Wednesday, May 21, 2014
I Saved Latin!: Wes Anderson, Randall Poster, and the Undeniable Influence of a Really Great Soundtrack
by Christine Campbell
On May 13th, American Laundromat Records-- an independent record label based in Mystic, Connecticut-- released a 23-track album of songs featured in Wes Anderson films, covered by a variety of contemporary folk and indie artists. Titled I Saved Latin! A Tribute to Wes Anderson, its release coincides with that of Anderson’s most recent project, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which tells the story of a hotel concierge and his Lobby Boy on a quest to claim an inheritance from a wealthy older woman. Though the soundtrack of The Grand Budapest Hotel primarily features instrumental folk music pulled from the Russian and German traditions (it’s partially set in Europe in the 1930s), which is not particularly easy to repurpose in the form of a relatable, modern cover, the new film nevertheless deserves its own place in the Wes Anderson musical catalog, and the album’s release is a well-timed tribute to Wes Anderson as a director with an often cult-like following. For his most passionate followers, the release of any new material, however tangentially related to the films themselves, is cause for great celebration. One critic summarily explains why his fan base is so admiring and persistent in its devotion: “the way in which people view [Wes Anderson’s] work frequently involves either fierce loyalty or passionate antipathy… with very little space in between. Watching his films involves very little neutrality because Anderson’s capacious curiosity and the definitive style he’s cultivated represent a sense of human normalcy that either resonates with you or doesn’t.” Regardless of a viewer’s like or dislike for Anderson’s style, one can’t help but to admit that you’ll know his movies when you see them.
In a sense, it is easy to write off Wes Anderson’s projects as purely visual experiments—his film sets are meticulously planned out or constructed in miniature, actor dialogue is often wry and purposefully contrived, and his costumed, stylized characters constantly threaten to become silly and unbelievable caricatures of themselves. Because Anderson repeatedly works with actors like Luke and Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray, we come to expect familiar behaviors and attitudes from his characters before we even submerge ourselves in the world of a particular film. For better or worse, this can have the effect of removing us from a sense of total immersion. Many directors, like J.J. Abrams, in the upcoming Star Wars film, use this rationale as a justfication for choosing a cast of ‘unknowns’ when fans are always looking to see big names and billboards, but Wes Anderson refuses to shy away from his favorite collaborators. The cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps his most impressive yet—with actors as diverse as Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Juff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, and Ralph Fiennes, the movie feels a bit like a play—you are constantly aware that you’re watching actors act, but you learn to suspend disbelief just long enough to be swept up in all the visual grandeur and carefully presented content.
With this delicate balance between character and caricature in mind, Wes Anderson’s style is in many ways very easy to imitate (or at least very easy to parody). A writer from the Huffington Post, taking advantage of this, has compiled a rather amusing list of “15 Absolutely Necessary Ingredients for making a Wes Anderson Film,” as though each story could be constructed in as formulaic and routine a fashion as baking a cake. Among these so-called ingredients are a “prevailing use of the font Futura,” “(at least nine) scenes that feature Bill Murray, preferably smoking a cigarette,” “a child-like enthrallment with boats and/or tree houses,” and “a penchant for endearingly polite slapstick,” all tied together by “an aptitude for endowing live-action films with an illustrative, story book quality.” Each of these criteria has some basis in reality, to be fair, but fans of Wes Anderson are fans of his recurring quirks and jokes, unswayed by the argument that “we’ve seen this before.” Twins Ari and Uzi in the Royal Tenenbaums, for example, are something like cartoon characters—they wear the same red, swishy tracksuits and curly brunette coifs as their on-screen dad, played by Ben Stiller, looking like little gentlemen with somber expressions. They only change, briefly, when they don identical black tracksuits for a funeral at the end of the film.
Details like these seem silly, playful, and unrealistic, like Charlie Brown in his perpetually yellow T-shirt, because in many ways they are. But as Michael Chabon stresses in “Wes Anderson’s Worlds,” an introduction to the Wes Anderson Collection, the self-aware and consciously constructed ‘quirky’ details of Wes Anderson movies “are often cited as evidence of his work’s “artificiality,” at times with the implication, simple-minded and profoundly mistaken, that a high degree of artifice is somehow inimical to seriousness, to honest emotion, to so-called authenticity. All movies, of course, are equally artificial; it’s just that some are more honest about it than others.” Wes Anderson makes no attempts to conceal the fact that we are viewing a work of art—each frame considers proportion and color, each move of the camera is calculated to render an effect precisely how it was imagined, and he wants us to recognize that.
Since Wes Anderson’s feature-length film career began in 1996 with Bottle Rocket, he has produced a total of 7 films, all of which (apart from his first) have enjoyed a generally warm critical and box-office reception. Both Moonrise Kingdom and The Royal Tenenbaums were nominated for Academy Awards in the category o Best Original Screenplay, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox was nominated for Best Animated Feature. Though the title of the newly released cover album, I Saved Latin!, refers to a defiant scene from schoolboy Max Fischer in 1998’s Rushmore, the compilation also includes music from various other Anderson movies, including The Life Aquatic, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox-- It is a tribute to his entire career thus far. Clocking in at a lengthy 73 minutes and spanning two CDs, the compilation album features a wide range of artists, genres and instrumentation, though as critic Patrick Robbins wisely and importantly notes, there is one notable commonality among the listed tracks: “all but two of the songs here were originally recorded between 1965 and 1972.”
Those familiar with Wes Anderson’s work will no doubt be left unsurprised by this niche chronological detail; he is publicly known and admired not only as a director, but as something of a musical tastemaker, with a penchant for reviving old and forgotten songs from some of the 20th century’s greatest bands and performers. Lior Phillips, from Consequence of Sound, argues, “as far as a cultural influencer professing his unique worldview, Anderson really is about as zeitgeist as it gets.” Though his cinematic style is almost immediately recognizable in its visuals—with meticulously designed sets, symmetrically framed shots, and stylized, quirky outfits as discussed above, an emphasis on older, slightly off-the-beaten path music is an equally defining and significant characteristic of Wes Anderson’s directorial approach. Even American Laundromat Records have embraced this necessary pairing of visual and auditory experiences; the release of their cover album coincides with the offering up for sale of various badges, pins, beanies, and decals that reflect significant elements in the worlds of Wes Anderson. Granted, these bits of merchandise might more realistically be used as a sort of inside joke between those who are cool enough to be “in the know,” the markers of some not-so-secret society, but the ability of a plain red beanie to immediately signify a moment or moments in film, such as the adventures of Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic, is a testament to the strength and pervasiveness of Anderson’s unique film aesthetic. It’s my opinion, incidentally, that every single character in all of Wes Anderson’s films would make a first rate Halloween costume.
Just as a host of visual symbols—like a hat or a glove with a missing finger-- can conjure visions of particular Anderson scenes and characters, his musical selection has the less common but equally forceful ability to serve the same function. The effect is stronger, perhaps, because his movies change the meanings of songs in everyday life, for myself and I imagine for many viewers. If Nico’s version of “These Days” emerges out of the background on the radio, in a car or in a 7-11 in the middle of nowhere, I can’t help but to picture Gwyneth Paltrow descending the stairs of the Green Line Bus in slow motion, with a caramel fur coat and dark, serious eyes. When I first listened through the tracks of I Saved Latin!, visions of trains shrugging themselves into motion in The Darjeeling Limited instantly sprung to mind as Kinks covers began, and Juliana Hatfield’s cover of Needle in the Hay by Eliot Smith recalled the fluorescent bathroom lights in the Tenenbaum household—the lights that throw Richie’s face into sharp relief in the mirror before an attempted suicide. The songs, even If they stood independently and not in a compilation, have become inextricably linked with their use in film.
And though Wes Anderson certainly has a heavy hand in all of his films as an auteur sorts, taking part in screenwriting, directing, and supervising nearly all of the minutiae of his films’ production, the important task of music selection has consistently been entrusted to the hands (and ears) of one man other than Anderson himself—music supervisor Randall Poster. Poster has worked with Wes Anderson since the very beginning, helping to choose a few songs for Bottle Rocket’s soundtrack right out of college, and remaining by Anderson’s for the following 18 years. Poster collaborates brilliantly with film composers like Mark Mothersbaugh and is tasked with the significant challenge of acquiring the licenses and rights for recorded music that many others have tried--and failed-- to obtain. His work as a music director has involved him in a wide number of projects, spanning from smaller indie films to major blockbusters like The Hangover, The Wolf on Wall Street, Up in the Air, and Revolutionary Road. The sheer variety of music he draws from is something astounding to consider.
Both musically and culturally, however, the 60s and 70s seem to be Anderson’s directorial sweet spot, and Randall Poster is clearly glad to oblige. I Saved Latin! offers a diverse sampling of covers from this variable era, from punk to pop to rock and the things between. Regrettably, no songs on the album come from the soundtrack for Moonrise Kingdom, which was set in the 60s on a island off the coast of New England and features the instrumental and choral compositions of Benjamin Britten throughout. What I would have liked to see most, I think, would have been an homage to the scene in which the underwear-clad pair of leading tweens dance to Francoise Hardy’s sultry “Le temps de l’amour” on a grey and drizzly beach, free from adult supervision. The scene is undoubtedly one of the film’s greatest musical moments—one that perfectly summarizes the innocence and awkwardness and aspiration of growing up, and growing up in love. Hardy’s voice is a grown and womanly contrast to the somewhat silly dance unfolding on the screen; we see gangly limbs, floppy hair, a wide rift between bodies that one might expect to see in the sixth grade—all laid out in front of us.
The scene is one of the most charming and tender throughout all of Anderson’s films, but also serves to demonstrate his and Poster’s mastery of incorporating song and film; Suzie, the female lead, crouches down to drop the needle on a small, portable record player that she has brought with her after running away from home, and the musical stage is set. That she has chosen to bring this unwieldy and cumbersome survival tool as opposed to, say, food, or a tooth brush, speaks volumes to Anderson’s views on the importance of one’s favorite music— a good album is an essential element of life’s first aid kit.
Record players are a recurring visual element in most of the Anderson films; Moonrise Kingdom opens with a shot of a young boy (Suzie’s brother) in a bathrobe, sitting down and playing a Benjamin Britten record about the instruments in an orchestra, and Margot plays records in a small indoor tent after Richie comes home from the hospital in The Royal Tenenbaums. When questioned about this common thread in an interview with Pitchfork Media, Anderson seemed largely focused on the visual benefit and intrigue provided by a spinning record. “I'm not really a vinyl guy. But, just as a visual to go along with music, digital numbers ticking off is not quite as romantic as watching something that spins. I've always been drawn to that a little more and, in [Moonrise Kingdom], I have a perfectly valid excuse.”
Given the narrow recording range of the songs featured on I Saved Latin!, therefore, we might expect the music from a film set in this era to appear, but nevertheless, the album features an impressive range of originals by classic talents like David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and Cat Stevens, reimagined and newly interpreted by modern indie bands like Freelance Whales, Matt Pond, and Someone Still Loves You, Boris Yeltin!. As a fledgling admirer of folk music (I think most college students are, at one point or another), I have learned to love the art of covering more generally; the greatest songs in the folk canon, as it were, don’t really belong to anyone anymore-- they exist only in their various iterations, reinterpreted and reevaluated by artists throughout history. “This Land is My Land” could, for all intents and purposes, just as easily inform the listener that this song is their song, no matter who’s singing it. As I write this, I’ve just received an email linking me to a web-based compendium of Dylan covers, released in over 40 volumes--It seems the word has spread. Given an apparent fondness for obscuring his own lyrics and melodies at live shows, I think even Dylan likes to cover himself.
Thus faced with an ever-growing range of songs I won’t have time to listen to, when I first heard the news that a Wes Anderson compilation album was coming out, I was relieved to have a temporary respite from the constant process of browsing and poring over blogs like Cover Me Songs, or listening in on recurring radio cover segments like Triple J’s “Like a Version.” The work of compilation had already been done for me. Though the songs on the tracklist do share a common decade, they work well together, primarily, because they embody the worlds and atmospheres so vividly imagined by Wes Anderson in film and by Randall Poster in sound. I Saved Latin! is the first compilation I’ve seen that is centered around a love for a particular film director, though I am sure there are others out there; covering a band, for a recording or at a live concert, expresses a certain degree of gratitude and appreciation for the original—it’s like of a cultural tip of the hat towards influences and musical peers, across genres and generations.
Kurt Cobain famously covered Leadbelly originals, for example, citing the folk and blues singer as a major player in Nirvana’s development as a band, and though he is a filmmaker and not a traditional musician in any sense, Wes Anderson’s films are undoubtedly a source of musical inspiration for countless fans—he might as well be a rockstar. Randall Poster explains the fulfilling ability that film has to inspire and captivate young audiences, particularly from a musical standpoint: “In the course of the 16 years that we've worked together,” he says, “a lot of bands have been born, and I think there have been some inspired by Wes, to a certain degree. And when kids come up to you and they're like, "Rushmore really opened me up to a whole world of music," that's the absolute greatest. Both of us have shared the experience of being the kid in the dark, watching the movie and just saying, "Oh my God, this is the greatest thing I've ever seen." And when you feel like you've affected another kid sitting in the dark, that's a great reward.”
A group of those kids sitting in the dark, incidentally, have found themselves included on I Saved Latin; Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos, a chamber pop group from Indianapolis, were once called Archer Avenue, a band name based on a street from The Royal Tenenbaums’ neighborhood. They perform a serene and dreamy cover of Ziggy Stardust that blends seamlessly with the rest of the compilation, demonstrating first hand the impact that music in film can have on audiences big and small. In all, I Saved Latin! is more important as a tribute to a great director than it is as a standalone compilation of songs. It’s a way of expressing thanks and admiration through music that successfully bridges the gap between fiction and reality.
“Metaphors sustain us,” claims Hilton Als in “Tristes Tropiques,” the first essay in White Girls. “To a point” might echo that claim, one which defines, fills, and propels “Tristes Tropiques” as well as many other essays whose subjects range from Flannery O’Connor, Eminem, Louise Little (Malcolm X’s mother), and Richard Pryor. Metaphor elevates and transcends its subjects--it can locate the essence of something, an essence that maybe only one person might ever see and find, and then renders that elusive and near invisible essence in terms that many more will recognize. As we would assume, those essays, about Eminem and Michael Jackson and Flannery O’Connor, are not only about their most obvious subjects but about what the subjects represent; each writer, musician, artist, and so on functions also as the intersectional essence of something much greater and larger. Metaphor sustains us and Als for those essays, to be sure. But “Tristes Tropiques “ stands out, for lots of reasons, including because Als use of metaphor of sustenance is more visible and less viable than in any other essay in White Girls. In “Tristes Tropiques” metaphors are like sandcastles that will disintegrate once the essay is over, just like the relationship they evoke; virtually every other essay is a metaphor itself that continues elevating and transcending after the book is closed.
Als then uses metaphor, not via traditional simile or some other quick comparison, throughout White Girls: when he imagines Louise Little’s inner life to be more than Malcolm X represented it to be, as fodder for white intellectuals who want to understand her as a white-passing woman integral to her son’s politics, or when he dissects Truman Capote as a woman writer (crucially, not a writer about or for women). Or when, in “The Only One,” at its most basic about another black gay artist, the fashion editor Andre Leon Talley, Als pragmatically teaches us about Talley’s elaborate life and career, only to end with an anecdote about a Paris luncheon that undermines the rest of the essay’s measured, scientific, portraiture:
Talley got up from his seat to sit near Maxime de la Falaise, who had admired a large turquoise ring he wore.
“Look, LouLou!” Talley shouted. “The color of this ring is divine, no? Just like the stone you gave me!”
“What?” LouLou de la Falaise asked, barely disguising her boredom.
“This ring, child. Just like the stone you gave me, no?”
LouLou de la Falaise did not respond. She nodded toward Roxanne Lowit, and Lowit instructed her to stand behind Maxime de la Falaise and Talley. LouLou de la Falaise said, “I will stand there only if Andre tries not to look like such a nigger dandy.”
Several people laughed, loudly. None laughed louder than Andre Leon Talley. But it seemed to me that a couple of things happened before he started laughing: he shuttered his eyes, his grin grew larger, and his back went rigid, as he saw his belief in the durability of glamour and allure shatter before him in a million glistening bits. Talley attempted to pick those pieces up. He sighed, then stood up and said, “Come on, children. Let’s see something. Let’s visit the House of Galliano.”
Everything before this moment in “The Only One” was different. Als takes us through Talley’s life without any analysis or embellishment: “[Talley’s] emotional involvement with women rises in part from nostalgia. He seems to project his grandmother’s intentions and concerns for him…” and “His interest in romance is nostalgic, too. For him, romance is not about ending his loneliness; rather it flows from the idea, expounded by Baudelaire, that love is never truly attained, only yearned for.” That is to say, for the vast majority of the essay, Als describes the life of a gay black man who is integral to a white world without suggesting what that might mean. Als repeats others’ commentary about Talley--a writer for Vogue who labels Talley as “the greatest crossover act in the industry for quite some time” but who will “never be an editor-in-chief” because “how could America have that [Talley] dictating what the women of America will wear? Or representing them?” But Als himself provides no commentary. He does not suggest what Talley does represent, to borrow that Vogue writer’s language.
We only see, until the essay’s last minute, about Talley what everyone else sees. But then Als shares how it “seemed” to him then. We get, amidst the white socialites whose understanding of Talley bears no resemblance to Als’, that essence as it emerges quietly and implicitly through Als’ observation. It’s almost more of the same measured witness to Talley’s life that precedes; Als’ impression of the moment are words that fell together perfectly to gesture toward something that was festering all along.
In the book’s other essays, metaphor works differently: Als more explicitly and thus more traditionally looks at American art and culture in his subjects’ own rights as well as, through his analysis, what they mean. Photographs of black men lynched unfold as proof of a sort of white guilt; Eminem acts as the ever dynamic intersection of white and class privilege as well as a vehicle through which to understand how a poet’s language both reflects and shapes his word. “The Only One” is one essay in which metaphor operates several layers beneath its surface.
So is “Tristes Tropiques,” surprisingly, because Als is upfront and relentless in how metaphor figures into both his essay and into his essay’s topic: his thirty-something year relationship with an “SL,” another black man with whom Als was in love (he never uses those words). “Tristes Tropiques” differs from the book’s other essays in virtually every possible way: its length (almost ninety pages), that it’s about Als’ own relationship with references to culture and art and literature and society without any thorough analysis of those references, its blend of fiction and non-fiction and memoir and criticism (as a book, White Girls is all those things; it’s arguable as to whether any single essay encompasses each and every genre in itself). Als’ relationship with SL (Sir or Lady, abbreviated), until it ended in 2007, was unconventional. He tells us--it’s important to remember that what we know about the relationship is only from what he tells us--that it was both romantic and platonic, that they were a “we,” that they were a “couple” but never lovers, because SL is straight and one of Als’ titular white girls would inevitably pull the two apart, that they formed their brand of twinship.
“We are not lovers,” Als explains, “it’s almost as if I dreamed him--my lovely twin, the same as me, only different.” That distinction--between being lovers and dreaming of a lovely twin with whom to spend your life and on whom to spend your mind--justifies Als metaphor of their relationship as that of a familial bond, although a very particular one. Twinship has in common with Als’ rendition of his and Sl’s relationship the closeness, the similarities, and (writing as a twin) a kind of visceral motion: you always want to be nearer, physically and mentally, to the twin with whom you already overlap in so many ways. What twinship also has in common, of course, with the descriptives of Als’ relationship with SL at least, is the absence of the erotic. In a way, being a twin is the closest you can be to someone without sleeping with them, or without being them yourself.
To evoke what is, or was, the definitive relationship of his life, Als adopts different voices: the cultural critic, the hopeful lover, the scorned lover, the self-aware lover. In the essay’s first paragraph, Als is the unrequited lover, always hoping, always, like a twin who experiences that constant impulse to just be a little closer, unfulfilled:
Sir or Lady (as I shall call him) sits on the promontory in our village, deep in movie love. He’s running the same old flick in his head again. In it, the stars kiss breathlessly, in true love. This is the kind of movie he enjoys: the movie guy kisses the movie girl and they are one. I listen to Sir or Lady detailing this or that movie scenario and look for myself in every word of it. I don’t want to exist much outside his thinking and regard. I’m convinced Sir or Lady’s movie tales are his way of telling me he and I are one; he’s a romantic, but a silent one. He says: the movie girl overcomes her resistance to the movie guy and then we know they are one forever. (He’s never told me this part of the story before. He’s never used that exact sequence of words before.
Doesn’t that sound familiar? The familiarity with the kind of movie he enjoys, the search for yourself in every word he says, the indifference to “exist[ing] much outside his thinking and regard,” and the subsequent conviction that every word the beloved object utters is code for something else. (We don’t need Als to elaborate on what he really hears in when SL talks about a movie girl overcoming her resistance to the movie guy.) It’s the voice of someone in love with someone who doesn’t love them back, a voice we hear in countless songs and poems and books and movies and television shows. It’s an old voice. It’s hard for this voice to say anything new, because even though what this voice has to say seems apocalyptic and truthful and expressive and one in a million to its speaker, it’s so universal that it’s redundant to anyone else. (He’s never used that exact sequence of words before, the voice tells to anyone who will listen.)
But then there’s a different voice, the reflective one of the critical personal essayist, as Als tells us that he’s “spent a fair amount of time trying--in the blind, awkward, and ultimately solipsistic way many of us strive to articulate why the beloved has become just that--how SL came to fill my mind like no one else on earth.” It’s self-aware and self-conscious and apologetic, and it’s also beautiful. For despite how hard it is to make such a tired subject lovely, Als does. The first voice and the second voice battle and undermine each other perpetually; we read sentences as touching and sad as Als description of watching SL watch a movie (“I noticed how his eyes would open and close slowly, like the folds in an accordion. The movies filled his eyes up.”) and then we read sentences that are hyperbolic and deeply relatable and nothing new (“Oh, Lord, don’t ever let this end: he smells like no one else on earth, and he sounds like no one else on earth.”). One thing we can make of this is that this is Als’ essay, and we are reading it, and if we’re reading the poetry we can also read the diary.
That moment--actually, there are several similar ones--in which Als watches SL watch a movie--is perhaps a perfect metaphor for love, of any kind, but particularly unrequited. Anne Carson, the classicist and poet, wrote about this in Eros the Bittersweet, where she posits love as a triangular geometry in which there is always some third party, some obstacle, subverting and blocking the lover from the beloved. Als’ relationship to SL, and, inseparably, twinship, are reminiscent of Eros the Bittersweet as well as that mathematical theory that we can never more than halfway there. No matter how close we get, there is always more distance.
Als’ likening of him and SL and their relationship to anything--Als’ use of metaphor to try (operative word) and capture their relationship--are futile steps toward a point he can never reach. Carson’s figuring of love as inherently involving three points rather than two embodies moments in “Tristes Tropiques” when Als describes (in other words, when Als fills into language something that was unreachable to him in non-written life) him and SL as a “we”:
...we were anxious to share our black American maleness with another person who knew how flat and not descriptive those words were since they did not include how it had more than its share of Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker, women who passed their “white girlhood” together. We were also the first line of Joni Mitchell’s autobiography: “I was the only black man in the room.” We were also the gorgeously corny complications one finds in Joni’s 1976 song, “Black Crow”...We were Barbara Smith and her twin sister, Beverly...we were the amused “sickness,” that Eldridge Cleever felt existed between white women and black men and he said so in his 1968 memoir...we were equal parts “butch realness” and “femme realness,”...we were every word of “Racism: The Sexism of the Family of Man”...
Later in “Tristes Tropiques,” Als tells us that “SL accepts this in me: half living life so I can get down to really living it by writing about it. I wrote about my first kiss more fully than I lived it. I wouldn’t know what I looked like in relation to SL, my twin, if I didn’t describe it on the page.” What the notion of living on the page more than in “real” life, the way in which Als renders and brings to written life SL and him, Carson’s definition of love, and the impossibility of ever meeting and enveloping what it is you wish, all have in common and how each expands on the other, is elusivity. Als’ metaphors in “Tristes Tropiques,” unlike those in the other essays in White Girls, are self-contained; they are gestures toward holding something that, by the time he wrote about it, he had already lost. All the things that he and SL were are, according to that understanding of metaphor, iterations of their essence, but it’s an essence that Als is once again reliving on the page and not in real life because real life is Carson’s third party that escapes language and blocks the kind of unity twinship seems to reach.
Metaphors sustain us, but they can only sustain us for so long. Als tell us that “like most people, I respond to stories that tell me something about who I am or wish to be, but as reflected in another character’s eyes.” Even if that character were his twin, though, Als would still only be seeing himself in his twin’s eyes.
at 2:04 PM
Beck, an artist notoriously difficult for the music industry to classify as his style evolves, is back with an album that gained him entrance into a new genre distinct from his previous work. That genre is breakfast music; a category that seems easily definable but perhaps is just as slippery as the artists it includes. Morning Phase would be in the running, if there were such a race, for best breakfast
album of the year.
Beck, an artist notoriously difficult for the music industry to classify as his style evolves, is back with an album that gained him entrance into a new genre distinct from his previous work. That genre is breakfast music; a category that seems easily definable but perhaps is just as slippery as the artists it includes. Morning Phase would be in the running, if there were such a race, for best breakfast
album of the year.
I wouldn’t call myself a Beck fan, but I am truly a fan of breakfast music. During the school week, I wake up around dawn. I live in a house of college students, so morning is my only chance at solitude. I don’t need or even particularly want music during the meditative, fresh hours of early light. The birds and the relative silence are enjoyable enough. Why listen to anything then? Certain activities seem designed to complement this already pristine experience. Some mornings I pray. Others, I do yoga. Sometimes I write. And sometimes I listen to music. It’s kind of like snorting a drug instead of swallowing it. Every day, the art I consume gets digested with all of the other stuff I’m taking in, like my work, relationships, weather, goals, moods—whatever. Consuming art first thing in the morning is like sending it straight to the brain. The effects are immediate.
For that reason, I’m cautious about what I allow entry to my ears that early. Most music is just noise that gets me thinking about something. I don’t want what I listen to in the morning to throw me off my natural balance. I just want it to support my existing experience and make waking up and breakfasting as pleasant as it can be. I’m not alone in this quest. Typing “breakfast” into the search bar on 8tracks.com yields over two hundred playlists. Many people crave a musical aid to help them bask in the lusciousness of the morning.
Music can make the gradient richer—darks blacker, lights brighter—by adding a base layer to my daily actions. The right artist can serve as a sponsor, gently persuading me to follow through with actions that are hard to stimulate. A song can catalyze me to shelf the day’s stress and step into a ring of energy, or it can indulge sorrowful feelings until I sink into a sad oblivion. This type of listening isn’t at all about appreciating the skill or the methods that went into recording a track; it’s all about the listening experience, and it requires us to think about life in a cinematic way.
Most of us can still remember mix-tapes, the first way to make a custom series of songs for a given event. Then there were mix-CDs, followed by playlists for the computer or iPod. New technologies that blend this customization with the existing convention of radio continue to spring up to make playlists require less and less effort from listeners: satellite radio, YouTube, Last.fm, Pandora, Spotify, and 8tracks—a newer music streaming website that calls back the humanness of song collections through its user generated playlists. Our era of data mining keeps making it easier for companies to find commonalities among artists or even specific songs to deliver mood music for any time. Most of my friends think of music in terms of purpose: workout music, pre-game music, study music, dance music, night drive music, day-trip music. While this method of categorizing music may not be a new idea, people can now listen in this cinematic way with little to no effort required. No more crafting mix-tapes.
I buy into this trend most of the time. After all, isn’t it what has made radio shows popular? Radio DJs have been delivering mixes of music based on mood, weather, current events, etc. for almost a century, and radio is generally viewed as a positive development for musicians. Still, I acknowledge the drawbacks that streaming music according to activity can have on the consumption of musicians’ work. Using a playlist for a party is practically always a good idea, yes, but by turning to a computer generated playlist any time we want to listen to music, we’re switching rapidly from one album or artist to the next, never hearing an artist’s intentions for us: the album in its entirety. We don’t get the songs in context. But, then again, who cares what the artist intends?
Morning Phase attracted my attention as a different kind of album immediately. Its title suggested that it might be a breakfast album. “Morning” signaled breakfast to me in an obvious way, and even “Phase” hinted that this album would understand the necessary cycle—the beginning, middle, and end—I associate with breakfast music. Together, the words “Morning Phase” might also be read as Beck’s grieving period for the music industry that once was. He’s released an album of songs that are meant to be consumed together, while he realizes that the time for that type of listening is largely passed.
By the time I saw Morning Phase advertised, my demands for breakfast music had really taken shape. I wasn’t finding breakfast music in specific artists—some might credit Jack Johnson as a breakfast artist, but none of his inconsequential music could truly satisfy me in the mornings—or specific songs. Norah Jones, for example, reigned queen of the breakfast music during the early stages of my breakfast music fandom with lazy, mellow songs like “Sunrise” and “Don’t Know Why.” These songs appeared on albums that did not stick exclusively to the morning mood, however. Come Away With Me (2002), for instance, begins with a morning track but makes its way through the rest of the day, with songs like “Shoot the Moon,” “Turn Me On,” and “The Long Day is Over”—songs that simply don’t resonate with an early morning listener. Much of the album seems more suited to cooking dinner than breakfast. Although she had nailed a few breakfast songs, I started to realize they weren’t enough to satisfy a full morning of waking up. When she released The Fall in 2009, I was disappointed with the lack of dimension of almost every track, but I quickly realized the album as a whole could be useful. I tried letting it run through my speakers as I poured cereal, coffee and orange juice. I slowly made my way through all of it, music and breakfast, in a chair in my backyard.
It took falling for The Fall to realize that my problem with streaming breakfast music is the lack of narration. Good breakfast music must be a full album. Even when using a completed playlist from 8tracks, where there is a clear start and finish, the songs feel too much like a random assortment with no narrative arc. Ignoring the musician’s intentions is fine if I’m going on a drive, where the music starts with the ignition and ends when I park; or if I’m taking a shower; or if I’m taking shots before going out. When I’m waking up, however, I appreciate the artist’s gentle prodding to get out of breakfast mode. With breakfast music, tracks must flow into each other. They can’t all be too similar, or I won’t feel like I’ve made any progress by listening. Listening to breakfast music is my first potential accomplishment of the day. If I’m streaming from Pandora, there’s no definite end; it could drag on forever, which, to me, is a night-time idea.
Norah Jones takes me on an easy ride through brunch, but by the end, I’ve completed an incremental transformation with her, just as the sun has almost imperceptibly transitioned from its morning position on the sideline to playing center. A breakfast album should, ever so subtly, bring listeners through a metamorphosis, from the wonder of first opening one’s eyes to the decision to make something happen.
The first track on Jones’s The Fall, “Chasing Pirates,” provides a punchy but low-key traveling beat that marks the easy beginning of something; it mirrors my decision to get up and start breakfast. Its steady pace and quick transitions are the perfect complement for gathering ingredients from the cabinets, mixing things, and generally getting the day moving. The song lacks strong dynamics. It travels along the string from point A to point B with no real obstacles.
By the time we get midway through The Fall, it’s clear that the overall feeling is getting over a broken heart, building up an independence out of the broken pieces left over. A breakup album is definitely not upbeat enough to wake up to, but this is skips over the breakup and cuts right to the quiet motivation that clicks into place long after the split, that subtle decision to engage oneself with some point in the future, to stop sulking, to get up and just start walking. The drums carry the entire album forward. Electric guitar and piano, and even Jones’s vocals, dabble on each track, but the continuous beat is what unites all of the songs. Some songs, like “Waiting,” have no drums, but in those cases, the guitar and bass keep that same forward rhythm. And the beauty of the album is that, even though it’s mostly about this rhythm of recovery, the drums are completely undramatic. They seem nothing but necessary, like a heartbeat.
The Fall might not have had any particularly interesting songs that could stand alone. Take for an example the tacky opening lines of “It’s Gonna Be”:
If all we talk about is money
Nothing will be funny, honey
Now that everyone’s a critic
It’s makin’ my mascara runny
The obvious rhyme scheme makes me cringe. The lyrics’ simplicity is like a preachy children’s book, concise without being clever. Yet as part of the overall narrative of the album, the cheesiness of this track seems appropriate. It’s like the lack of creativity I feel when I do spring cleaning, an activity that simply has to be done. I can’t blame myself for falling into a cliche if it’s something humans must do. I picture Jones packing her things into her car and driving away from her lover, writing these lines. She doesn’t need to reshape her feelings into witty lines. The moment isn’t about being witty. It’s a straightforward, driven track that feels necessary to her escape back to finding her independence.
After the first success I found when playing The Fall through my breakfast time, I started making a habit of it. I wanted to see when it would fail. It worked for both my solitary cereal mornings and extended brunches of cooking with friends. It’s an album that helps me say, “Enough. Let’s get this day rolling.” It moves us gently through a hazy time and, by the end of it—the album closes with a fun cabaret track titled “Man of the Hour”—we feel like Jones has made a lighthearted decision to be with someone new, not forever, but for now. It’s about a relationship that’s decidedly unromantic:
I know you’ll never bring me flowers
Flowers, they will only die
And though we’ll never take a shower together,
I know you’ll never make me cry
Jones isn’t about a lifelong commitment anymore. She’s interested in her man of this hour. I finish the album feeling like I don’t need to make any grand, consequential decisions today. The alarm clock doesn’t mean I have to figure my life out. It only requires me to get out of bed.
As soon as I saw the title of his new album, I suspected that Beck understood. Morning Phase suggests the completion of a passing, even fleeting, time. The strength of the album, similar to The Fall’s, is its full cycle rather than any single tracks. Just from viewing the tracklist, I saw words evocative of the ideal wake-up experience, like “Cycle,” “Morning,” “Phase,” and “Morning Light.” Another clue that Morning Phase isn’t meant to be chopped up and scattered throughout the day is the way tracks are paired. Cycle, a forty second instrumental track, leads into the lazy acoustic guitar strumming of “Morning.” Later, “Phase” throws us back to the symphonic beginning with a little over a minute of instrumental interlude.
Even the bell-like piano riff that starts and ends “Morning” sounds vaguely like someone calling, “Good morning; good morning to you.” The notes follow the same inflection of those words. The first real vocals come in shortly after, accompanied by faint rolls of wind that I’m still not convinced aren’t coming through my window. Together with the drums that seem to ride the border between on-time and late, we get an easily pulled in to Beck’s morning journey.
Again aligning himself with the breakfast expertise of Norah Jones, Beck doesn’t seem to be facing turmoil in this album. He’s in a place post-turmoil and still heading towards a deeper satisfaction. The first lyrics give an immediate sense of Beck’s being over it all, ready to embrace something new:
Woke up this morning
From a long night in the storm
Looked up this morning
Saw the roses full of thorns
Mountains are falling
They don’t have nowhere to go
While the message isn’t entirely uplifting, they are nonetheless well suited for first thing in the morning. Yes, again, conditions in the world aren’t quite right. To not acknowledge the downsides is setting yourself up for failure. Beck’s up and seeing clearly. It’s a beautiful day outside, but that doesn’t mean I won’t get hurt in it.
It’s worth mentioning the general reception of Morning Phase as a sequel to Sea Change (2002). The two albums, twelve years apart, share their downbeat sound and Californian folky steadiness, but I’d classify Morning Phase as a revisit to the material in Sea Change rather than a continuation. In 2002, Beck released Sea Change as he coped with the end of his marriage. The sadness in one album carries over to the other, but this time bitterness is replaced with melancholy. The titles themselves give away the distinction between albums. The former springs from a monumental change, a loss, while the latter acknowledges that the mourning phase is just that, a phase. Perhaps it took Beck over a decade to learn to trust again. Or maybe his material isn’t so personal. Perhaps he’s just finally acknowledging the way life works. Certain phases people go through are bigger than moods. During the course of a phase, a change certainly takes place, but it occurs incrementally, almost imperceptibly, unlike a drastic cut. In sync with my requirements for a great breakfast album, Beck seems to have realized something in Morning Phase. The album is an exploration of this growth, not an outpouring of reactions to an unanticipated change.
I’m in good hands with Beck this morning, as I listen to Morning Phase in my room at sunrise. I’m on the third track, “Heart Is A Drum,” which lifts me beyond the slow crooning of “Morning” and into a repetitive rhythm and a message to stir me from the haze:
Only what you feel
Keeps you turning when you’re standing still
Only what you feel
Keeps you turning when you’re standing still
With a quick crescendo on “see,” Beck’s vocals enter the song, beckoning me to rise with him, and reminding me that the world keeps “turning when you’re standing still.” I’m motivated to get up, to start moving things around. On a breakfast level, this third track is the push, the low-key traveling beat that Jones always nails. I’m past all the lazy stretching, throwing around the covers, and looking out the window. I’m onto walking downstairs to the kitchen, pouring a glass of water for myself, and pouring another one for my coffee maker.
The song doesn’t move through a typical verse-chorus-bridge dynamic structure. There are several pieces, and one drops into the next with no dramatic rhythm changes. I’m now transitioning from the breakfast prep to organizing my room. I have a bowl of cereal with me now. I, following the song, change seamlessly from one activity to the next, propelled forward by this gentle but quick pace.
But Beck warns me not to listen blindly. Beyond its breakfast album purpose of motivating me out of sleepiness, “Heart Is A Drum” offers life advice:
You lost your tongue when you fall from pendulum [along those lines]
Your heart is a drum
Keeping time with everyone
Need to find someone
To show me how to play it slow
Beck warns me about getting swept up in the fast pace. This morning time is pleasant and reflective, but he reminds me to bring this meditative mindset with me when I leave the house. Instead of riding the pendulum, I’ll remember to “play it slow” today, to go at my own pace. Beck reminds me, in a casual and undemanding way, that I don’t need to keep up with the people around me.
Fourth and fifth tracks “Say Goodbye” and “Blue Moon” also couple well together. The first brings me down to the sadness that comes with starting something new, like the day, in my case. “These are the words we use to say goodbye,” are the repeated words of the downbeat song. But by “Blue Moon,” Beck picks us back up. The light, punchy strumming and picking on guitar and mandolin, the heartbeat percussion, the reverberated crescendoing oohs that come in after the first verse, even the major-minor-major chord progression itself—all of the musical elements blended together create a sense of rising, growing, swelling, overcoming, traveling. The opening lines remind me of the good in getting outside: “I’m so tired of being alone. These penitent walls are all I’ve known.” This is one of the more dynamic songs on the album, well placed as we come into some of the heavier tracks mid-album.
One aspect of a great breakfast album is an organic sound. Jones usually doesn’t deviate far from basic folk or cabaret instruments and drums that range from a shaker egg to the steady, but light, drums throughout The Fall. Another kingpin of the evolution of breakfast music is Nick Drake, the English singer-songwriter who gathered most of his success long after his death in 1974. His last album, Pink Moon, is another longstanding perfect breakfast album. Drake is known to be one of Beck’s influences—the latter has recorded covers of several songs from Pink Moon, and even his originals seem to borrow from Drake’s songs.
Morning Phase seems to boast its use of effects, but it keeps its instruments basic. Beck goes heavy on reverb and the various sound effects that make the album so rich, but he tries to stray from synthesized instruments or anything that sounds electronic and artificial.
By “Phase,” the symphonic interlude, I’ve seriously contemplated my life, I’ve finished my cereal, I’ve done some cleaning. I’m now getting dressed, preparing for the album’s end and my day’s beginning. The interlude reminds me that I’m listening to a full, purposeful work. The next two tracks are sort of like the comedown from the depressing middle tracks, like the cool down after my more difficult yoga routine. I’m almost ready to go. I’m moving in and out of my room, so I don’t catch all of the words, but it doesn’t matter.
And then comes “Waking Light” to wrap it up. His tone is existential. It has been throughout, but here I These songs have accepted the world I’ll need to face later today.
When the memory leaves you
Somewhere you can’t make it home
When the morning comes to meet you
Rest your eyes on waking light
The lyrics are accepting but realistic—like yes, things can get shitty, but if you look at it all in hindsight, from the comfort of your newfound contentment, you can find beauty and peace alongside whatever was painful. Beck’s new album is reflective, spiritual, inclusive, and authoritative. It’s as if he’s not his own voice but the voice of the universe, checking back on his Sea Change breakup from a comfortable, stable chair and realizing for the first time that he’s been seated. He didn’t just get back up from the fall. He’s made a slow, unnoticeable, steady recovery.
at 2:03 PM
When you read a particularly good book, reviewing it is fairly straightforward. When the things you enjoy about it seep from every page, the challenge becomes how to trim your thoughts about it into a coherent piece rather than allowing it to turn into a crazed love letter. Reviewing a book that’s not as engaging is an equally simple endeavor, and perhaps it’s even easier since faults catch our eye even sooner.
The most difficult endeavor is examining a great but deeply imperfect book like Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth. It traveled through three generations and three continents to trace the stories of Archie and Samad, an Englishman and a Bangladeshi man that served together in World War II, their offspring, and the multiracial London that they inhabit. It was the story of Archie’s marriage to a young Jamaican woman many years his junior and their daughter Irie’s friendship with Samad’s twins, Magid and Millat. Even though it was fourteen years ago now, I can still remember the reception of White Teeth, and if an eight-year-old heard about all the fuss, then people were clearly impressed. It ended up being one of those books on everyone’s end of the year list and when I finally went to read it, it was hard not to hear the praise from people practically foaming at the mouth saying how good it was, how important it was. “Ambitious.” “Rollicking.” “Sharp ear for dialogue.” “Biting wit.” “Impressive.”
Those echoes of past reviews capture part of why a book like that is difficult to review, especially because frankly, there is a lot to love in White Teeth. The reviewers certainly weren’t wrong about Smith’s sharp wit and ear for dialogue. They weren’t wrong about her narrative voice’s ability to cut through liberal hypocrisy and old ideas of tradition so quickly and thoroughly that the wound would start scarring and the prose would move on before you’d even notice what happened. Just because praise is effusive doesn’t mean that it’s undeserved. And naturally, part of the appeal of White Teeth is context. A book by a half British, half Jamaican Cambridge graduate published when she was twenty-four is the sort of backstory that makes the book even easier to enjoy, especially reviewers. Many reviewers lauded Smith’s novel (and, in a not so subtle way, Smith herself) as a representation of a new sort of London (in fact, one reviewer for the New York Times went go so far as to title the review “The New England”) without realizing that this world in front of them wasn’t so new. This multiracial, multicultural world where people move around, interact with, and love one another in spite of and due to class and race is one that has always been under their noses; Smith was just putting it in gorgeous prose and forcing them to notice it. It moved from past to present, from father to daughter, from Eminem to Mangal Pandey with ease—and my god, did it move—and any reader can feel that this book is the product of Cambridge, of London, of bazaars, of public schools, of diaspora, and of lives that are never truly confined to one small corner of an island.
In theory, the collision of all of these things would produce some messiness. But Smith didn’t attempt to dig deeper into this messiness and the relationships between her characters. Instead, perhaps in an attempt to give her characters some complexity and meaning, Smith ends up creating somewhat unbelievable backstories and scenarios. Some of the more glaring examples that reviewers often mention are the Jewish scientist interested in eugenics, giving the Islamic fundamentalist group in the book the acronym KEVIN (in fact, abruptly making one character a fundamentalist was a strange choice in itself), and Archie attending a New Year’s Eve party at a stranger’s house after his suicide attempt that ends up bringing him and his wife together.
This inability to stay grounded in reality—and frustratingly so, because many aspects of it were captured perfectly— was something that one reviewer managed to identify particularly well, and perhaps more importantly, explain why it was ineffective. James Wood’s review of White Teeth is one that is still remembered not because it was particularly thoughtful (though it was), but because he managed to diagnose what was ailing the seemingly healthy patient. His review is remembered for him coining the term “hysterical realism” to describe Smith’s work and others like it. Wood used the example of Aristotle’s perspective on “a convincing impossibility” vs. “an unconvincing possibility” to explain why the happenings in White Teeth don’t feel the same way that events in well-done magic realism or a thriller do, and this does a fine job of capturing why White Teeth and novels like it don’t capture reality particularly well. These types of novels end up being slaves to their prose and their own “clever” twists and quirks, and those things come at the expense of real emotion and deep characters. In Wood’s words, these novels know “a thousand things without knowing a single character.”
One of the largest issues with White Teeth and its approach to its characters and setting isn’t simply that the coincidences were a little too clever or a little too implausible to feel real. I overlooked the fact that she inexplicably gave the fundamentalist group the acronym KEVIN. I even forgave her for the ending that was supposed to tie up every loose end but ended up making it feel like her hand as a narrator was just a little too heavy in herding her characters together.
But what’s still somewhat difficult to look past is this: by creating such improbable stories and inorganic connections, she makes this multicultural and multiracial vision of London seem almost fantastical. The reality is that these relationships and interactions are a rich and funny reality; they’re connections that could have existed even without the too-neat coincidences and slightly too quirky backstories. Those connections are a reality that I would have loved to see when I read White Teeth.
NW, her latest novel, came to us thirteen years after White Teeth, and we’re still in northwest London. Again, the book primarily focuses on two friends of different races, the thirtysomethings Natalie and Leah (black and white, respectively), and the interactions between class, race, and culture. And that is where the similarities end. Natalie, formerly Keisha (her name changed with her aspirations), is a barrister with a banker husband, Frank, while Leah works in a small office dedicated to allocating funds for local projects. They both seem to be living rich, fulfilling lives, but Natalie is slowly coming undone while Leah’s fear of having children with her husband, Michel, puts a large rift in a very happy relationship.
More often than not, Smith handled the expansive world of White Teeth with grace, even if she occasionally attempted to keep things too neat. But here, it’s remarkable what she’s able to do with a smaller cast of characters. Her prose is at its most inventive when it’s freed from an expansive plot. It gives her much more time to focus on her characters and the ennui of the everyday. Smith spends an entire chapter with Leah at the workplace as she endures a wall of words from her Team Leader, Adina, while Leah examines her mouth and Smith presents the reader with a textual representation of Adina’s mouth:
Tooth gold tooth tooth gap tooth tooth tooth
Tooth tooth tooth tooth chipped tooth filling
This portion here is one of the most telling shifts Smith has taken since White Teeth. By showing Adina’s mouth head-on, Smith lets us examine even small things very closely—perhaps even too close for comfort—from Leah’s eyes, and it’s an intimacy that she rarely allows in White Teeth. It’s a firm pause that I couldn’t imagine her taking from her coursing prose in White Teeth, and one that marks how different NW is. Smith’s writing in White Teeth was marked by a sort of breathlessness, like a guide that wants to make sure that you see absolutely everything before you leave the museum but doesn’t give you time to focus on anything. On the other hand, NW’s prose alternates between crisp and languid, with Smith often forgoing punctuation to let scenes wash over the reader, leaving dialogue unmarked, and letting the reader wander with her rather than grasping their hand as she sprints off. The effect of this is that NW’s structure feels loose, but Smith’s confident prose makes the reading experience feel curiously stable. Part of this is because she hasn’t abandoned some of her compact sentences that do more to characterize a person than an entire paragraph could. One of the striking sentences that captures the gulf between Leah and her other friends is, “While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.” That small, lovely sentence captures one of the major conflicts between her and Natalie: that Natalie grew up and Leah is still attempting to catch up.
Additionally, one of Smith’s strengths—an ear for believable conversation—is still intact. In NW, she spends much less time attributing it to specific characters and in those cases, the dialogue does less to develop a character and ends up being an incredibly effective way to develop a setting. When Leah is invited to a dinner party with Natalie’s friends, the conversation that takes place has such familiar themes you can almost predict what the guests will say next: “Pass the heirloom tomato salad. The thing about Islam. Let me tell you about Islam. The thing about the trouble with Islam. Everyone is suddenly an expert on Islam. But what do you think, Samhita, yeah, what do you think, Samhita, what’s your take on this? Samhita, the copyright lawyer. Pass the tuna.” The conversation itself is funny because it’s familiar to anybody that has been to a dinner party, but reading these empty words and absorbing their pseudo-intellectual earnestness puts us in the same position as Leah. The conversation occurring around her does a remarkable job of not only showing the background noise of most dinner parties, but also showing the gap between her and Natalie without either of them saying a word.
This stronger focus on the characters and their relationship could also be because, as many disappointed Amazon reviewers noted, there isn’t a particularly firm plot. As a result, there simply isn’t that same pressure to keep things packaged together in order to keep a plot moving because there are fewer moving parts than in her debut novel. There’s only the relationship between the characters, the city, and the spaces that they inhabit, which means that the book lacks a plot in the same way that our own lives lack a plot. NW’s characters are able to live and ponder and breathe in a way that the ones in White Teeth simply weren’t.
In fact, the complexity of the characters and their relationships seems to be what allows Smith to keep them connected organically. One of the most perplexing relationships in the beginning of the book is the one between Natalie and Leah. One of the most agonizing scenes between the two friends is when Natalie invites the two of them to her house for a garden party. The narrator notes, “Frank smiles. He is handsome his shirt is perfect his trousers are perfect his children are perfect his wife is perfect his is a perfectly chilled glass of Prosecco.” But class differences aside, there are clearly other issues with their friendship as well. Natalie turns out to be deeply disinterested in being with her friend, though the annoyance turns out to be mutual. Their difference in lifestyle, along with Natalie’s disinterest inevitably makes one wonder why in the world these two are friends, and also makes one think that Michel could be right about Leah finally becoming “one of these English people…who hate all their friends.”
Fortunately, it’s worth noting that one of Smith’s great gifts is understanding friendships and why even the most perplexing ones endure. The origins of Leah and Natalie’s friendship is both mundane and extraordinary—when they were young, Natalie saved Leah from drowning at a local pool, and this great event is what connected the two of them. But childhood friendships, which are uncomplicated and easily maintained in younger years, can grow or fade, and Smith captures all of this in the latter half of the book. Yet she also understands that this “great” happening is not enough to explain the endurance of this friendship, and it is at this point that Natalie’s story is finally unveiled. As it turns out, she went to the same school as Leah, and “Nat is the girl does good from their thousand-kid madhouse; done too good, maybe to recall where came from.” Nat was the one that worked relentlessly throughout school in spite of her upbringing, moving from one achievement to the next while Leah attempted to find her footing. And it’s at this point that the narrator points out the obvious about Natalie: “To live like this, you would have to forget everything that came before. How else could you manage?”
And the problem is that Natalie is managing, or trying to, but it’s impossible to forget. Leah is a reminder of Natalie’s past as Keisha, one that she can’t shed quite so easily, but Leah’s life at home was also what gave her stability and something to aspire to. For Natalie, Leah is a reminder of what she left behind which is why she is both bored by her friend’s presence and cannot bear to cut her off. The “great” happening at the swimming pool is what brought them together, but in the mercurial friendship that follows, we see Smith capturing one of the most interesting relationships we often have in our lives: the friend with whom our roots are inextricably tangled.
The friendship between these two women is one of the most achingly realistic aspects of NW, and this is most likely because Smith gives us the chance to follow them and remain in their heads. It doesn’t make their actions predictable; it just means that we understand what they’re rooted in. And these roots are exactly what I came back to when I was confronted with the ending. It’s not until much later in the novel that we hear from Natalie’s perspective, and swaths of it match what we’ve learned from Leah’s perspective earlier in the novel. She does incredibly well in school, marries an heir to an Italian appliance company, becomes a barrister and has two beautiful children. But in the end, Natalie puts up an online profile in order to have sex with strangers and inevitably, Frank finds out and their marriage is destroyed. Initially, I was shocked and confused. It seemed so out of character that I wondered if I had missed something. But later, I reread and finally understood (at least to some degree) why she decided to undo the life that she created for herself. As one would expect, Natalie’s marriage to Frank is far from perfect, but as an explanation, it still felt somewhat unsatisfying. Then I reread and saw the reason for it all over the book. It started with a description of Natalie during her school days: “She began to exist for other people, and if ever asked a question to which she did not know the answer she was wont to fold her arms across her body and look upward. As if the question itself were too obvious to truly concern her.” She spent her entire life like this, moving from achievement to achievement because it was the thing to do. But after her affairs were discovered, another clue was dropped from the mouth of Natalie’s young daughter after a fight with her brother over a bicycle: “I don’t know what I’m going to want until I want it.” For her entire life, Natalie had done what other people expected her to do or what she felt that she was supposed to do and after rereading, I realized that Smith has written Aristotle’s ideal type of story. When Natalie Blake, whose success seemed as inevitable as the sun rising and setting, finally did something that she actually wanted, Smith created the desired “convincing impossibility.”
Somewhere in the middle of the novel, Leah and her mother board a bus, and her mother is listening to the conversation of the passengers. At a certain point, one of them observes, “No fruit or veg in the shops, they’re saying. Makes sense if you think about it. Of course, it’s an island we’re on here. I always forget that, don’t you?” With NW, Zadie Smith finally places her full focus on a small corner of the island she knows best, and the book is all the better for it.
at 2:00 PM