Wednesday, May 21, 2014

On the Island

      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. 

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