From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]borderstan.com.
Almost as an afterthought to the 2012 Olympic Games in London come two new novels by a pair of prominent British writers committed to revealing the messy modern city hidden behind postcard images of the Thames, Tower Bridge, and Big Ben.
Zadie Smith’s NW
The more optimistic of these two fictional exposés belongs to Zadie Smith. NW (named for the geographical section of London where the novel is set) gives us a picture of a down-and-out London neighborhood through the eyes of two childhood friends: Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake.
The former, a Caucasian of Irish descent married to a devoted French Algerian hairdresser, spends her days in existential stasis working a menial community job and bumming pot off her neighbor. The latter, a black Caribbean who changes her name midway through the novel to Natalie, has pulled herself up through the educational system to become a lawyer and achieve the veritable “perfect life” of which her best friend is so envious.
In short, we have a story of the Haves and the Have Nots, each of whom thinks the other is living the more fulfilled (read: less boring) life. It’s a simple story told in a complicated manner: fragmented chapters, stream of consciousness prose and chat room slang. There’s a lengthy episode devoted to Felix, a Jamaican man from a troubled background whose attempt to change his life is shattered by a late-night confrontation; there’s also the occasional appearance by Leah’s childhood crush, Nathan Bogle, a drug addict and symbol of the bottom rung of the socio-cultural ladder.
As chaotic as the storytelling can get at times (after all, one reader’s experimental prose is another reader’s head-scratching mess), the beating heart of NW is the complicated friendship between these two women; the middle section of the novel, told in the aforementioned fragments, is a masterful, impressionist rendering of the two women’s lives from childhood up through college and on to adulthood and all its attendant problems. And the novel’s deft dialogue and its sharp eye for the cultural mélange of modern life, hallmarks of Smith’s prose, are frequently on display here.
One only wishes that, for all its engagement, NW left us with something a little more spectacular or memorable. Instead, Smith’s vision of London as a beautiful, complex mess of ethnicities and intentions — while certainly worth looking it — d\oesn’t leave us shaken or challenged. Instead, it just feels like any other day in a 21st-Century city.
Martin Amis’ Lionel Asbo: State of England
The dog-kicking, stomach-stabbing reprobates who flit in and out of NW take center stage in Martin Amis’ Lionel Asbo: State of England, the story of one cultural degenerate’s rise to the top of the social heap. And subsequent fall back to the bottom.
Taking his surname from the legal acronym for Anti-Social Behaviour Order, Lionel is a larger-than-life sociopath who spends his days and nights training his attack dogs (by feeding them beer and Tabasco sauce), reading the sleazy rag of a local newspaper, getting in bar fights, stealing property, and possibly even committing murder. He spends so much time in jail that it’s just a diversion for him. It’s during one of these excursions in the British penal system that he winds up winning almost 140 million pounds in the lottery.
What happens then? Lionel skyrockets to fame. He moves out of his tenement tower (where he lives with his ward and nephew, Desmond Pepperdine), lives the high life along with other wasted celebrities (one exceptional episode involves Lionel struggling his way through a fancy lobster dinner), and falls in “love” with the performance artist and poet “Threnody.” Meanwhile, his nephew slowly emerges from under his uncle’s monstrous shadow and builds a career as a journalist and a life with his wife, Dawn, and their infant daughter, Cilla.
Lionel Asbo is a Martin Amis novel, so over-the-top events (including a sub-plot involving Desmond’s incestuous relationship with his grandmother) and bold characterizations are par for the course. It’s a fun and amusing read, even though its views on celebrity culture and the media’s obsession with fame and crime aren’t anything new. Perhaps what’s most surprising is that, despise the forcefulness of the novel’s subtitle, it’s a bit wrong. The media’s rabid obsession with deviant behavior and Warhol’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame—these aren’t just England’s problems. They’re the modern West’s problems.