"Some people owe everything they have to the bank accounts of their parents. I owe the state. Put simply, the state educated me, fixed my leg when it was broken and gave me a grant that enabled me to go to university. It fixed my teeth (a bit) and found housing for my veteran father in his dotage," Zadie Smith notes in her essay The North West London Blues. "To steal another writer's title: England made me. It has never been hard for me to pay my taxes because I understand it to be the repaying of a large, in fact, an almost incalculable, debt." The gap - from Smith's "NHS glasses aged 9" to being the author of White Teeth and On Beauty - yawns, prompting the inevitable question: how does one get from there to here?
This, too, is the question of Smith's fourth novel, NW, refracted into the lives of three interconnected characters, each of whom can be said to have escaped from life on a council estate.
Felix is a former drug dealer now working a better hustle. Leah and Natalie are old school friends who have clawed their way out of poverty and into let's-do-lunch middle-class comfort. Leah, married to a hairdresser ("a man who can do your hair. That's paradise right there," a co-worker marvels), is consumed by jealousy of Natalie (née Keisha), a lawyer married to a banker and living in what seems to Leah to be baronial splendour. At a weekend gathering, Leah sits quietly and observes Natalie's life, admiring its seeming effortlessness: "She is an adult. How do you do that?"
Smith grants each character their own section of the book and their own method of attack. Natalie's section - easily the best part of NW - is divided into hundreds of short segments, like excerpted diary entries from a life. Perhaps it would be a mistake to read NW autobiographically, or to see Leah Hanwell or Natalie Blake as authorial stand-ins. And yet, the book reads as a fictional exploration of the same query lingering behind The North West London Blues (same borough, even), wondering, as Leah does, "I just don't understand why I have this life ... why that girl and not us. Why that poor b****** on Albert Road. It doesn't make sense to me." This is a book about chance and tenacity and circumstance, and the toll of success - rich themes all.
Smith capably serves as a native guide to the psychic terrain of the striver. Natalie, taking in the sight of a fellow working-class girl dropping out of college, observes with some sympathy that "she had been asked to pass the entirety of herself through a hole that would accept only part".
Leah mordantly remembers her own run-ins with the limits of her knowledge, recalling her time as a bookish but unpolished student: "Out of her mouth: a two-syllable packing company Socrates, a three-syllable cleaning fluid Antigone." This is NW at its best, riffing on council-flat girls with brains and ambition crashing into a privileged world they are only dimly aware of. "The students were tired of things Keisha had never heard of, and horrified by the only thing she knew well: the Bible."
Made primarily by and for well-educated middle-class types, literary fiction is mostly silent these days about poverty and struggle - primarily out of sheer ignorance. Smith's topic is worthy of a great novel. So why does NW feel so curiously affectless, as if written entirely in an imaginary theoretical tense of English, where actions have no consequences and characters exist primarily to illustrate their conundrums and not the other way around? This book about feeling adrift from life suffers from the same malaise as its characters.
Smith intends Leah and Natalie to be tragic figures of post-Thatcherite England, of upward mobility without nobility or assurance. "Those who submit to traditional laws have at least the defence of 'simplicity, obedience and example'," observes one of Natalie's law professors. "While those who try to change them, that is, the laws, are usually terrible in some way, monstrous. We see ourselves as perfect exceptions."
Natalie and Leah are the designated exceptions, escapees from the charmless prisons of the council estates, but Smith never makes us truly feel their monstrosity. They are in-between figures, caught between a past they shun and a present that ill-suits them (Natalie even juggles two names, one for then and one for now). Their husbands, in particular, bear the burden of their selfishness, born of a nagging belief that their lives are not truly their own. But monsters? Hardly.
NW's dialogue is deliberately shallow, with Smith's narrator regularly interceding to point out its essential triteness. (It is even printed in smaller type, as if to emphasise how unimportant it is to the scope of the narrative.)
"People were living like this," Smith observes, mocking a character's nagging tendency to describe everything as "how we're living". "Living like that. Living like this." The book rarely gets more specific, its clichés deftly wielded to ward off deeper meanings that never arrive.
Smith has always been a parodist of meaningless chatter. When academic Howard Belsey is asked whether his wife is special in On Beauty, he replies that "I'd say that she has enabled my existence in the form that it has taken".
For Smith, language is obfuscation. "Speech is beautifully useless," reads a key line in the poem that shares On Beauty's name but, in NW, that sentiment has grown brittle, more enamoured of its uselessness than its beauty. Smith's characters are themselves only allowed to be dimly aware of their own pain and frustration, as if she trusts them too little to communicate directly with us. NW is gesturing at some bigger picture that only Smith sees - one that never makes it onto the page. We are intended to glimpse the agony behind the bromides, but NW's hidden depths are only puddles of self-absorption.
Past and present overlap here like double-exposed photographs, strata of memory imprinted atop each other: "Five and innocent at this bus stop. Fourteen and drunk. Twenty-six and stoned. Twenty-nine in utter oblivion, out of his mind on coke and K ..." But for Natalie and Leah, the comfortable present has tragically erased all knowledge of the past.
Leah, ripped off by drug addict Shar, still yearns to offer her something, she knows not what. "What you want from me? Want me on my knees?" Shar asks. "No, I ... can I help you, somehow? Can I do something?" But Leah, like Natalie, has "completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she'd stopped being able to speak, or even to understand."
Smith is still gifted in the art of noticing, of archiving the evanescent ephemera of the recent past: "That was the year people began saying 'literally'." These thumbnail memoirs are also reservoirs of received wisdom, treasure troves of "aphorisms, axioms and proverbs the truth content of which she could only assume from their common circulation, the way one puts one's faith in the face value of paper money".
In the end, NW feels like an endless series of disconnected observations about two Londons - the gilded bourgeois metropolis and the scorched plain of the projects - floating free of a genuine narrative (why is Felix here, anyway?)
Its arbitrary division into differing segments only adds to the aura of mismatched puzzle pieces. These observations are often quite funny. "In poor areas people steal your phone," one character tells another. "In rich areas the people steal your pension." But its characters do not unfold so much as unfurl, coming apart under the novel's pressure to have them do something, mean something.
While other books - David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad - have made superlative use of this jumbled, mixtape style. NW, for all its gestures at the way we live now, sits limp on the page, its disparate segments never justifying the purported scope or intention of the book. "It all just sits empty," Natalie says of her husband's friends' enormous apartments. "Five bedrooms. One bed." NW is like a luxury penthouse with no furniture, tape outlines on the floor indicating where the Eames chairs and flat-screen televisions will ultimately go. But readers can't live for long in an empty house.
Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to The National.