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 — doesn’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.
From Scott Leibowitz. Find Scott on Twitter @Lebodome. Email him at scott[AT]borderstan.com.
When is the last time you enjoyed Judo, para-sailing, and badminton? As it’s obviously not recently, we are all in luck as this Friday it is the start of the 2012 Olympics. It’s that time in the decade when these relatively less well known sports (some of them only played in high school gym class, i.e., handball) become interesting and people actually watch them.
For those of us feeling a little out of it due to the heat, the 2012 Summer Olympic games are beginning and thanks to great technology and NBC’s desire to cover it all, every single game/match/trial is available live from London either online or on the NBC family of networks.
The Best Part of the Olympics
What I always loved about the Olympics is that it seems to bring a lot of non-regular sports fans into the fold. The games are loaded with patriotism, rich stories of success and failure, and even a global orgy hangout. The Summer Olympics also tend to be a lot more popular as these sports are better known and don’t include some obscure skiing-rifle-shooting-hybrid. This is not to say the summer games don’t have their fair share of odd events, in the Equestrian category, for instance (if you ask me, the horses should be required to be from the country, just like the rider).
So, as you go through the next two weeks, glance at your newspaper and check the medal count, watch two people compete their hearts out for a 3rd place medal, or just guess the real age of the gymnasts.
What to Watch for at the Olympics
Here are some things to watch for, as well as some local ideas to enhance your Olympic experience.
Opening Ceremony: After China’s 2008 performance, the bar has been set pretty high. The show is directed by award winning director Danny Boyle and will include Sir Paul McCartney and, hopefully, a slew of awesome performers. It airs on NBC this Friday at 7 pm, but it will be a tape delay showing, so don’t check any social media, if you want to see/hear it fresh.
Are Phelps and Bolt still the best? Four years ago we watched a man-fish win 8 Gold Medals in swimming, and a speedster blow away the world records by not even trying that hard. Both U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt are back to retain their titles in respective fields. Both have looked a bit rusty and vulnerable. Track and swimming are always great at the Olympics, mainly because this is their biggest stage and these athletes want to show the world the best.
Pro Athletes Offseason: Soccer, basketball, tennis. These sports have fully functioning, popular, and well marketed professional leagues. All of them are taking time off and doing the world a favor by showing us their talent. Yes, it will be fun to see US basketball destroy the competition, but ultimately the Olympics is a 2nd-tier championship for these guys (World Cup > Olympic Gold). The part that I am looking forward to most is the tennis, as it’s being played at Wimbledon. But the all-white dress attire will not be in effect and that will give it a different feel.
Plenty of DC Bars to Enjoy the Olympics: NBC Washington did a list of Top 10 places to watch games at and some spots in our ‘hood made the list. Let me take this opportunity to double down on Buffalo Billiards, which made the list, as well as Nellie’s Sports Bar at 9th and U Streets NW. Think of all the screens and event-related ADD you could have. This is also a good opportunity to try some ethnic bars, root for a different nation, and maybe even learn some new anthems.
I am looking forward to a fun London-centric week with a healthy side of jokes made in my mediocre English accent. For a list of all the events, times, etc. check here. The Washington Post also has a great guide to the games. In general, wear some red/white/blue and enjoy the games!
Learn This Guy’s Name, NOW
ROBERT GRIFFEN III. This man is two months away from taking over the District.
Links! Links! Ice Cold Links!
- Google is about to change the world, again.
- Olympics and politics don’t mix.
- NASA is dying, slowly, and it hurts us all.