21st Century Literature discussion

2012 Book Discussions > NW - Host: 151 - 260, No Spoilers Please! (December 2012)

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message 1: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new)

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Mod
Why do you think this section comes broken into numbered bits? And why is the character routinely referred to as "Natalie Blake"?

message 2: by Daniel (new)

Daniel | 738 comments Mod
I'm a big foreign film buff, and this section is absolutely jam-packed with outstanding references. It's not very often that somebody speaks this language, and I'm finding myself head-over-heels for her writing. There have already been two moments in particular where I've had to literally stop reading just to soak in the moment.

The first was 14. That obscure object of desire, which is not just a reference to the surrealist Luis Buñuel film about obsessions and different sides of a woman's personality (as we watch Keisha try to define her own personality), but an insanely brilliant description of the inanity of some of our own obsessions.

The one I'm taking a break after now is 74. A sighting. Black Orpheus was a film by Marcel Camus that shares many elements with this story so far. In broad strokes, it is the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice re-imagined in the ethnic setting of Rio during Carnaval. One particular theme worth noting: taking a "white" story/legend and making it speak with a "black"/coloured/ethnic voice. There is also the overlaying of Orpheus and Eurydice—which has so many other echoes of love and death—on the story of Frank and Natalie. And the shared reference to Carnaval certainly can't be overlooked. I'm so far beyond impressed at this point...

message 3: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new)

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Mod
Oh, lucky you, to have got so much out of the references to film.

14 also alludes back to "I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me”

To what extent are Keisha's attempts to define her personality as "Natalie Blake" to blame for her 'self-immolation'?

message 4: by Daniel (new)

Daniel | 738 comments Mod
I've been ruminating over your first question, and I'm not sure that I can settle on a firm answer for the chapter divisions. I do have some tentative hypotheses though.

You mention the section being "broken into...bits," and I think that's a good way of representing something that has been shattered. Keisha/Natalie's life—perhaps existence? persona? façade?—is shattered in the end, and we are left to examine the pieces that attempted to make a whole.

A second notion would be the inevitable march of time. The progress of the narrative is continually in forward motion, and the relentless pace of the upward count gives weight to the concept of the effects of time being similarly relentless. To use another analogy, life flies by in a series of memorable markers. This device worked well to capture that concept.

A third (and much weaker) idea is something analogous to courtroom exhibits. A case is being made to represent the life of Keisha/Natalie Blake, and these are the exhibits being presented to the jury.

message 5: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new)

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Mod
I agree with your third suggestion. I used to work in the law and it feels like a Brief/Instructions to Counsel, or a Witness Statement. Even a Case History...

I thought it reflected Natalie/Keisha’s conviction that she had assembled an identity out of disconnected fragments, held together by sheer force (unstoppable mutated will).

Indeed with her husband and children, the workaholic Natalie performs an ideal life: “They only came together at weekends, in front of friends, for whom they appeared fresh and vibrant (they were only thirty years old) and full of the old good humor, like a double act that only speaks to each other when they are on stage.”

What do you think caused her assemblage to fall apart?

Were you surprised to discover what Natalie/Keisha did? To be honest I thought this was the weakest part of the book.

It just didn’t ring true. But maybe we’re talking satire, anyway.

message 6: by Daniel (new)

Daniel | 738 comments Mod
I like the inverse perspective of Keisha/Natalie assembling her own identity. It adds an extra layer dependent on the character rather than the reader.

I'm also happy to hear that I'm not alone in considering the end of this section to be weak. I couldn't find any convincing motivation for her actions. The easy path would be to assume that it's something a male reader can't really appreciate or understand. I don't understand when close female friends of mine explain why their own life fell apart in a similar fashion, and I don't understand it here. But I honestly don't think it's that easy.

I would have enjoyed seeing Natalie grow into a bitter, repressed and unfulfilled woman who has everything but cherishes nothing. That seems more truthful than the self-immolation on display here. But just like continually referring to the character as "Keisha Blake" or "Natalie Blake", there seems to be a reference to some deeper issue of identity.

To that question, I wonder if the routine addition of the surname represents the inescapability of her heritage. She may be Keisha to her old ethnic neighbourhood and Natalie to her new lawyer community, but she will always be tied to her family. It shows that there is some core root of her character that can't be so easily escaped. Although I wonder what would have happened if she had a more ethnic last name along the lines of Pastor Akinwande, because I really get the sense that she changed from Keisha to Natalie to avoid ethnic branding.

It's also worth noting that the author was born Sadie Smith, and chose to go with the more exotic sounding Zadie. Is the Keisha/Natalie character perhaps a reverse look at Zadie/Sadie's own views on names and ethnicity?

message 7: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new)

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Mod
I think there's quite a lot of Zadie at work here!

Adam Mars-Jones again: "There's no sophisticated response to the world that excludes irony, but the irony here seems anxious and self-protective. It's in this section, where she works hardest at building a wall between character and reader, that Smith also feels the need to break through it with misjudged interventions along the lines of "You're welcome" and "In case you were wondering …" [Maybe] the conflicts within the writer are deeper than the ones she has devised for her characters.."

How well do you think this section fits with the earlier Leah section? I cannot believe they would still be friends - let alone close ones.

Is it that the contrast between the two women allows for insights, namely ‘the inevitability of’ -v- ‘the disinterest in’ becoming a mother, which Natalie has done and Leah decisively has not? I suppose there is the case that one would have anticipated a career woman not to have had children...

I was going to say that Leah hasn't grown up, but actually neither woman has.

message 8: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Mod
I think the reassertion of names has to do with identity.

message 9: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new)

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Mod
Is it Smith's intent to flay Natalie for acting white?

message 10: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Mod
I doubt it. She too is an educated black woman. And she is a writer, and they tend to be (not universally and no I have no proof) introverts. My guess is that all introverts feel like Natalie in that sense of the rest of the world being more outwardly expressed and feeling awkward about it. To some extent. Without any data to back up my claim and no way to prove it.

message 11: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Mod
P.S. I'm on page 321ish. And so I haven't gotten to the Nathan part yet. But I think Smith's treatment of her characters is interesting. They've all been pretty flawed. And yet, I find I still if not like them, have some desire to be gentle in my judgments of them. I always find it interesting the way writing provokes reactions like this. And you wonder how much of that comes from the writer and how much of it is just internal.

message 12: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Mod
Also, my book has more pages than yours! Maybe the print is bigger? Maybe you guys got ripped off and mine has bonus material. Like you all got the cassette version and I got the cd with the bonus tracks.

Or maybe the print is bigger.

message 13: by Daniel (new)

Daniel | 738 comments Mod
@Deborah: Thanks for the laugh with the CD comment. Good way to start the morning.

I mentioned previously that the ending of this section was a real disappointment to me, but I'm just now thinking of how it relates back to Felix. Natalie was the kid that rose above her environment to become successful, yet the price of the façade required for that success is crushing. Felix is the kid who is trying to rise above his environment while staying true to himself, but that environment (or fate?) is his ultimate demise. The whole thing seems nihilistic.

In terms of the race issue, I don't think the intent is to flay Natalie for acting white. Moreover, that interpretation could lead to some difficult explanations regarding how her clandestine encounters provide some return to blackness. But there are definitely heavily tinged racial commentaries in that same vein. The comment about the traps faced by women lawyers of colour (i.e. "aggressive hysteria") is particularly sharp. And I have to wonder if Frank comes across as more comfortable in his role because he's half-white himself.

There's no denying that race is at the forefront of the discussion, but I'm hesitant to read any sort of authorial flagellation on account of acting white—especially because things don't work out much better when the characters act black.

message 14: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new)

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Mod
Quite right. Maybe that's Smith's point: it rains on the just and unjust!

Do you think Smith's satisfied her own brief?

"In novels where the characters are white," she said in a radio interview recently, "nobody thinks the race is being obscured. They just don't think the races exist, because of this idea of neutrality when it comes to white characters. It is," she said, "very difficult to find a way to get people out of that mindset, so that they can see that people of color are not strange or exotic in themselves, or to themselves." She tried, she said, "many different ways of doing it," but couldn't seem "to find a technique."

I most certainly saw these characters as themselves. I was more than satisfied with her techniques. Did they work for you, or did they get in the way?

message 15: by Casceil (new)

Casceil | 1672 comments Mod
Deborah: I think you and I have longer editions My copy is 401 pages. Goodreads lists about ten editions of NW, including one that is 296 pages. So I doubt we get bonus tracks, but I bet we do get larger print.

message 16: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Mod
I think she succeeded. I didn't feel this was a novel about race. I thought it far more a piece of place and time.

I want to compare it to Revelutionary Road - bit because the writing or story are similar. Rather, I think both share a specificity. They each evoke a very different time and place, but both fully inhabit that time and place in a way that is similar.

message 17: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Mod
Disappointed on the bonus track front.

message 18: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new)

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Mod
Deborah wrote: "I want to compare it to Revolutionary Road - bit because the writing or story are similar. Rather, I think both share a specificity. They each evoke a very different time and place, but both fully inhabit that time and place in a way that is similar."

That's interesting. Did you think Revolutionary Road was satirical? I ask because I thought 'NW' was.

message 19: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new)

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Mod
I have a kindle version, a text version and an audio book, but NO bonus tracks... [sigh]

message 20: by Deborah (last edited Dec 20, 2012 04:21AM) (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Mod
I have trouble with satire. It's one of the places where the lack of formal education hurts. Modern American satire is easier, because you're steeped in it. You can't help but get it. So, I'll avoid the idea of satire and say, I thought Revolutionary Road was permeated with time and place and it was critical in a way that we can only be critical of what is ours - like family. There was that same familiarity. Smith was not as hard on North West London as Yates was on suburbia.

message 21: by Sophia, Honorary Moderator (new)

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Mod
Interesting. I didn't pick up on Yates being particularly hard on suburbia. Or maybe it's because I'm case-hardened (!)

I take your point about time and place and I like what you say about family. It put me in mind of the hue and cry that followed the publication of Monica Ali's book, Brick Lane. The local community were furious that an insider had effectively washed the family's dirty linen in public.

message 22: by Daniel (last edited Dec 20, 2012 05:56AM) (new)

Daniel | 738 comments Mod
I haven't read too much about local reaction to NW, but it would be interesting to hear that opinion. A lot of people read some self-projection into some of Zadie Smith's comments from her NYT interview with Jay-Z (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/09/t-m...

But can’t a rapper insist, like other artists, on a fictional reality, in which he is somehow still on the corner, despite occupying the penthouse suite? ...Can’t he still rep his block?

It does seem a fitting question for what she attempts in NW (which also leads to the question of how much of the writing portrays her own autobiographical struggles with that issue). All that aside, though, it would be interesting to hear whether locals see her as "reppin' the block" or if they feel as though she aired too much dirty laundry.

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