As Joyce Carol Oates astutely observed in her review of NW, Zadie Smith's first novel in seven years (Truth be told, I don't really see the point in buying cake and lighting candles every time an author takes, what seems to me, a reasonable amount of time to produce good work. But here I am, doing verbal jumping-jacks with the rest of 'em and using words like "astutely"... Ugh, I'm such a whore), writers and their characters are more inclined than most to see themselves as lacking an identity, somehow predisposed to assume everyone around them is complete in a way that they can base their writing and own incompleteness off of. Not inferiority, but rather like a talent for forget-fulness.
Matt Prior, for example, Jess Walter's hapless but no less indefatigable protagonist in The Financial Lives of the Poets zeroes in on the fact that writers are the ones who haven't often got a clue what's going on around them. And before you say, "He must mean poets," Prior, in the novel, is a newspaperman, or was. And while I do love poetry, I happen to agree. Writers are as empty as yesterday's recycling, in a good way. (I realize that's like saying, "Gardening's for losers," or "Clouds are dumb," and smiling about it, but I mean it.) From a very early age, I remember looking up to those who said the least. Utterly convinced that like reporters on the scene, waiting for a crash to happen, they knew something that most didn't, which was that no one knew, either what was going on or what was going to. (You can take the poet out of the blog post, but not his idling affinity for A-B-A-B rhyme schemes.)
One more or less pertinent memory that comes to mind, and apparently suits my quota for most pictures in a blog post of people falling from or climbing up tall buildings, is a scene from Adventures in Babysitting, in which Elizabeth Shue asks her friend Brenda if Brenda really spiked her stepmom's Tab with Drano. I remember watching and assuming that although Shue delivers the line readily, and therefore, I assume, authentically, to some degree, there had to be some other something on her mind. "I did it!" Brenda Says, and in my seven-year-old mind Shue's thinking, "Where's that sweater I spilled wine on? I am hot. Today is Thursday," while she looks into the camera, for posterity, and says "You spiked her Tab with Drano?" But I'm no longer so sure.
In fact, according to the book The Self Illusion that I'm reading and enjoying, I think, the human brain's not even capable of mirroring and believing in a sense of self apart from that which it purports, or in Shue's case, presents to the world (the world" in this case being whatever demographic was and remains drawn to movies about white kids from the north side getting "all mixed up" in Midtown, plus the blues. My God, it's crazy fun); an argument or, you know, scientific reality that the poet and novelist Ben Lerner upheld once when he told me that he didn't see the difference between what a poet thinks they're writing versus what they think they're thinking. (And before you say "But he said poets, not writers in general," I'll have you know that this was like a year ago and I was tired after misreading the train schedule and ending up in Englewood and being kindly escorted to the University of Chicago's campus in the back of a police car while explaining to the officer that my cell-phone had been stolen, so I wasn't sure, but pretty sure that the poetics lecture started at 3:30.)
Writers, though, I'm still convinced, feel neither that their self is an illusion nor that who they aren't is okay, just the way it isn't."Be the Void," indeed; a void that serves a writer well whose job it is to try on and take off the many hats that as if trapped inside a haberdashery they seem themselves to be surrounded by, for better or for worse.
In conversation at The Fitz on Tuesday, Junot Diaz said that it confused him every time a fellow writer finished off a novel and exclaimed "I f-ing nailed it!" Confidence and certainty, traits that come in handy in the presence of a bear or in the process of assembling furniture from IKEA, don't always serve a writer well, whose job it is, said Diaz, or at least who can afford to be "ambivalent" about their work. Unsure of what they're doing, why, or when enough's enough. His comment opened up my mind about the uses and rebelliousness of writing as an art form that few writers' own takes on what they do have done in quite some time, and made me think that... Oh, I love how the cast of Adventures in Babysitting looks like they're climbing up the words, that's great. I love that. Um... Shoot. I lost it.
Smith takes her assignment one step further in NW, supposing that her central female characters, Natalie and Leah, are as "out of it" as she is, looking down on their own lives from up above them like Uncle Scrooge in Mickey's Christmas Carol. Well, not exactly like that, but minus the umbrella, pretty much.
What an interesting endeavor, perhaps complicated when the writer's subject includes race and class and other symbols that Smith's novel, as well as Michael Chabon's latest, both confront and question, in the sense that while such symbols contain certain truths, they too make bleary our perceptions of who characters and people are, and most importantly, who they're allowed to be.