapter 7 (24-25), written in the same mode, the left page looks like a calligram in the shape of a tree as Leah is in the garden thinking of apple trees, while the right page is a block of text recording her husband’s endless simultaneously occurring monologue. This arrangement is redolent of the pages divided in two columns in B.S. Johnson’s Albert Angelo (1964), the left one for direct speech, the right one for the professor’s simultaneous thoughts. The next chapter of NW includes another calligram in the form of a mouth as Leah watches her boss’s mouth opening and closing (27). Like Johnson and Joyce (and with a nod to Apollinaire), Smith is here aiming at a truthful transcription of both thoughts and monologue, without any narratorial intervention to organise words in a neat and ordered way. The lack of any superior narrative authority is also manifest in dialogue, for instance when Smith transcribes the mocking comments of Leah’s colleagues about her relationship, without any punctuation marks or reported verbs, but with blanks on the page to suggest pauses and capital letters for emphasis (31), “a traditional round in which no voice is separated from the other” (30).
- 5 Smith still uses inverted commas in the more conventional parts (two, three and five).
11Smith’s command of dialogue has often been praised, and in NW, like Joyce (but also like Laurence Sterne and Roddy Doyle), Smith sometimes does away with inverted commas to indicate direct speech.5 Joyce famously renamed inverted commas “perverted commas” (1966, 99), because they seemed to imply that the quoted words were not the author’s words, and he decreed they were a “most unsightly” “eyesore” giving “an impression of unreality” (1957, 75). Joyce used opening dashes instead (as in French and Spanish), which Smith sometimes uses too (in part one), but she also goes further when she discards dashes altogether and proposes direct speech without any signaling punctuation mark nor any reporting verbs as in the dialogue between Natalie and Nathan in part four (264-282). This gives a greater sense of immediacy (also conveyed by capital letters when people are shouting) but the identification of the voice that speaks is sometimes made difficult, thus blurring the frontier between Natalie the barrister and Nathan the junkie. On the other hand, in section 173 of Natalie’s part, Smith retains reporting verbs but places them after full stops instead of commas, which lends a sense of artificiality to the dialogue, as in “PUT IT OUT. Shouted the old lady” (247), or “Don’t worry ‘bout me. Said Marcus. I get paid. I do all right. Said Marcus” (248). This narrative strategy reflects the absurdity of the quarrel that takes place in a playground where a young man is smoking a cigarette, but it also exposes the artificial construction of dialogue, which Smith was trying to hide in the previous example.
12What these examples suggest is that Smith does not choose just one road: she combines modernist strategies with a typically postmodernist tendency to draw attention to the mechanisms of novel-writing, without letting go completely of the road of realism. Thus, she still uses the convention of dialogue, recognises “its inauthenticity, its lack of novelty, even its possible dullness” but employs it anyway (Smith 2009b, 75). And by laying bare the mechanisms, she displays her awareness of that inauthenticity and her simultaneous knowledge that she cannot do without dialogue. In another section, she has the narrator suddenly break the frame of fiction and address the reader in “a parody of the omniscient nineteenth-century narrator” (Franklin): “Reader: keep up! A young woman, from Barbados, new in the job, optimistic. Name unimportant” (169). In this quote, the brisk presentation of the character in nominal sentences recalls a similar device in B.S. Johnson’s Albert Angelo as well as in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), and aims at defamiliarising the convention of characterisation.
- 6 From an anecdotal and biographical point of view, Smith’s novel was published when the author was 3 (...)
13These recurrent defamiliarising devices forbid a strictly realist reading of the novel, furthered by the subversion of linearity. In the first part, the chapters are numbered chronologically from 1 to 23, but four chapters (all entitled “Chapter 37”) disrupt chronology as they are inserted between chapters 11 and 12 (the first “Chapter 37” is aptly situated on page 37), as well as between chapters 15 and 16, 17 and 18, and after chapter 23. There are various ways of interpreting this disruption and the choice of number 37, a number that, according to one of Leah’s girlfriends, has “a magic about it” (37) and towards which people feel compelled.6 The disruption of linearity first shows that Smith is playing with the conventions of the chronological novel based on the “what-happened-nextism” coined by Rushdie (1981, 39) or Kafka’s “But then?”. It may also point to the fact that Leah is not always “walking in a straight line” but is sometimes zigzagging, which, incidentally, is the first image that comes to her mind when she closes her eyes in an effort to black out her surroundings, either in her garden: “Darting water boatmen zigzagging. Zig. Zag” (4), or at work: “This too will pass. Four forty-five. Zig, zag” (28). The zigzags in her life are precisely drawn in chapters 37, which focus on her past relationships with women and her abortions, i.e. to the times when Leah, according to conformist society, crossed into forbidden territory. The phrase “Number 37” recurs several times in Leah’s stream-of-consciousness (42, 45, 49, 66) as a kind of mantra, and 37 Ridley Avenue is the squat where Shar lives (5), another girl for whom Leah feels a physical attraction and not just empathy. A photograph of Felix’s father is to be found on page 37 of the book of photographic portraits Felix gives him (94). Finally, “The number 37” is the title of section 24 of Natalie’s part and refers to the bus Leah would take as a teenager to go from Caldwell to Camden Lock (161), i.e. to cross from her rather dull district to a more vibrant and artistic one. On the other hand, section 37 is missing from the third part, precisely at the time of Keisha and Leah’s break-up when they were teenagers. Smith’s repeated games with number 37 may be related to her impatience with the convention of linearity of realist fiction, but also to the playful dimension of postmodernist fiction, and to the Victorians’ fondness of coincidences (as the number recurs at significant times in Leah’s life), thus pointing to a mixture of literary lineages.
14Some of Smith’s formal experiments delineated above seem to suggest that she is not completely satisfied with the road of lyrical realism she admits to having taken in the past (2009b, 81). Like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which Smith reviewed, NW may be sitting “at an anxiety crossroads” (74) as the novel both nods towards realism and “retain[s] the wound” inflicted on that narrative mode by the assaults of Joyce and modernism (81). By not choosing one path but, in a quasi Borgesian way, going down several literary roads, NW is accommodating several traditions without reconciling them, and in the process, sometimes finds itself “struck in the middle” (2012a, 70), a place which might well be specific to the postmodernist episteme. Along with this mixture of literary traditions, Smith intertwines high and popular culture in NW, in an attempt to further the inclusive approach she had implemented in her previous work.
15In his 1969 essay significantly entitled “Cross the Border — Close the Gap”, Leslie Fiedler defined as one of the features of postmodernism the erosion of the distinction between high and popular culture, an aspect Fredric Jameson also identified (and deplored) as part of a series of effacements of “key boundaries and separations” (Jameson 128). Salman Rushdie has been one of the most noted proponents of such a breaking down of boundaries in his celebration of “hybridity, impurity, intermingling […] [m]élange [and] hotchpotch” (1991, 394). Zadie Smith pursues this tradition in NW, which sometimes entails comically debunking literary giants, as for instance when Leah reminds the reader that the ghosts of both Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White and Charles Dickens could be seen roaming in North West London and suddenly exclaims: “Look, there, on the library carpet between Science Fiction and Local History: a knotted condom filled with sperm” (47).
- 7 Keisha also reads Albert Camus (168) with her first boyfriend Rodney and notices James Baldwin’s Th (...)
- 8 Films such as Mrs Doubtfire (171) and Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have it (238). In her essay “At the M (...)
- 9 TV shows such as Jeremy Kyle (249) or Deal or no Deal (251), and the TV series Rumpole of the Baile (...)
- 10 When Natalie has lunch with a friend, cars pass by playing songs by Michael Jackson from the early (...)
16When Smith nods towards canonical literature, it is mainly in Keisha/Natalie’s sections as she is probably the most literate character, and the titles of a few sections are more or less obvious references to monuments of literature. Smith covers a broad spectrum from the British “Jane Eyre” (160) in a section about “being bullied” (160), “Brideshead unvisited” (170) — an allusion to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) when Keisha is offered an interview at Manchester University — and “The unconsoled” (187), maybe a hint to Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 novel, to “Speak, radio” (156) — a nod to Nabokov’s memoir Speak Memory (1951) — and “Rabbit, run” (163), a section about a vibrator that takes its name from a John Updike novel (1960). In the section entitled “African minimart endgame”, Natalie, overwhelmed by her screaming children while buying groceries, thinks: “Could there be misery loftier than hers?” (242), echoing Hamm’s lament in Beckett’s Endgame (6).7 In these instances, Smith relies on the reader’s literary knowledge to identify the intertexts. This ideal erudite reader is also supposed to be conversant in pop music, rap and hip-hop, as Smith covertly inserts the titles of songs by Beyoncé (245), Jay-Z (245) or Nas and Lauryn Hill (274), as well as many references to contemporary popular culture related to films,8 television9 and songs.10 When the narrator refers to the musical and literary tastes of the people from Camden Lock, she does so in a dizzying list: “Keisha Blake did not especially care for Baudelaire or Bukowski or Nick Drake or Sonic Youth or Joy Division or […] Anne Rice or William Burroughs or Kafka’s Metamorphosis or CND or Glastonbury or the Situationists or Breathless or Samuel Beckett or Andy Warhol” (161). Such an accumulation of elements that may sound eclectic but actually form a fairly coherent whole, makes one breathless indeed and the polysyndeton seems to place all items on an equal footing and grant them the same cultural value.
17All these references point to the wide cultural spectrum offered by Smith and her insistence on repeatedly crossing boundaries between high literature and popular culture. Maybe more than actually stepping across lines, these allusions testify to a globalised culture shared across countries and continents, which renders the idea of local or national culture irrelevant. In the same way as the notion of world literature aims to break down geographical boundaries, a globalised culture erases particularities. A related question raised by such a mosaic is how to define a cultural “norm” (if such a notion has any validity) and how to draw the lines of the cultural canon, a question that was central to On Beauty. As Terry Eagleton argues, the cultural canon is “a chancy affair” (96) and values and hierarchies are often established by “a select few”, “a privileged group, self-elected or otherwise” (93). On the other hand, according to Eagleton, “[s]ome postmodernists like to make statements like ‘Milton isn’t better than Superwoman, just different’ ” (96) and to challenge elitist views on culture and opt for a more inclusive approach that undoes “institutionalized hierarchies” (Bertens 8). In On Beauty for instance, Levi argues that the rappers, “the fast-talking guys in his headphones” have become “the present-day American poets” (Smith 2006, 79), and Smith has been praised for “her skill in absorbing, like some strange postmodern sponge, everything from ‘Rembrandt and rap music, Mozart and Eminem with respect for everything along the spectrum’ ” (Driscoll 71). However, according to Lawrence Driscoll, “if everything is presented equally then nothing is selected”, and “there is no real position” that Smith “cares to hold for any duration” (71). The critic relates this to the apparent lack of any clear political and ideological position in On Beauty, and some of that “fuzziness” (68) may also affect NW on a literary level.
18Is this “fuzziness” where the present as well as “the true future of the Novel” lie (Smith 2009b, 73)? Is this the model that is, to Smith’s mind, the closest “we have to our condition” (74)? NW is certainly not “a well-made novel” nor an example of the lyrical realism Smith grew impatient with while “cautiously hop[ing] for its survival” (81). It is neither comic fiction nor an epic narrative like her earlier work. And yet, for all its chaotic, heterogeneous and all-inclusive dimension, for all its “identity crisis” and its standing at the literary crossroads, “an exile in search of a home” (Franklin), NW probably cannot be called “constructive deconstruction” either (Smith 2009b, 94) as it still relies on realism and on “the supposedly contemptible components: plot, setting, character” that remain the basis of the imaginative novel (Smith 2009a). Maybe it still relies on these elements because, “after you have raged at the impossible artificiality of storytelling, once you have shouted, with Kafka, “But then? No then”, well, maybe you will find yourself returning to the crossroads of “And then, and then”, if only to see what’s going on down there” (Smith 2009a).
19If Smith is seen as deliberately connecting a multitude of cultural forms and literary traditions and conventions in NW, she is also intent on connecting people in the Forsterian sense, provoking encounters or else exposing their failure, thus placing her novel at the heart of ethical contemporary concerns.
20The very notions of encounter, meeting and crossing are suggested by the titles of the five parts of NW: “visitation”, “guest”, “host”, “crossing”, “visitation”. Characters are always guests or hosts in one another’s household in a way that is emblematic of their social standing: for instance, Leah and her husband are always the guests of their well-off friends Natalie and Frank, never their hosts. The fact that the titles of each part are all in lower case suggests that no religious connotation should be attached to the words, but the notion of a visitation, be it sacred or secular, may call for the concatenation of “guest” and “host” into “ghost”. The term could qualify Shar, the woman who turns up on Leah’s doorstep to ask for money in part one and is subsequently haunting her in the streets of London – “I see her all the time”, Leah says (259) – and even eerily appears on the photographs Leah collects from the pharmacy in place of her own. When Leah opened her door to the destitute woman while plenty of others kept it shut, she performed an ethical gesture and took the risk of an encounter with the Other. But Shar’s ghostly omnipresence then fuelled Leah’s guilt as to the alienation of underprivileged people in contemporary society, those who live next to us but whom we no longer see and are the subjects of Jon McGregor’s novel Even the Dogs (2010) where the homeless people are the ghosts of society and the collective narrators act like spirits or ghosts.
21In NW, such a ghostly existence is led by Nathan Bogle, an outcast who appears furtively in each section, and is significantly always wearing a hoodie. This man, who used to be Leah’s secret childhood crush (40, 153, 275) but also that of Keisha’s brother, Jayden (232), has now become an outsider whom people try to avoid. Leah admits that she ducks away whenever she sees him on the street (40) and Keisha’s mother was also always “crossing the street” as if she had not seen him (276). Nathan remarks: “People don’t chat to me no more. Look at me like they don’t know me” (271). His apparitions are almost spectral: he first appears at the ticket machine in the tube in part one (40) though it takes a while for Leah’s mother to recognise him. In part two, he is one of Felix’s unnamed assailants (148), the silent one hidden by his hood, and in part three, he is briefly met in the street by Natalie in a section entitled “The past” (231), an unwelcome remnant of that past that Natalie has worked hard to keep at a distance. In each case, the homeless junkie remains in the shadow. When he is eventually granted a section (“Crossing”), it is only 20 pages long (compared to 80 pages for Leah’s section, 60 for Felix’s and 110 for Natalie’s) and he has to share it with Natalie. Moreover, he is hiding from the police and finding refuge in the cemetery where he mixes with the dead and the “duppies” (269) as he calls them, i.e. ghosts or spirits.
22In Totality and Infinity (1961), Levinas writes that to “recognize the Other is to recognize a hunger. To recognize the Other is to give” (75). However, Shar and Nathan are very rarely the recipient of any human warmth, generosity or ethical sharing. In a “nation divided by postcodes and accents” (Smith 2009b, 251), they have been ostracised, alienated, shut off from society, trapped behind “Caldwell’s boundary wall” (Smith 2012a, 264) and deprived of any face-to-face relation. Their ghostly appearances are much more disturbing than, for instance, the spectre of Leah’s dead father who comes to visit and talk to her (45-46).
23In addition to these ghostly presences, NW stages ghosts-to-be, i.e. characters whose death is foreshadowed. Felix’s death is foretold in part one (80) and the second part (“guest”) is an analepsis to his last day alive — August 27th, 2010 — a day he spends being the guest of several people (his girlfriend, his father, his ex-girlfriend) and crisscrossing the streets of London until he “gives up the ghost”. On that same day, Natalie (in part four) is also wandering in North West London until she finds herself on Hornsey Lane bridge (281), the “suicide bridge” people jump from, which Felix had referred to earlier (128). The literary ghosts of Mrs Dalloway and Septimus spring to mind, walking the streets of London on June 13th, 1923, and the “spikes up and spikes down” (281) on Hornsey Lane bridge recall the area railings onto which Septimus had “flung himself vigorously” (164). In the first version of Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa was to take her life, but Woolf saved her and had Septimus (whom Clarissa had never met) die instead. In the same way, Smith saves Natalie from suicide and has Felix (whom Natalie has never met) die instead. However, if Clarissa experiences deep-felt empathy for the unknown young man, it is unclear whether Natalie feels any compassion for Felix or shares that ethics of alterity Mrs Dalloway seems to be endowed with.
- 11 Later, in his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, Felix looks at an outfit that “hung disembodied” from a cl (...)
24The obstacles to genuine human connections, a concept dear to a writer whose “literary father-figure” is E. M. Forster (Driscoll 63), are also symbolised in the novel by modern technology that annihilates ethical encounters between human beings and hurls relationships into virtual and ghost-like dealings. When Felix’s girlfriend suddenly hangs up after having talked to him on the phone, he ponders: “she was gone again, without saying goodbye. Like a ghost on your shoulder, and then vanished, the everyday miracle” (118). The ghostly voice in his cell phone reminds him of former phone conversations when there would be interferences (or line-crossings) and you could hear other voices: “He remembered when you turned the dial with your finger. Sometimes lines would cross and four ghosts spoke” (118). In the hyperreal world, connections are virtual and spectral, operating through cell phones (221), Skype videos and chats on the internet, the type Natalie engages in with Leah (210-212) and with strangers to set up her promiscuous encounters (224). These impersonal connections contrast with Felix’s collision “with a real live young man” (119) walking out of a video store backwards. Felix’s gentle touch on the man’s elbows, the man’s careful holding of Felix’s waist and the two men’s light laughs and apologies differ in their softness and tenderness with the activity of the people inside, “wrestling with their joysticks” (119). For a split second, lines and lives have crossed through that chance encounter.11
25This discussion of encounters and ghosts started with a focus on Shar and Nathan, characters who represent a fringe of society that Smith had not yet included in her previous novels even if they had dealt with race and class. If Shar and Nathan remain on the wrong side of the line, one may wonder whether any line-crossing is deemed possible for the multicultural working-class people of NW.
26All of Smith’s novels are concerned with what she calls “cross-cultural and cross-class encounters” (2009b, 148), featuring characters of mixed cultural backgrounds and social classes who often aspire to cross over to a better condition. In Evading Class in Contemporary Literature (2009), Lawrence Driscoll argues however that Smith, in On Beauty, “replicate[s] the ideological marginalization of the working-class subject” (61), through the removal, at the end of the novel, of Carl Thomas, a double of Leonard Bast in Forster’s Howards End, and focuses instead on middle-class protagonists. According to Driscoll, Smith shares the “postmodern distrust of rigid metanarratives like ‘class’” (69) and “remove[s] the economic dimension of Forster’s novel”, replacing it with questions of identity politics and difference (69). To quote Driscoll, “living in a historical moment in which globalization has deepened rather than removed the fissures of class”, Smith places a “bourgeois hope” in “the plurality of identity politics and the fluidity of ‘personal relations’ ” (64). One may wonder whether this assessment, based on Smith’s third novel, could equally apply to her fourth book, or if the writer’s position has evolved since then.
27In NW, Leah is an Irish-English working-class redhead married to a French hairdresser, Michel, born of an illiterate Algerian mother and a father from Guadeloupe, a former resistant who is now a school janitor in Marseilles. In terms of class, Michel and Leah, like the Doolittles in Shaw’s Pygmalion, feel they are “stuck in the middle” (70), a condition Smith believes is shared by “the tragic mulatto”, “the transsexual” and “the contemporary immigrant, tragically split, we are sure, between worlds, ideas, cultures, voices” (2009b, 135). Michel and Leah are stranded at the crossroads because they are aiming to be middle-class but are unable to rise up to that status. They are in that “middling spot” or “interim place” as Smith calls them (2009b, 135), and just like Samad Iqbal in White Teeth, they live on “the wrong side of Willesden” (55).
28Natalie, on the other hand, is of Jamaican parents and married to Frank, the son of a rich Italian woman and a train guard from Trinidad, an “exotic brother” (183) who looks as if he had been “born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren” (179) and is, according to Natalie, “racially confused” (183) and doesn’t “even know how to be the thing he was” (191). As Frank says, referring to both race and class, he is “already divided in half” (53), “[h]alf-Trini”, “half Italian” (202), “[h]alf-caste” as Nathan contemptuously remarks (277). Once or twice a month, Natalie and Frank have brunch in North West London with Ameeta (from India) and Imran (from Pakistan), and represent the “local vibrancy” of the area (221). In her essay “Speaking in Tongues”, Smith argues that such “doubled” people “have no choice but to cross borders and speak in tongues” (2009b, 138).
- 12 In On Beauty however, Professor Kipp argues that multiculturalism is a “fatuous dream” (44).
29These couples testify to the multicultural and multiracial crossings Smith has always featured in her novels and are now part of what she calls the “multiverse” (2012a, 53).12 Willesden in North West London, described by Smith in an essay as “a big, colourful, working-class sea” (2009b, 133), is known for its multiracial mix. One of the characters in NW (who lives in Piccadilly Circus) qualifies it as “ ‘diverse’ ” (126), using inverted commas to point to the political correctness of the term. And indeed, Nathan is Afro-Caribbean, Shar is from the Indian subcontinent, “[s]econd generation” (16), and the owner of the sweet shop is Sikh (18). At the hospital where Leah’s Irish mother works, five of the nurses are Nigerian (15); at Leah’s office, she is the only white person among Albanians, Afro-Caribbeans and South Asians (32). The congregation at the church is “Polish, Indian, African, Caribbean” (62) while in her childhood the church kids were mainly “Nigerian or otherwise African” (167); the drivers close to the brothel in Piccadilly are Somali (120); the guests at Natalie’s dinner party are second-generation immigrants: their parents came “from Jamaica, from Ireland, from India, from China” (76). The book of photographic portraits of Garvey House where Felix’s father lived in the 1970s shows snapshots of the Afro-Caribbean community (93), and Felix’s girlfriend Grace is “half Jamaican, half Nigerian” (134). In her search for self-identity, Natalie purports that she would like to know the lives of “the Somali kid”, “the old Russian lady”, “the Ukrainian gangster” (245) that she sees in the streets of London. In the postcode “W1”, near Piccadilly Circus, foreigners come from richer parts of the world: the subagent who knocks on Annie’s door is Norwegian (125), while her wealthy neighbour is French and his wife Japanese (133).
30Smith’s recurrent insistence on the multiculturalism of Londoners in all her novels might be a way to suggest the difficulty of drawing the limits of a group, a people, that would be defined along strict ethnic, religious or national lines. These could be related to the “lines of articulation or segmentarity” Deleuze and Guattari refer to in A Thousand Plateaus (4), those rigid lines (216) that draw territories with clearly delineated contours, establish a fixed and reassuring frame, and ensure a stable sense of identity, stability and control. However, these rigid lines can be fissured by supple or molecular lines that cause “microcracks” (219), or even by “lines of deterritorialization” (10) or lines of flight that provoke deep ruptures in one’s sense of identity. In an essay, Smith asks a series of blunt rhetorical questions: “What does it mean, to have a people? […] In what, for example, does the continuity of ‘Blackness’ exist? Or ‘Irishness’? Or ‘Arabness’? Blood, culture, history, genes? […] What is Muslimness? What is femaleness? What is Polishness? What is Englishness?” (2009b, 70-71). Smith naturally declines to answer these questions since the supposedly rigid lines that would define such concepts are constantly being challenged and deterritorialised.
31In addition, NW points to the characters who were “born and bred” like Leah (24, 44), Adina George, the team leader at the Fund Distribution Team (27), the people of the Caldwell estate (89) or even Felix, a second-generation immigrant (111) — all of them born and bred in North West London whose deeply-rooted “lines of segmentarity” could make their identity “stratified, territorialized, organized, signified, attributed” (Deleuze and Guattari 10). These characters who “never [go] anywhere” (44) restrict their geographical movements to clearly-marked areas and the latter are precisely and realistically delineated in each part, through the Google map device in part one (33) or the enumeration of the North West areas where most of the action takes place: “Hampstead, West Hampstead, Kilburn, Willesden, Brondesbury, Cricklewood” (47). The last part is divided into six chapters named after Nathan and Natalie’s journey that night, which the reader could easily follow on a map: from “Willesden Lane to Kilburn High Road”, “Shoot Up Hill to Fortune Green”, “Hampstead to Archway”, before they reach “Hampstead Heath”, the “Corner of Hornsey Lane” and finally “Hornsey Lane”. Throughout the novel, characters appropriate London in their own subjective ways but always inevitably come back to NW, their centre of segmentarity. In part two, Felix describes a circular route (NW6, W1, NW6), and when he looks at the tube map, he re-charts the city from his perspective: “The centre was not ‘Oxford Circus’ but the bright lights of Kilburn High Road. ‘Wimbledon’ was the countryside, ‘Pimlico’ pure science fiction. […] It was nowhere” (143). At the start of her adult life, Natalie refers to her “triangulated tube rides: New Cross [SE14, where she lives], Lincoln’s Inn [in the centre, where she works], Marylebone [W1, Frank’s place]” (197), before moving back to North West London because the commute is “killing” her (216).
32Leah for her part has kept “walking in a straight line” by remaining “faithful in her allegiance” (5) to her lines of segmentarity, her working-class background and her geographical surroundings, “this two-mile square of the city” (5), her childhood dwelling being just “[t]wo floors up, one window across” (11) from where she lives as an adult. Keisha’s mother wanted her daughter to go to a local institution after her A levels that required “no move away from home” (170), but the young woman has been desperate to cross over to the middle class, to “the posh bit” of North West London (9), going “[o]nwards, upwards” (196), and embracing the fissures, “fringes, encroachments, overlappings, migrations” (Deleuze and Guattari 251) caused by the irruption of supple lines or more substantial lines of flight. She achieved that escape by getting an education, becoming a barrister and marrying a rich man, thus managing to move from the status of “guest” to that of “host”: “No longer an accidental guest at the table — as she had always understood herself to be — but a host, with other hosts, continuing a tradition” (190). Her ambition entailed escaping prescribed boundaries and tracing new lines, leaving new traces, ploughing new furrows. As Deleuze suggests, “To leave, to escape, is to trace a line” (1977, 27).
33However, Natalie cannot totally get rid of the rigid lines of her genetic legacy, and is embarrassed by her skin colour when she attends her first party at Leah’s university and notes that “[e]verybody was white” (176), or later notices “the white people” (178) intent on stopping the construction of a by-road. At the sponsorship dinner organised for trainee barristers, her husband notes that they are “an endangered species” and counts only six coloured in the whole room although one of the professors argues they have “a very effective diversity scheme” (191). During her training, Natalie is excited to be chosen to sit with the junior advocate at the court of justice, until she realises the victim’s family is Jamaican (205) and that Natalie is there as part of the advocate’s argument that it is a “trial about race” (206). When she meets an older Jamaican barrister, Theodora, the latter advises her to be pragmatic and tone herself down as judges will always read passionate arguments coming from a coloured female barrister in court as “aggressive hysteria” (210). As an adult, Natalie decrees she will not send her children to a boarding school as she does not want them to be the only coloured “in a class of thirty white kids” (56). Such remarks reveal how difficult it is to overcome the racial lines of segmentarity and engage in lines of flight, ethnic discrimination thus remaining very much an issue in contemporary Britain.
34In addition to race, Natalie has to deal with her working-class background that she is trying to leave behind, a crossing over to the other side that can be viewed as “an unforgivable act of class betrayal” (Smith 2009b, 133). But her social condition is still placing obstacles on her way, for instance when she cannot go to interviews in Manchester or Edinburgh because the train ride is too expensive (171), or when she cannot afford her first pupillage year as an apprenticed barrister (197). When trainee barristers go out for drinks, Natalie and another working-class girl are getting the drinks and “as working-class female pupils they were often anxious to get it right” (202). During her honeymoon, she admits she cannot swim as she has never learned, and refuses to answer the waiters’ question as to where she comes from, as if it would be humiliating to confess to her lower-class background while having a vacation in a luxury resort (204-205). Despite Natalie’s repeated efforts to raise herself above her working-class condition and away from Willesden Green, she eventually returns to live in North West London (though in a posher district), and the titles of three successive sections exemplify this circular route: “Return”, “Re-entry”, “Revisit” (216-217), a circularity that is also suggested by the identical title (“visitation”) for the first and last parts. The last part ends with Natalie and Leah phoning the police to denounce Nathan for the murder of Felix: “Leah found the number online. Natalie dialled it. It was Keisha who did the talking” (294). As she conspires with her former childhood friend, Natalie retrieves her original identity as Keisha but the book ends with another striking example of her duplicity as she talks on the phone, “disguising her voice with her voice” (294).
- 13 Smith addresses the issue of authenticity in her review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCa (...)
35One of the central issues of the novel pertains to the question of identity and authenticity.13 Keisha/Natalie is the character who is the most in search of her own identity and personality, and therefore most liable to instances of self-invention and simulacrum. The disguise of her voice echoes Smith’s own “double voice” as recorded in her essay “Speaking in Tongues” (2009b, 133). Smith explains that when she lived in the working-class district of Willesden, she spoke in a specific voice and accent — her “childhood voice”, her “old voice” (133) — but when she moved to Cambridge, she put on “the voice of lettered people” (132), and over time, only that single voice remained, in the same way that Eliza Doolittle has forgotten her original language in Shaw’s Pygmalion. While Smith changed her name from Sadie to Zadie at the age of fourteen “to make herself sound more exotic” (Anon.), in NW, Keisha’s change of name to the more neutral Natalie points to her unease with her Jamaican origins and her wish to even out her difference and invent a new identity for herself as she has “no self to be” (183). She thus moves from Keisha Blake as a child to Natalie De Angelis as a married woman. As Leah’s husband tells her: “You changed your name. […] It’s like: ‘Dress for the job you want not the one you have.’ And it’s the same with names, I feel” (55).
- 14 In an interview with the 33-year-old rapper Eminem in 2005, Smith remarked: “He’s dressed exactly l (...)
36Dress code is an important aspect of identity construction. At a party, Natalie dresses up as the political activist Angela Davies (185) and her future husband Frank as Frantz Fanon, which is revealing as to the “role models” (208) they look up to (the title of one of Natalie’s sections). In the street when she meets homeless Nathan, Natalie is “dressed as a successful lawyer” while he and his friends are “dressed as kids” (231).14 When she goes to the houses of strangers for casual sex and feels she is “perform[ing]” an act of leaving her own body (249), she always wears the same clothes: “gold hoops, denim skirt, suede boots with tassels”, while keeping her work clothes in her rucksack (254). Leah, for her part, evolves from the impersonal “black jeans/black boots/black T-shirt” to dreadlocks and army trousers at university (177) before moving “[b]ack to her roots” and wearing a denim skirt and a hoodie (195).
37Self-invention involves more than clothes however. Shar remembers Keisha from school and calls her a “coconut” (9, 55), a derogatory term used to refer to Asian or Black people brought up in the United Kingdom: people who look dark on the outside but feel white on the inside. Even as a teenager, Keisha suspected she was inventing a different identity for herself, being “crazy busy with self-invention” (183). She remembers writing down on paper the song her church friend invented and sung, and in the process becoming aware of her own fake identity and personality: “That’s you. That’s her. She is real. You are a forgery. […] She is consistent. You are making it up as you go along.” (165) Some twenty years later, her childhood friend tells Natalie she was never totally committed when they were doing those songs: “Showing off. False. Fake” (245); “You always wanted to make it clear you weren’t like the rest of us” (244). Later on, Natalie’s manifestations of simulacra entail falling easily into “the role” of her future husband’s close friend even if this intimacy “was being manufactured at this present moment” (190).
38However, Natalie is not the only character who is self-manufacturing her identity in an attempt to fit in a specific role. Her first boyfriend, the son of a dinner lady and a bus driver, wants to become a lawyer and is also identified as “a miracle of self-invention” (169), as is Natalie’s husband, whose name was changed from the Italian “Francesco” to the English “Frank” when he arrived in England at the age of eight. His flamboyant family name, De Angelis, is that of his mother, and not his father (Harris), a train guard he never knew. As he jokingly tells Natalie, his name should have been “Frank Harris” (194), a homonym of the Irish-American author of the scandalous memoir My Life and Loves (1922-1927). Frank is also one who is known for bluff (192): he conceals his anxiety and nervousness behind an annoying garrulity and over-confidence (190) and “bluff[s] his way through each day” at work where he does not really understand his own job (200).
39As an adult, Natalie is asked by a philosopher what would happen if her brain cells were replaced with those of somebody else: “At what point would you cease to be yourself? At what point would you become another person?” (171). The problem Natalie is confronted with is precisely her inability to define herself. She wonders what her personality is constructed around and if her friend Polly could offer a capsule description of it (201). Her obsession with the lonely heart columns in the paper (205) might be a way of finding out how people define themselves, and in an opinion piece, she struggles hard to present herself as more than “a banker’s wife”: “I am a highly educated black woman. I am a successful lawyer” (240) — an enterprise which is part of her protective self-invention. When given the chance to be authentic by giving her friend Leah “an honest account of her difficulties and ambivalences, clearly stated, without disguise, embellishment or prettification” (292), Natalie lets it go and chooses self-defence and self-preservation instead.
40While Nathan, when met by Leah and her mother, is “[n]ot pretending anything”, has an “open, frank face” (40), the couple Natalie forms with Frank is based on deception and performance. Section 140, which describes their life together, is entitled “Spectacle” and shows how their tenderness is “exaggerated” and fake (224), how Natalie pretends to look forward to future holidays when she actually hates them, and how the couple plays roles at weekends in front of friends, “like a double act who only speak to each other when they are on stage” (224). Natalie puts on these various roles, masks and identities, “many disguises and bluffs” (267): “Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag”: “when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic” (245). After she leaves her house empty-handed and walks aimlessly in London, she realises she has lost her identity: “She had no name, no biography, no characteristics” (264), and she simply becomes a walker — “walking was what she was” (264, 266) —, an “object” (266), “almost nothing” (268).
41This unrelenting quest for identity and concern with self-invention can be related to the aphoristic sentence Leah hears on the radio at the start of the novel: “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me” (3). The phrase “I am the sole author” recurs as the title of two of Natalie’s sections when she is precisely busying herself with self-invention (183, 186) and when Frank refers to his family background (194) and sums up his unusual childhood and parentage in a curt and humorous way: “Rare Negroid Italian has happy childhood, learns Latin, the end” (194). A satiric dimension emerges from Leah’s hypnotic repetition of the aphorism that gets reduced to “I am the sole. The sole. The sole” (3), and is thus deprived of its original meaning to veer towards a spiritual touch (“I am the soul”) or a ludicrous one (“the sole of a shoe”). In the process, the difficulties inherent in self-definition are emphasised.
42My contention in this paper has been that NW is based on a series of crossings that are character-related as well as geographical, social, cultural and literary. In NW, Smith continues to draw from the modernist heritage and mixes it up with realism and postmodernist techniques while challenging the hierarchies between high and popular culture, and putting forward the globalisation of culture. Her crossings are thus to be seen as connections that draw lines between various cultural traditions. Beyond the literary aspect, the novel as a reflection of early twenty-first century Britain hypothesises the almost banality and ordinariness of multicultural crossings, which does not however amount to a complacent optimism nor the negation of persistent evidence of racism and discrimination. In NW, Smith seems to adopt a more inclusive approach than in her previous books, which focused more on the ethnic lines of separation between her characters, maybe because ethnic hybridity has become more of an everyday reality and, as such, is no longer on the forefront of Smith’s political agenda. The relatively new aspect of her fiction might be the attention she draws to the persistent obstacles to class crossings — thus acknowledging the rigid lines that still define social classes — and the visibility she gives to the deprived, though, as in On Beauty, the latter (Shar, Felix, Nathan) are eventually removed from the scene. In spite of this, NW seems more politically and socially aware than her previous work, and class is no longer spectral nor “beyond its reach” (Driscoll 78). Zadie Smith has thus extended her mesh of cultural, literary, ethnic and class-related lines in her specific depiction of British contemporary society. In the words of Graham Swift, she has let her characters “take a step” and “cross a line” in multiple ways (198).