“But can’t a rapper insist, like other artists, on a fictional reality, in which he is somehow still on the corner, despite occupying the penthouse suite?… Can’t he still rep his block?” So Zadie Smith wondered of Jay-Z on an afternoon not long ago. The two were lunching for a profile by Smith published in The New York Times Magazine in September, a few weeks before the opening of the Barclays Center, the new entertainment and sports mecca in downtown Brooklyn for which Jay has served as the homegrown poster boy.

The premise of the novelist’s questions was the criticism that the rapper-mogul might be “too distant now from what once made him real”—the poverty, the drugs, the hustle, the street, all the themes he’s kept riffing on well past his first million and 100 million. It’s a charge familiar to Jay-Z’s fans, and Smith’s response in the article to her own line of questioning will be equally familiar to hers: “Who cares if they’re keeping it real?” she retorted on behalf of Jay-Z and his recent collaborator, Kanye West. The question neatly summarizes the climax of the second section of “Speaking in Tongues,” her wonderful 2008 essay on Barack Obama, in which she demolished the accusation that any success blacks achieve in wider Anglo society amounts to a betrayal of their roots.

To me, the instruction “keep it real” is a sort of prison cell, two feet by five. The fact is, it’s too narrow. I just can’t live comfortably in there. “Keep it real” replaced the blessed and solid genetic fact of Blackness with a flimsy imperative. It made Blackness a quality each individual black person was constantly in danger of losing. 

“How absurd that all seems now,” Smith concluded, and the fact, put so simply, seemed indisputable. 

“Speaking in Tongues” appears in the collection Changing My Mind (2009). The title is a disclaimer for whatever contradictions and inconsistencies might arise between the autobiographical reflections, reportage, film criticism and book reviews gathered in its pages, but it’s a credo as well, both literary and personal. Smith may be contemporary English fiction’s most ardent champion of the right to change one’s mind and, above all, one’s self, an idea that’s been at the center of her work since the publication of her first novel, White Teeth, in 2000, when she was 24. There is a moment in that book when the young Londoner Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mubtasim Iqbal is discovered by his Bangladeshi parents to be going by the name Mark Smith at school. Uproar ensues, but still the question hovers: Well, why not? Magid, longing to be part of a different, more middle-class, more British family, unintentionally grasps what his parents, clutching their old-world ways, don’t: that he can be—and on some level already is—a Smith who covets holidays in France as well as an Iqbal who never gets farther than “day-trips to Blackpool to visit aunties.” He’s only 9, and could already plot a small map from the blocks he has to rep.

White Teeth is a comic novel brimming with a rare fondness for the foibles of the human condition, and where a different writer might have insisted on casting Magid’s split state as a grim symbol of alienation—generational, racial, postcolonial, that Triple Crown of modern angst—Smith observes it with a wink. She sees humor in all this identity confusion, and hope, too. “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,” Walt Whitman warns readers liable to be baffled by his giddy mutations in Song of Myself, then alchemizes the threat of his strangeness into a communal blessing: “But I shall be good health to you nevertheless.” Along with the rest of White Teeth’s motley crew, Magid Iqbal hails from Willesden, the multicultural London neighborhood where Smith herself grew up, the daughter of a white father and a Jamaican mother many years his junior. But Magid would be an ideal resident of “Dream City,” the Whitmanesque utopia she conjures in “Speaking in Tongues,” where “the unified singular self is an illusion…. It’s the kind of town where the wise man says ‘I’ cautiously, because I feels like too straight and singular a phoneme to represent the true multiplicity of his experience.” Dream City is a place, in other words, where a rapper could choose to travel from his old corner to the penthouse suite and back with no more effort than it takes to step into the elevator, and Smith ended her Times Magazine profile by suggesting just how close to reality this vision might come. After Jay compared his early years in Brooklyn’s notorious Marcy Houses, now the stuff of myth, to the unfathomably different circumstances that his baby daughter has been born into, Smith condensed the distance into four syllables: “It’s a new day.”

That sentiment of progress and possibility is good. It’s better than good. It’s necessary and urgent, never more so. Then why, after reading the profile and feeling stirred by Smith’s conviction, did I sense her conviction waver when I read it again, like a smile stretched too thin? Beware of novelists bearing the cheery sound-bite slogans of politicians, particularly when the novelist in question is as skilled as Smith at parsing the tortuous nuances of personhood. Beneath her optimism and certainty, there seemed to run a fissure of doubt. Something wasn’t being said; some question wasn’t being asked. After all, we may each be entitled to a “fictional reality” in which the past doesn’t have to be shed to make room for the present, and the fact of the present doesn’t discount the truth of the past—but how to pull off that balancing act? It takes a superstar to transform the housing projects of his childhood into the gleaming victory of a Barclays Center, but what about everyone else? And if you do get to the top, only to find that the voice hounding you with charges of inauthenticity is your own, what then?

* * *

NW, Smith’s new novel, is named after the postal code for the North West of London, which counts Willesden as part of its domain. There we find Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake, two women in their 30s who grew up as best friends in the Caldwell housing project (or “council estate,” in British English). Leah, an only child, is white. Natalie, the second of three, is black, although these distinctions mean relatively little when the girls are young and getting to know each other in that stretch of childhood before all differences come outfitted with a strict set of social mores. There is a basic equivalency, a symmetry, between the two. The girls do everything together. Their mothers are both nurses, neither “in any sense a member of the bourgeoisie but neither did they consider themselves solidly of the working class either.” The young Natalie, it’s true, is fascinated by the middle-class accoutrements of Leah’s family life—tea trays for tea and trolleys for snacks; a hushed apartment in place of the cramped chaos of her own flat; talk-radio rather than a DJ blaring all the time—but Leah is equally thrilled when the Blakes include her on a Saturday outing to McDonald’s.

Yet by the time we come across this background in “Host,” a lengthy section that tracks the story of Natalie’s life as it unfolds from childhood through marriage, we are halfway through the novel and long disabused of any suspicion that the two women may have remained in perfect sync. NW begins in the thick of adulthood with “Visitation,” an extended chapter narrated from Leah’s perspective in the third person. Unsurprisingly, things are no longer quite so balanced. When we first encounter the friends together, Leah and her husband, Michel, a handsome French hairdresser of West African extraction, are visiting the much larger, much more luxurious home of Natalie and her husband, Frank De Angelis, a handsome banker conceived from a hasty coupling between his extravagant Italian principessa of a mother and a Trinidadian train guard she met in a park. Location-wise, the De Angelis residence isn’t far removed from Leah and Michel’s own pleasant council-subsidized apartment, but what distance there is makes all the difference, as the narrator, filling in Leah’s thoughts, observes: “Leah passes the old estate every day on the walk to the corner shop. She can see it from her back yard. Nat lives just far enough to avoid it.” 

Leah, who studied philosophy in college, works at a shabby nonprofit where her colleagues playfully chide her for being the only woman without a kid. Natalie has become a high-powered barrister, juggling the demands of her smart phone with those of her two toddlers. As the group sips wine in the garden and the children play too close to the barbecue, she projects a powerful detachment from her old friend. Her attitude is “serene, a little imperious. Insincere.” Even a straightforward chat about long-lost acquaintances from their high school, Brayton, grinds to a halt as Natalie fluctuates between distraction and indifference. Leah, slighted, grows resentful: 

Perhaps Brayton, too, no longer exists for her. It’s gone, cast off. She is probably as surprised to have come out of Brayton as it is surprised to have spawned her. Nat is the girl done good from their thousand-kid madhouse; done too good, maybe, to recall where she came from. To live like this you would have to forget everything that came before. How else could you manage?

We know what she’s getting at: Natalie sold out! She stopped keeping it real! To twist the knife, Leah brings up a boy who “sat next to Keisha. Back when she was Keisha.” This is a pointed revelation. Like Magid Iqbal, like Jay-Z (a k a Shawn Carter), like Smith herself (who started life as Sadie Smith), Natalie, the reader discovers, decided to change her name on her way up. “I forget that you did this,” Michel says before she can switch the subject. “It’s like: ‘Dress for the job you want not the one you have.’” 

* * *

The comparison is embarrassingly frank, but Michel means it as a compliment. He, too, wants to see himself as on the way to somewhere else. If he feels any homesickness for the life he left behind, it doesn’t show. (Who is his family? Why do Leah and Michel never visit France? Why isn’t he given a surname? The novel doesn’t say.) Michel is a speechifier, a self-starter, the kind of person who would shine on his own daytime TV talk-show. “From the first day I was stepping into this country I have my head on correctly; I was very clear: I am going up the ladder, one rung at least,” he tells his silent, skeptical wife as they lie in bed together, surely just the latest in a string of similar soliloquies. A different, “illegal” conceit occurs to Leah in the garden: Natalie, she thinks, is a “coconut”—brown skin, white within.

The spite in that insult masks a subtle, and corrosive, brand of shame. Though Leah doesn’t label it outright, Natalie’s carefully curated domesticity of “cake ingredients and fancy rugs and throw cushions and upholstered chairs in chosen fabrics” is as white in its litany of signifiers as a Martha Stewart catalog spread. Running a home that seems, in every particular, to fulfill the promise of those tea trays she first encountered at the Hanwell house, Natalie inhabits the destiny that somehow passed Leah by.

“What was the purpose of preparing for a life never intended for her?” Leah wonders bitterly while slogging through another meeting at work, thinking of the “fancy degree” that has turned out to be all but pointless in her social services job. Her slip into the passive voice hints at what will become relentlessly clear over the course of the novel: Leah cannot figure out how to see herself as the agent of her own experience, or to use a phrase she overhears on the radio, “the sole author of the dictionary that defines me.” “A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine,” she instructs herself, self-help style, an intention whose immediate defeat Smith slyly chalks up to a technicality: “Pencil leaves no mark on magazine pages.”

Reflecting on their childhoods, Natalie remembers Leah as a shape-shifter, the kid who could hang with anybody from the estate and, in college, mixed among all types, from philosophers to ravers to environmental activists. Natalie is jealous of Leah’s ease, a quality that she—focused, serious, solitary—never had herself. As an adult, Leah’s talent for moving among worlds has stranded her somewhere permanently in between. She’s the odd one out in any group. The only white woman at her office, she bears the stigma of the resident highbrow, excluded from the sisterhood of “the women in our community,” as her colleagues remind her, “the Afro-Caribbean community, no offense, but when we see one of our lot with someone like you it’s a real issue.” But at a dinner party chez De Angelis, amid lawyers and bankers who complacently chat about what is, for them, the usual—“private cinemas. Christmas abroad. A restaurant with only five tables in it”—Leah feels herself united with Michel in a “camaraderie of contempt,” a defense against the humiliation of being “invited to provide something like local color.”

This choice of words turns out to be ironic. The successful guests oozing pretension are themselves the children of immigrants, “from Jamaica, from Ireland, from India, from China.” Certainly, in a different setting, on a different night, with a different crowd, they too must find themselves called upon to play the part of tokens. Smith is writing in the great tradition of English novelists who home in on meals, with their ready markers of class and culture (“The spinach is farm to table”), as preset stages for this kind of conflict. Think of the unctuous Mr. Collins preparing Lizzy Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, for dinner at Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s with a classic bit of advice: “Lady Catherine will not think the worse of you for being simply dressed. She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved.” At a brunch in the gentrifying Willesden with Frank and another couple, Imran and Ameeta, Natalie—a veteran of the absurd de Bourgh–like formal dinners required as part of law school and barristers’ training—casts herself in much the same terms:

They were all four of them providing a service for the rest of the people in the café, simply by being here. They were the “local vibrancy” to which the estate agents referred. For this reason, too, they needn’t concern themselves too much with politics. They simply were political facts, in their very persons. 

Like Leah, Natalie is adept at parodying the way she knows she is seen by others. It’s a basic technique of survival and, when useful, manipulation. “Look, we’re both educated brothers,” Frank tells the waiter at the upscale cafe to get some eggs taken off the bill, though coming from her boarding-school-bred husband, that note of shared struggle rings false. “She dislikes being reminded of her own inconsistencies,” Leah coolly observes in the De Angelis garden.

In her wariness and vulnerability, Natalie is like Rodney Banks, her high school boyfriend, Brayton’s other “miracle of self-invention.” Religious, studious, relentlessly disciplined, young Rodney carried a copy of the King James Bible and The Prince wherever he went. Smith doesn’t mention what Rodney’s preferred Bible reading was (something Old Testament and unforgiving would be apt), but she does tell us which passages he has highlighted in Machiavelli: “The difficult situation and the newness of my kingdom force me to do these things, and guard my borders everywhere.” Machiavelli, too, is quoting, in his case from the doomed Dido in The Aeneid. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee: Natalie can’t risk letting her defenses down, and Carthage is a long way from Dream City.

* * *

Since she began publishing essays, Smith has been remarkably candid about her concerns as a novelist. In the six-year hiatus between On Beauty, her last novel, and NW, she has scattered a trail of crumbs the size of cupcakes to lead us through her evolving thoughts on how she wants to be making novels, creating characters, staging scenes and situations.

Her watchword is influence. In a talk she gave at Columbia University, collected in Changing My Mind as “That Crafty Feeling,” Smith spoke of writers who assiduously avoid the taint of all other novels while trying to produce their own. She does things differently—not by choice, I’d hazard, but by nature and inner compulsion: “My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigour when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight.” For unassailable backup, she brought John Keats into her corner. Since discovering the poet at 14, Smith has felt “a bond with him, a bond based on class.” Like Smith, Keats “made his own scene out of the books of his library. He never feared influence—he devoured influences. He wanted to learn from them, even at the risk of their voices swamping his own.” 

Voice is different from its cousin, style. Critics have made much of the fact that Smith’s three previous novels are written in markedly distinct modes, her themes and points of reference refracted, like the beads of a kaleidoscope, into new patterns each time around. The ribaldry and humor of White Teeth, with its panoply of characters stuffed into a series of plots and settings, from a World War II battlefield to a farcically inept Islamic fundamentalist youth group, gave way to the colder, stiffer tricks of The Autograph Man (2002), which in turn morphed into the lush realism of On Beauty. With that novel, it seemed that Smith had finally found her mark, not because she had abandoned an experimental sensibility for a more traditional vein, but because the form, which demands attention to the finer shadings of character and characters’ thoughts, made the most of her particular gifts. 

For all her roiling styles, Smith’s own voice has always floated to the top. It comes through in the quality of her observations, her magpie’s eye for detail, and her ear for dialects and speech patterns of all kinds. It has something to do, too, with her curiosity about her characters, her ability to let them speak for themselves even as she guides them from the wings. Here’s Leah, running through the well-worn origin story of her mother, Pauline: 

No matter where Leah attempts to begin, Pauline returns to this point. The whole story gets run through: from Dublin to Kilburn, a rare Prod on the wing, back when most were of the other persuasion. Heading for the wards, though, like the rest of the girls. Flirted with the O’Rourke boys, the brickies, but wanted better, being so auburn and fine-featured and already a midwife. Waited too long. Nested at twilight with a quiet widower, an Englishman who didn’t drink. The O’Rourkes ended up builder’s merchants with half of Kilburn High Road in their pockets. For which she would have put up with a bit of drink. Thank God she retrained. (Radiography.) Where would she be otherwise? This story, once rationed, offered a few times a year, now bursts through every phone call, including this one, which has nothing at all to do with Pauline. Time is compressing for the mother, she has a short distance left to go. She means to squeeze the past into a thing small enough to take with her. It’s the daughter’s job to listen. She’s no good at it. 

The portrait, expertly dispatched in the space of a paragraph, is actually a triptych. There is Pauline fully formed, seen through Leah’s lens, conveyed to us through Smith’s diction and cadences. The vocabulary (“Prod” for Protestant, “brickies” for bricklayers) is Pauline’s; the restless tone, the boredom and irritation that bookend the story, are Leah’s. The authorial touch that seeps through in words like “compressing” to describe aging, and “rationed” to capture Pauline’s onetime attitude to her past, belongs entirely to Smith, subtly shaping the information for the reader to receive. 

* * *

In style, voice and the interplay of influences, NW is a perplexing creation. Long before the book’s larger structure becomes apparent, the story has an ominous tone. The texture of the prose is still distinctly Smith’s, but its color has changed, a familiar, bright picture seen through smudged and darkened glass. Sentences are curt and clipped, meted out in stingy servings of nouns and verbs denied the luxury of richer grammar. The effect is jumpy, jittery, the early scenes infused with the same kind of foreboding that causes the guard at the start of Hamlet to call out, “Who’s there?” It’s a reasonable question. Who is there in a passage like this one, which opens the book:

The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.
   Four gardens along, in the estate, a grim girl on the third floor screams Anglo-Saxon at nobody. Juliet balcony, projecting for miles. It ain’t like that. Nah it ain’t like that. Don’t you start. Fag in hand. Fleshy, lobster-red. 

The language moves so quickly that it took me a number of readings to understand, in a flash, that this was not a description of a walk. I had been imagining Leah strolling through Willesden, a homage to Leopold Bloom wandering through Dublin, or to Clarissa Dalloway plunging into the throng of the Strand on the morning of her party. The passage reaches for the quicksilver rhythm invented by Joyce and Woolf, attempting, through words, to press as close as possible to all forms of sensory and cerebral experience. But Leah is in her garden, in a hammock, listening to the radio compete with her neighbor’s half of a phone conversation. Is she the one who thinks of herself as “Fenced in, on all sides”? Or is it Smith, alerting us to the greater problem of Leah’s condition?

Before Ezra Pound edited it into The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot had called his poem He Do the Police in Different Voices, and here, as in both versions of the poem, there is something ominous in the cacophonous jumble of character, voice and thought that builds as the sentences accrete. “At least with eyes closed there is something else to see. Viscous black specks. Darting water boatmen, zig-zagging. Zig. Zag. Red river? Molten lake in hell? The hammock tips. The papers flop to the ground. World events and property and film and music lie in the grass. Also sport and the short descriptions of the dead.” On that doleful beat, the passage ends with a chapter break, leaving us to scramble to make sense of what just happened. The sight behind the closed eyelids like a lake in hell? It sounds impressive, but on closer inspection, that schmear of foreboding diction starts to seem a bit silly. The implication, of course, is that the world the newspaper describes in composite is just as close to coming undone.

“Forms, styles, structures—whatever word you prefer—should change like skirt lengths,” Smith prescribed in an essay on Middlemarch, cautioning novelists not to default to the nineteenth century for want of a different idea. NW is a whole, messy wardrobe. A hundred pages in, the section devoted to Leah gives way to what amounts to a small, distinct novella, told in a calmer style of complete sentences and dialogue cradled between normal-looking quotation marks. It’s downright retro. “Visitation” covers a period of weeks; the novella, “Guest,” is restricted to a single day in the life of Felix Cooper, a 32-year-old who spent his adolescence in Caldwell and is unknown to Leah and Natalie, though by the time we reach him, Leah has already heard his death reported on the TV news. Felix, shiftless in the past, has kicked drugs and is now trying to make good. He wakes up with his girlfriend, visits his dope-smoking Rasta dad, buys a car from a young, white Londoner, calls on a melodramatic, upper-class ex-lover who seems to be wasting away in the equivalent of a private opium den in a posh part of town, and meets his end in a random and maddening act of violence at the hands of a couple of guys he came across on a train. 

And then it’s on to “Host” and Natalie, the span of her life communicated according to yet another set of stylistic terms. Just as the fragmented prose of Leah’s tale is meant to reflect her depressive, unmoored state of mind, Smith has broken Natalie’s story into a series of short sections, many no more than a paragraph long, each tidily labeled with a number and a title as if for reference. As a kind of cataloging system, the numbers make sense—Natalie is a person so methodical in thought and action that, when Leah leaves a wrapped vibrator on her doorstep as a sixteenth birthday present, she handles it “in this business-like way, as if delegating a task to somebody else”—but the titles are filled with references for the savvy reader (the beginning of the vibrator saga, for instance, is broken into two parts: “Rabbit” and “Rabbit, run,” with the result that a reader of John Updike fiction smirks at a joke that Natalie herself likely wouldn’t get). They’re stylish, often funny and ultimately superfluous. What are they meant to do? Show off, flaunt, like farm-to-table spinach. 

Natalie’s section of NW is knotted with detail, and Natalie is the clear heroine of the book, the vessel Smith has chosen to transmit a series of acute observations about life, love, class, race, purpose, confusion, family, isolation. “They were going to be lawyers, the first people in either of their families to become professionals. They thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalization.” This comment on Keisha and Rodney Banks is the entirety of section 57, labeled “Ambition.” It’s clever and curt, a bit like a Lydia Davis story. But what, or who, lies beneath these pronouncements? We see Natalie as an agglomeration of attributes, actions and thoughts, the majority highly rational, some not. Together, these things indicate a character who certainly resembles a person in every particular, and yet the person herself fails to emerge. 

“Natalie had not really known Colin (it was not possible to have really known Colin) but she had known what it was to know of Colin. To have Colin be an object presented to her consciousness.” Colin is Leah’s father; Natalie comes up with this logical Gordian knot at his funeral. What we’re hearing is Smith ventriloquizing through her, airing her own misgivings. Is it possible to know anyone at all? Can a believable character—that is, a character who matters to us as a person would—really appear “out of grammatical clauses,” as Smith wondered in “That Crafty Feeling”? “You’re the only person I can be all of myself with,” Leah tells Natalie in college. We learn that the comment “made Natalie begin to cry, not really at the sentiment but rather out of a fearful knowledge that if reversed the statement would be rendered practically meaningless, Ms. Blake having no self to be, not with Leah, or anyone.” And years later, a livid Frank De Angelis, who has discovered the Internet profile that his wife devised to have casual encounters with an array of unsavory and improbable types, demands: “Who are you?” 

“Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag,” runs one possible list of roles in Natalie’s mind. “Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic.” As a pastiche of identity politics and theoretical notions of the self-as-construct, this is shrewd. As an observation about a personal predicament, it’s terribly sad. As a way of creating a character, it establishes little more than a series of propositions. The questions are asked, but the answer is never greater than the sum of their parts.

* * *

There is a scene in Anna Karenina that I think about often. Anna is at an afternoon party hosted by the Princess Tverskoy, who knows about her affair with Vronsky. Sitting together, the women begin to speak about another guest, a married woman whose lover is a prince. Anna tries to inquire discreetly into the relationship between the two; she doesn’t understand how the affair can be open enough to be talked about and accepted by everyone involved, the cuckolded husband as well as the couple. The Princess Tverskoy knows that she is really seeking insight into her own situation and answers with a comparison: 

“You see, one and the same thing can be looked at tragically and be made into a torment, or can be looked at simply and even gaily. Perhaps you’re inclined to look at things too tragically.”
 “How I wish I knew others as I know myself,” Anna said seriously and pensively. “Am I worse than others or better? Worse, I think.” 

There are two points here. The first is the idea of a destiny that can be shaped by the way a person sees herself, and the way she chooses to view the world. On the surface, there is little difference between Anna and the other woman having an affair, but that woman’s story, we imagine, will end well because she sees herself as the heroine of a comedy, while Anna’s, we know, will end in disaster. The second point, of course, is that despite what she says to the Princess Tverskoy, Anna doesn’t know herself at all. If she did, she would be able to take some action against the tragedy she already imagines herself to be setting in motion.

Toward the end of NW, when Natalie’s infidelity is discovered by Frank, she leaves their house in her slippers and goes wandering in the direction of Caldwell. It’s nighttime. She encounters Nathan Bogle, the boy from Brayton whom Leah had mentioned in the garden. Time has not treated him kindly. A heartthrob back in the day, he now shambles aimlessly around NW, smoking various substances. As Natalie discovers, he also makes money as a small-time pimp. “Even relative weakness in Caldwell translated to impressive strength in the world,” Natalie at one point observes while in law school. “The world asked so much less of a person, and was of simpler construction.” But that’s not true at all, as the broken Nathan Bogle proves. While the two walk, Nathan does most of the talking, addressing himself to “Keisha.” He is by turns wistful, charming, sometimes frightening, given to harsh, half-philosophical monologues driven by the need to be heard. He brags, in the sad way of people who have only despair to brag about: “Different life. No use to me. I don’t live in them towers no more, I’m on the streets now, different attitude. Survival. That’s it.” 

The author has all but absconded, appearing here and there to report on the pair’s location or the direction of their movements; otherwise, Natalie and Nathan are left to their own devices. Their conversation stands alone on the page, crystallizing around a familiar theme in the form of an accusation made by Nathan, who turns on Natalie when she tries to introduce her own version of the past: “What do you know about it? What do you know about me? Nothing. Who are you, to chat to me? Nobody. No-one.” 

This is hardly the first case of a character in NW being haunted by an inverse figure, a double with a fate that, had things played out differently, could have been hers. Leah, in “Visitation,” is hounded by the thought of Shar, a local woman who scams some money from her and then seems to continuously pop up around the neighborhood looking aggrieved, a ghostly emblem of Leah’s guilt. The death of Felix Cooper, too, enters Natalie’s life as well as Leah’s, his freak fatal mugging a possible fate shared by all three but finally experienced by only one. At the end of the novel, the women team up to turn on Nathan—preposterously and without a shred of cause—as a suspect in Felix’s murder. Smith may be trying to bind the four figures together once and for all, but her control over the proceedings has slipped. Her hasty solution is worse than hollow; it’s without sense, a sacrifice of character to some principle of structure whose purpose remains obscure.

Unknown to Natalie or Leah, Felix does come to consider himself the sole author of the dictionary that defines him. “I’ve completed the level, and it’s time to move to the next level,” he says to Annie, his addled ex. Annie, whose fatalist glamour wears pitifully thin by the end of their confrontation, belittles Felix for refusing to self-destruct with her in her squalid flat. She nearly succeeds, but as he leaves her poisoned apartment we feel, even though we know what’s in store, that he somehow has a fighting chance. Parts of Felix’s story veer into melodrama or sheer clunkiness (Annie’s cat, nudge-nudge, is called Karenin), but there’s a soul to it, too. Felix knows where he comes from, and knows where he has to go. There’s truth to that.

When Leah hears of his murder, she’s at a raucous celebration for Willesden’s carnival. “Why that poor bastard on Albert Road,” she asks Natalie of Felix’s death. “It doesn’t make sense to me.” To which her friend replies: “We wanted to get out. People like Bogle—they didn’t want it enough…. This is one of the things you learn in a courtroom: people generally get what they deserve.” Natalie sounds tough, decisive, lucid. If only we believed her bluff.


In “Obscure Objects of Desire” (Dec. 12, 2011), Alexandra Schwartz wrote about Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot.