The other day as I was, rather audaciously, accusing authors of lacking inner selves and so presuming those around them, including their characters, must lack inner selves as well, I started thinking about Zadie Smith's new novel, got distracted, and ended up watching back to back Tivo recordings of Adventures in Babysitting; a film that has about as much to do with Smith's novel NW (which by the way stands for the postal code for Caldwell, a small fiction of a housing project in an otherwise real London) as the long and mostly made up story of how I got from there to here. Except to say that both texts have a lot to do with place, which I might argue satiates a writer's and our needs for something stable int he midst of all that's not. Adventures' plot depends on it. (Where else would kids from Oak Park have a shot at making friends with black people if not downtown Chicago on the side of the Smurfit-Stone building?) While NW, less plot than character driven, is in many ways about the northwest side of London itself. Its rhythms and materials; its dialects and politics; its sights and smells, in pointillist-like prose, are shown not only to contribute but to over time become what we as readers recognize as consciousness, imbibed and brought to life by Smith's lead characters, Natalie and Leah, who also happen to be best friends.
Leah is, for lack of a better generalization, white; Natalie (who changed her name from Keisha) is Caribbean. Leah spends her time on the local council's lottery distribution team and thinking about how other people spend their time. Natalie, a promising young lawyer spends it trying not to let the color of her skin get in the way of her career and type of law she wants to practice (namely that which stands to serve people, in many ways, like her), without deflecting her unique potential in the process. "There is no easy sense of ethnicity available to these characters," writes Anne Enright in The New York Times. And as Smith's jagged, darting prose, in turn, suggests and makes apparent as a mural on a city wall, no easy sense of identity either. So what's the deal with Chabon's book? Let's both find out tomorrow!