The Least Inauthentic Self
By Zadie Smith
Penguin Press, 2012
For his part in leading the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, the priest John Ball was hanged, drawn, and his corpse divided into four. As a deterrent to aspiring traitors, his head was displayed on a spike near London Bridge. The rest of his body was scattered to towns in each direction.
A line from one of Ball’s sermons became the Revolt’s rallying call: “When Adam delved and Eve span, / Who was then the gentleman?” Zadie Smith has also taken up the rallying call, using Ball’s deceptively playful rhyme as the epigraph of her fourth novel, NW. While the quote and its populist origins suggest the theme of class-strife we’ve come to expect from Smith, it is the allusion to Ball’s execution that’s more central to this book; NW is primarily concerned with showing that being human is anything but a matter of cohesion. Rather, the characters here are defined by internal dismemberment, their personalities so fragmented they can be no more easily pieced together than a scattered, quartered corpse.
The novel opens with its protagonist, Leah Hanwell, suspended in a hammock, “fenced in, on all sides.” A hysterical woman infiltrates her solitude. Quickly similarities between these characters are discovered as the women talk: both are in their mid-thirties, they grew up in the same neighborhood, attended the same schools, and know many of the same people. The stranger, it turns out, is not so strange. Like Leah, Shar is “local” to Northwest London, which earns Leah’s sympathies for Leah is “as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries.” Claiming her mother is in the hospital, Shar asks Leah for thirty pounds for emergency cab fare (we learn later that in actuality, Shar will use the money to feed her addiction to crack). Shar’s desperation is acute and mirrors Leah’s own. As they wait for the cab to arrive, Leah talks to fill the space, “just saying sentences, one after the other” until she confesses that she is pregnant, unwelcome news she had discovered only that morning. Though Leah has the cab fare in her pocket, she retreats to the bathroom to be alone, “sits on the floor and cries.” Smith does not explain these tears, but hints at some deep depression that must be causing Leah’s anguish. Eventually the cab arrives, Leah pays, and the stranger departs.
After this initial encounter, the two women continually cross paths in Northwest. These visitations disturb Leah. Seeing the stranger is a constant reminder that she has a baby coming – something she prefers not to think about. Indeed, Leah is ambivalent about her pregnancy, is considering its termination, and has yet to speak of it to her closest allies: her husband, her mother, her best friend Natalie Blake, the latter of whom emerges as another of NW’s main protagonists. Leah’s ambivalence isn’t an intellectual protest against the world’s overpopulation, nor does she fear raising a child will disrupt her career as a member of the Fund Distribution Team for a nonprofit organization, a position she seems to tolerate, rather than enjoy. As it happens, the deep depression that plagues Leah as she cries on the bathroom floor is not rooted on some trauma in her life after all. Hers is a flimsy existential unease:
For some reason it had never occurred to [Leah] that all this wondrous screwing was heading toward a certain, perfectly obvious destination. She fears the destination. Be objective! What is the fear? It is something to do with death and time and age. Simply: I am eighteen in my mind I am eighteen and if I do nothing if I stand still nothing will change I will be eighteen always. For always. Time will stop. I’ll never die. Very banal, this fear.
This reasoning is counter-intuitive. Don’t most people have children as a way to create a legacy? To feel in some metaphysical way immortal? Instead, for Leah the source of her discomfort has to do with expectation. There is the unwanted expectation that because she is a happily married thirty-five year old woman, she should therefore create offspring. However, the expectation cuts deeper. There is not simply an expectation of what Leah should do, but an expectation of who she is. Leah knows she is one thing, knows the world assumes she’s another, and she’s unsure who’s right. Ultimately what Smith is getting at is that we’re all just a bunch of qubits, quantum computer components with the unique ability to exist in multiple states – zero and one – simultaneously: we have certain properties that comprise an essence, we have certain other properties that others believe to be our essence; we are ourselves and also what others think of us, all at once. Smith is not the first to arrive at this conclusion, but she is the first to so prominently display incongruence without, apparently, trying to bridge the gap.
What’s problematic is that, even at the book’s end, Leah is still an incomplete character; she is not, as she might want to believe, “the sole author of the dictionary that defines her.” Amid the many voices that attempt to author Leah—her family, her friends, her neighbors, the stranger that holds down her doorbell—it is difficult to see how the multitude of these definitions might coalesce. In the novel’s first section (there are five sections in total) she is withdrawn and naïve, a woman who chooses to remain in limbo, who chooses not to choose. Beyond that, there’s not a lot about her to know. Yet the more information we’re given about her, the more ambiguous she becomes. Brief, flashback glimpses depict a daring, spontaneous Leah: a woman who engages in lesbian dalliances and who has anal sex with her hairdresser before learning his surname. This Leah doesn’t jive with the upset pregnant lady in the hammock. Not that promiscuity and ambivalent existential malaise can’t coexist within a single character, but Smith doesn’t give us the means to insert these pieces of Leah into a single functioning program. Even if this is Smith’s point – that we’re all assembled from disparate parts that can never function seamlessly – it makes the reading no smoother. Still, readers wanting to defend the book might do well to paraphrase Philip Roth: “As a character [s]he’s still far from complete, but who isn’t?”
When NW succeeds, in spite of its scattershot heroine, it is thanks to Smith’s deftness with hard-and-true dramatic irony. She creates moments of truly riveting emotional depth. Consider the following conversation between the pregnant Leah and her unwitting husband:
— Things change! We’re getting there, no?
[Leah] does not know where there is. She did not know they had set off, nor in which direction the wind is blowing. She does not want to arrive. The truth is she had believed they would be naked in these sheets forever and nothing would come to them ever, nothing but satisfaction. Why must love “move forward”? Which way is forward? No one can say she has not been warned. No one can say that. A thirty-five-year-old women married to a man she loves has most certainly been warned, should be paying attention, should be listening, and not be surprised when her husband says
— many days in which the woman is fertile. Only, I think, three. So it’s no good to just say “oh, it’ll happen when it will happen.” We’re not so young. So we have to be a bit more, I mean, military about it, like plan.
Leah might be vague, but she isn’t just a sketch. In this way she resembles one of Matisse’s dancers dancing round a ring: at first they appear to be affectless silhouettes, but look a little longer and human joy and folly are readily apparent. Perhaps Leah may not make the most compelling literary heroine, but the frustration of trying to comprehend her recreates a relationship with a fictional character that feels authentically human.
Nevertheless, NW’s too-inventive design often distracts. Mixed into the narrative are Google chats and poetic riffs; sometimes dialogue is introduced with a hyphen and sometimes we get regular old quotation marks; some sections are traditionally rendered, other sections are told through short numbered vignettes. The way Smith calls such attention to format might be too cute if it didn’t reflect the book’s central theme of fragmentation. But taken together, this constant format-jumping continually jars the reader out of the story – not unlike a film director who believes he can best mimic reality by using a steady camera, only to make his viewers feel a bit motion sick. (Whether such stylistic choices prove too disruptive or not, Smith is undoubtedly conscious of their impact. As one character complains, “I hate the way the camera jumps all over the place like that…You can’t forget about the filming for a minute. Why do they always do that these days?”)
Black to her white, decisive to her wavering, zero-one to her one-zero, Leah’s quantum partner and best friend, Natalie Blake, also suffers from existential crises. But if Leah is in a state of suspension, refusing to confront the tough questions she asks herself, Natalie delves, inquiring deeply into her own character. NW’s final three sections belong to Natalie, a woman desperately intent on the task of self-making, yet no closer to discovering who she is than Leah. Born with the name Keisha, she switches to the primmer-sounding Natalie in an attempt to distance herself from her past, from the working-class neighborhood of Northwest London, where her life began. Now a lawyer with a husband and two children, she feels her life is an ill-fitting costume. In fact, Natalie catalogues the disguises she tries to hide in, none of which – daughter, mother, wife – seem quite to fit:
170. In drag
Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic.
She is driven by the hope – if not quite the belief – that some clothes out there are cut just for her; life is a matter of finding the requisite dressing room. As her domestic life consumes more and more of her energy, she feels more and more like an imposter. Characteristically, she wants to try on another costume, and turns to the Internet to arrange for herself some anonymous three-way sex, only to find that this carnal adventure is just another disguise.
NW seems to suggest that searching for, to borrow Natalie’s words, ‘the least inauthentic’ self is the most honest quest we undertake – existentially speaking – and lends the best chance of success. Identity is not something intact that you can chisel out of the marble. It needs to be constructed, piece-by-piece. The form of this ambitious novel, and the flaws that result, match the content: rather than give us the body whole, Smith has drawn forth this theme in a messy, fragmentary book because formulating identity in the modern world is not a tidy business.
M.K. Hall teaches writing at New York University. Her work has appeared in American Literary Review, Why I Am Not A Painter, and What We Brought Back.