In a controversial essay penned in 2008, Zadie Smith campaigned for a shift in the way that we understand and read novels. Her New York Review of Books essay, “Two Paths for the Novel,” took the dominant tradition of lyrical, realist writing to task for its reliance on deeply held pieties: “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” The novels which have been promoted by the critics in the twentieth century belong squarely to this tradition.
Smith’s rejoinder to this long-standing preference for realism is an inversion of the argument first made by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy: now that God is dead, literature and its God, the lyrical self, must become the stuff of our new religion. Smith’s retort to the Arnoldian penchant for “sweetness and light” is devastating: “But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?”
This is also in part a novelistic rejoinder to Jean-Paul Sartre, himself another kind of advocate for the lyrical realist tradition. Sartre’s injunction that we eschew the fiction of our own unfreedom (what he called “bad faith”) and embrace the dizzying, nauseating reality that we are always free to choose has given succor to the confident, novelistic self, which finds that when it is being most authentic it is also being its most beautiful. The problem, as Zadie Smith contends, is that authenticity can also be an alibi, a narrative that we produce about ourselves to reconcile ourselves to our choices, that hides us from the reality that we are rarely as heroic as we appear in the rear-view mirrors of our epics. It is interesting, isn’t it, that we become the most self-congratulatory, inflated, even eloquent when we feel we are being our most authentic, as if there were any correlation between morality and beauty anymore?
The vision that this leaves us with is perhaps bleak: we are not ultimately or consistently noble creatures, and the stories that we tell ourselves about our choices, even when they are authentic, may not actually help us understand our own place in the world. Authenticity is another kind of hubris, in Smith’s telling, when most of us are defined by our deep familiarity with its twin: alienation. But how do you predicate the Bildungsroman, that acme of the lyrical self, on the language of alienation? Doesn’t this risk turning all literary endeavor into the flat rubble of antihumanism? And haven’t Pynchon, Delillo, and their coterie of American postmodern novelists done this already?
Smith most recent novel, NW, while retracing steps taken by the postmodernists attempts to steer clear of both the easy course of modernist heroism—the legacy of Woolf and Joyce that hang heavily over this work—and the detritus of postmodernism by shifting the focus of the novel from the self in crisis to the anxieties of place. The novel follows the lives of four people, all from a council estate called Caldwell in northwest London, as their lives go in directions that none imagined for themselves. Each of the characters is confronted with the contradiction between a desired because unobtained ideal life, the dissatisfactions of the present, and the nostalgic selves which others remember because they have all shared a geography. As a result, NW becomes a novel in which the only way to feel better about the sorry selves that we are is to find ways of reconnecting to the places that we inhabit.
The novel begins by taking apart an aphorism of authenticity and hollowing it out: “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me.” It quickly turns into incantation and then meaninglessness:
I am the sole
I am the sole author
I am the
I am the sole. The sole. The sole.
The joke is Shakespearean in reverse (“I am a mender of worn soles”), undoing all of the work of literature to shore up the self as the unique confirmation of human heroism. The anti-lyricism of the line, its emphasis on seriality and repetition, reflects back the emptiness at the center of human alienation rather than seeking out comforts in the fineness of literary revelation. Later in the novel the same incantation is repeated with more desperation when it comes to mean that the self has no one else to blame for its ruin. There is no revelatory self which can snatch from this rubble a jewel of good writing: lyricism cannot be a bulwark against radical possibility.
The inauthentic selves, but very real characters, that haunt NW: Leah Hanwell (an Anglo-Irish philosophy major turned public servant who is desperately unhappy about her marriage); Natalie (nee Keisha) Blake (the descendant of Caribbean immigrants who “wills” herself through law school and a family that she also recklessly endangers); Felix Cooper (the painfully optimistic filmmaker/drug dealer whose death becomes the crisis the rest of the novel seeks to understand); and Nathan Bogle (the high school athlete and heart throb turned into homeless pimp). All of them take drugs, all of them went to the same school, and all of them find it impossible to bear the contradiction between their desires and their realities. This line could have been written about anyone of them—“She was on the run from herself”; it happens to describe Leah.
The novel is best when it tears apart the fictions of self. Keisha and her first boyfriend, savagely: “They thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalization.” Leah at a dinner party, pathetically: “While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.” Nathan Bogle, angrily: “See but that’s how you see it—I don’t see it like that. To me it’s just truth. She was trying to tell me something true. But you don’t want to hear that. You want to hear some other shit. Oh Nathan I remember when you were this and that and you were all fucking sweet and shit, you get me? Nice memory. Last time I was in your yard I was ten.” And unable find consolation in the omnipresence of their alienation, they can only see in each other reminders that the stories about the selves to which we all cling ring tinny when anyone else speaks them.
This deep attention to the agony of alienation, to the partial lives and devastated ambitions of her characters, prevents the novel from careening into antihumanism by replacing the obvious nihilistic conclusions with a ruthless anti-literariness. This is a novel peopled by the failure of literary representations, and so its critiques are ruthless and daring: almost every figure of the canon is here politely acknowledged and then surpassed. Dickens is too earnest; Donne too transcendent; and William Morris is just plain fodder: “The Cock Tavern. MacDonalds. The old Woolworths. The betting shop. The State Empire. Willesden Lane. The cemetery. Whoever said these were fixed coordinates to which she had to be forever faithful? How could she play them false? Freedom was absolute and everywhere, constantly moving location.”
Perhaps it is more precise to say that NW reveals something that we have all suspected but never been able to articulate so clearly: the novelistic tradition’s dependence on the individual (bourgeois) subject makes it too easy to show the seams and joints of its formal choices. Having abandoned the subject to its own breakdown, NW, variously, becomes a novel in search of authentic form. And in some ways, this displacement of authenticity from character to location helps to explain the novel’s seriality, pace, and movement; it wants to unsettle in all the ways it can. After all, the problem with authenticity in the contemporary world is that we imagine it to be both imminent and immanent, which is why we experience it as an adjective (authentic) and a verb (authenticate), as a fact and as a process.
NW is easily the most significant novel of the last decade because it so frontally challenges and excruciatingly interrogates the fiction of fiction, and finds that selves and literature may both benefit from a more gentle anti-heroism. It allows Smith to challenge some of the odd pieties we have inherited about multiculturalism and neoliberalism without faltering into reactionary clichés about personal uplift. And in so doing she not only lays bare the dangerous seductions of literature as aesthetic ideology, as a snake oil for the ailing conscience, she also offers the promise of the “real” as an antipode to the literary: “If candor were a thing in the world that a person could hold and retain, if it were an object, maybe Natalie Blake would have seen that the perfect gift at this moment was an honest account of her own difficulties and ambivalences, clearly stated, without disguise, embellishment or prettification.”