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Zadie Smith’s NW and the Myth of the Self

By Robert Blakslee, editor

NWZadie Smith, a darling of the literary community for several years now, has written four novels and a variety of non-fiction, and edited two anthologies. NW is her latest novel, and marks my first acquaintance with her work. She is a native of London, the daughter of an English father and a Jamaican mother, a personal background that seems relevant given that Smith’s work probes questions of race and identity in modern society. NW falls within this description, examining life within multicultural and largely poor northwest London. However, as Anne Enright makes sure to point out in her review of NW for the New York Times, “Smith’s novels are notable not just for their social acuity, but also for their ability to absorb philosophical ideas.” I would argue further, after reading NW, that Smith’s novelistic treatment of “clashing cultures” demonstrates not simply an ability to absorb philosophical ideas, but an ability to develop and instantiate them in ways that make them relevant to how we live our lives.

The underlying problematic of NW is the question of knowing oneself. Each character is unhappy, or naïve, or failing, and attempting to cope with what they take to be their problems. And although the natures of their problems seem obvious to each character, the solutions to these problems do not. Each attempted solution either worsens the problem it was intended to solve, or engenders new ones. This is not because Smith’s characters are searching for some impossible, idealized thing outside themselves. Instead, they understand their problems to be interior, problems of self-knowledge and of identity. They believe that what they are looking for is inside themselves, in that most real, most steadfast part of their personalities. The problem is that they can’t seem to find it.

By examining each character’s unique failure, NW works to demonstrate the pitfalls of our belief in a self that transcends the contingencies and circumstances of our daily lives. This essentialist idea of a unified self creates a dichotomy between interior and exterior, such that each character is forced into understanding his or her problem and its subsequent solution as pertaining either to the realm of the self or of the outside world. It moralizes selfhood, such that a self becomes something I should and should want to have. This is because the self is viewed as something inherent, intrinsic, something that I ought to have been born with and something that is, inevitably rather than incidentally, the very essence of who I am. Smith’s novel demonstrates the pitfalls of this belief by outlining the various misdirections into which it leads each character’s ‘search for self,’ most clearly in the case of Keisha Blake. Blake is the most self-aware and self-searching of all Smith’s characters, and, ironically or not ironically, the most outwardly successful and the most inwardly confused.

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith

NW is divided into four sections, each focusing on a different character. Blake’s section, “Host,” begins with Blake as a child, with the event of her friendship with her neighbor Leah Hanwell, and the development of that friendship. The narrator tells us that Blake understands Leah Hanwell in the first instance merely as a person “willing and available to do a variety of things that Keisha Blake was willing and available to do.” As Blake grows older she becomes initiated into the language of the self, a language that is seemingly ubiquitous at Blake’s school where “everybody seemed to have a personality.” She manages to pin down Leah’s personality, and to restructure her understanding of their interactions based on her new, ‘deeper’ understanding of Leah as a person (NW, 209-10). It is only after Blake becomes aware of ‘personality’ in this way, as some rather mysterious basis of personhood, as something interior that we all should have been born with, that she comes to think of herself as missing something. This is because although Blake manages to define Leah’s personality, she never manages to define her own in the same way. She never manages to latch onto a self-definition that will describe her in a continuous and coherent sort of way.

Seen in this light, Smith’s project in NW might be better understood, its various subtleties more easily unpacked, by taking a look at an essay entitled “Speaking in Tongues” that Smith wrote for the February 2009 issue of the New York Review of Books. In the article Smith uses ‘voice’ – accent, vocabulary, etc. – as a metonym through which to explore issues of personality and identity. Smith begins by telling her reader that she used to have two voices: her home voice, specific to the class and environment in which she was raised, and the voice that she developed while studying at upper-crust Cambridge, because “at the time, I genuinely thought…that if I didn’t have the voice of lettered people I would never truly be lettered.” In her article, voice serves as an emblem of identity, a marker of our true self. Smith tells us that she had understood, and that she sees society at large as understanding, her double-voicedness as a kind of “fraud”, and those who practice double-voicedness as “sell-outs”. This is because, according to common standards, “voices [and the personalities they enact] are meant to be unchanging and singular.”

However, when Smith tells us that she has since lost her double-voice, she admits it with regret. She attributes her single-voice to “the smaller world into which my work has led me,” to the constriction of the environment in which she lives her life, rather than to the discovery of any true self (SiT). Smith, unlike Blake, comes to the conclusion that many-voicedness, representative of a variety of selves and personalities, might be a tool for a larger empathy, an ability to be in many places in many ways with many people. In Blake’s case, having various voices and various personalities does allow her to participate in a wide variety of relationships. However, because of her preoccupation with the idea of a singular personality and a true self, Blake is never invested in her relationships for the sake of a broader compassion. To her mind her relationships, and the goals and expectations with which they furnish her, are opportunities to search in one more place for the self that she believes she ought to have. They are opportunities to find out where she ‘truly belongs,’ to locate herself in the same way that she had been able to locate Leah.

Blake never manages to look at her persistent discontent and think that maybe she has inadequately understood her problem. She never comes to the conclusion that Smith reaches that there might be a “genuinely many-voiced” person, and never comes to appreciate that her ability to “speak in tongues” could be an ability to “cross borders.” She clings to the idea of her missing personality, and keeps looking for something we know she’ll never find. She maintains her ability to “speak in tongues,” to relate to people according to different norms in different types of situations, but uses this ability as a tool to find the one true self that she thinks must be somewhere inside her, waiting for the right moment to reveal itself in all its singularity. Zadie Smith gives her reader the opportunity to see how at odds method and goal are in this problem-solving technique of Blake’s. Blake lives variously, and within the context of that variety expects to find some singularity. She expects to discover a personality that will have been the basis for her actions and interactions, rather than a personality or personalities that will have resulted from the differences and patterns to be found among them.

The cleverness of Smith’s book lies in the way in which she manages to demonstrate to us Blake’s incoherence in Blake’s own language. Smith introduces us to Blake and Blake’s problems in the language of the self. However, through the use of heavily ironic third-person narration, through the use of scare quotes and jarring changes from formal to informal language, Smith pushes the reader to question the story that Blake wants to tell about herself. Smith forces us to look closely at the way in which Blake describes her own actions, and guides us to the conclusion that the framework in which Blake sees herself, the framework defined by Blake’s belief in an inherent self, and the language in which that framework forces Blake to articulate her problems, is in itself the root-source of her discontent.

Works Cited:

Enright, Anne. “Mind the Gap: ‘NW,’ by Zadie Smith.” New York Times 21 Sep 2012. Online.

Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

Smith, Zadie. “Speaking in Tongues.” New York Review of Books 56.3 (26 Feb 2009): 35-42.

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2 comments on “Zadie Smith’s NW and the Myth of the Self

  1. Get social fans
    April 22, 2014

    I hardly leave remarks, however i did some searching and wound up here
    Zadie Smiths NW and the Myth of the Self | Soonest Mended.
    And I do have 2 questions for you if you tend not to mind.
    Is it only me or does it look like a few of the comments appear like they are coming from brain dead people?
    😛 And, if you are writing at other places, I’d like to follow anything fresh you have to post.
    Could you list of every one of all your community sites like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

    • Soonest Mended
      April 25, 2014

      Thank you very much for your interest! You can find links to our facebook page and twitter feed in the sidebar widget area of our articles and about page.

      Best,
      Soonest Mended team

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This entry was posted on March 14, 2014 by in Literature, Robert Blakslee and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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