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Sunday, September 30, 2012

NW: Community, Language & Visitation

The Penguin Press, 2012

In the fourth novel from Zadie Smith, a new prose style and ambitious narrative complexity emerges. NW is a novel primarily about language and the way that language defines us as people in the context of the modern world and the cities and communities that have raised us.

The story is one of visitations and intersections, showing those who are at home within the constructed world and those who are just guests within the story - as framed by power, and ultimately by language. The narrative follows two main female protagonists, Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake (formerly Keisha Blake), childhood friends drawn together by a powerful incident when they were young. Woven within the stories of Leah and Natalie are also Felix and Nathan - the male presence, written primarily as visitors within a world over which they have not been able to garner control.

Set in NW London, where Smith set White Teeth and also where she hails from, the four main characters were raised in the same housing estate. A sense of community is established -whether real or fashioned by events and shared environments -and this community is what binds the stories together. While they are together, they are equally disparate in their own realities and Smith uses different language motifs to make the distinctions of each character more clear.

NW was very quickly compared to the work of Virginia Woolf, particularly Mrs. Dalloway, for the use of stream of consciousness prose. But while it's inherently inspired by it's Modernist predecessors, it's also filled with the language of the present climate - google maps directions, text messages, IM conversations, stage directions, concrete poems, patios, conversations overheard while waiting, pop culture references - an onslaught of hyper-modern language motifs. Perhaps even more resounding in the comparison to Woolf is the woman's struggle to make a place for herself in the modern world, and the use of time to measure this conflict. I couldn't help but hear Big Ben striking "first a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable" (Woolf), throughout my read of the novel and it's many references to time. In fact, Smith goes so far as to hold women as the cadence, the timepiece:

"If it was not quite possible to feel happy for him it was because the arrangement was timeless - it did not come bound by the constrictions of time - and this was the consequence of a crucial detail: no women were included with the schema. Women come bearing time."

Even in the telling, Smith clearly understands this is the most complex of her works, and uses her own language throughout the novel to engage with the reader. She pulls through the narrative, as if to separate herself from the story, and address you: "reader, keep up!" Characters are often referred to by their full name, as if this use might serve as a formal separation between author, protagonist, and reader. We may share a community within the novel, but we are not the same.

And, keep up you must. For as much emphasis is placed on language, it's perhaps the implications between the language that play the most important role in the story. Conclusions must be drawn between what is told and what is felt, a motif that the late Modernists mastered, but perhaps becomes most relevant now in the age of technology. At the same time that one is or seeks to be the "the sole author" of their story, it becomes clear that that, "nothing survives in the telling."

Smith crafts very careful communities - both in Willesden, in relationships between protagonists, and in the pages of the novel itself - and then is careful to show that these communities have been authored. The illusion is broken, both for Leah and Natalie, Felix and Nathan; but alas, for the reader as well.
"People were not people but merely an effect of language. You could conjure them up and kill them in a sentence."

Perhaps my only complaint with the novel was the progression towards the novel's ending and it's ultimate conclusion. It seemed that something this carefully wrought by language ran out of time and came to a desperate end within the last 50 pages. Communities are established and destroyed, and thus in the ultimate act for control, the narrative is changed drastically not by language, which has been our guide, but by force. However, being a masterful artist, I can't help but wonder if this was Smith's intention after all. For as quickly as communities were created in the text (by socio-economic conditions, geography, incidents in youth, birth and death), they can just as easily be destroyed. A dramatic play for control -a search for authorship -is made by each of the characters within the novel, and at the end of the novel it seems their story has not been fully drawn. Control is lost. The characters are merely ghosts; failing to understand their progression towards, and ultimately away from their own conclusions about themselves.

Smith still reigns master at writing histories for characters of race, socio-economic struggle, and especially of women trying to build a place for themselves within the roles society has demanded. As a fan of Woolf, I was especially drawn in by the prose, and felt the language was a successful, resounding attempt for Smith. Though, let's be careful not to place this story on the shelf with other Modernists as a few reviewers have suggested, because in its essence and conclusion it's inherently a story of our current Zeitgeist. Ultimately, we are all just visitors in the communities that have been constructed for us, or even unknowingly created by our own hands.

For more wonderful writing by Zadie Smith, check out her article on Jay Z, The House that Hova Built.

© 2012 Eamonn McCabe

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Liberal Arts: A Story About Knowledge

"For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow."
-Ecclesiastes 1:18

It's pretty easy to get annoyed with Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother (seriously kids, where is your damn mother?), so it's a good thing that actor Josh Radnor also writes and directs thoughtful, earnest movies. Radnor's first feature, Happythankyoumoreplease - which he wrote, directed and starred in - was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2010.
Liberal Arts premiered at Sundance earlier this year and reached theaters this month (limited release, or check your cable provider for the IFC release). It's a love song to academia, intellect, and a gentle warning to the dangers of nostalgia and the ideals that come along with knowledge.

The story follows Jesse (a college admissions counselor), a thirty-something who battles ennui with his job, personal life, and life in New York City. As the desperate point of apathy is reached, Jesse receives  a call from his favorite college English professor, Peter Hoberg (played by Richard Jenkins), and he is invited to return to his alma mater in Ohio to attend a retirement party. As any flailing academic would, he eagerly returns to the arms of the one who provides knowledge. When he arrives on the grounds of his former campus, it seems nostalgia might drip from his pores - what a placating medicine. 
While there, Peter faces retirement as gracefully as most face deletion from academic life - with terror; and Jesse meets a free-spirited college sophomore, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), and they quickly connect over consuming dialogue about education, books, classical music, and theater  An obvious tug-pull relationship develops between Jesse and Zibby and it becomes clear that she will play the role of the passionate improviser, and Jesse the intellectual - the heedful idealist. While he is there Jesse also meets a "yes-please" hippie (thank you for the laughs, Zac Efron), and encounters Dean (Joe Magaro) an at-first patronizing genius, who turns out to suffer from the darkness of intellectual mania and isolation.
Eventually life must go on, as it does, and Jesse returns to New York. An ardent Zibby leaves Jessse with a classical music mixed CD in hand (where can I sign up for this offering?) and promises to begin a relationship of the pen. Their letters serve as an emotional and romantic catalyst for their relationship and eventually Jesse is headed back to campus to reconcile with reality and romanticism.

The writing in this movie is earnest, witty, and especially poignant for our generation of young adults. Rador delivers concise and genuine dialogue, but wavers just slightly in filling the spaces without dialogue -the narrative movement. Overall, the film's message and emotional thesis was clear and well delivered. At times it bordered on the sentimental as it reached for narrative solutions. But where there were lulls or bits too sweet, they were certainly made up for by unfeigned acting performances. The casting was near perfect and the performances were ravaging - in the best way.  It seems that Rador truly acts with his heart bleeding on his sleeve, which is why Ted Mosby and Jesse seem to have similarities.  I couldn't help but notice them, but I also couldn't help but empathize with this character and his "gooey little heart". Richard Jenkins, break my heart - another convincing and truly devastating performance as a "life after academics" professor struggling with the loss of intellectual identity. Allison Janney also gives a hilarious, raw performance as a Romantics professor. Just perfect. And then of course, Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen nearly over delivers in this role giving us just the right amount of emotional maturity, balanced by the vulnerable presence of one of the most important presences in the movie: youth.

I was truly delighted by this film in many ways. It's no secret that it spoke to me on many personal levels, being the "victim" of a liberal arts education, and suffering under the brute hands of romanticism and nostalgia at all times. It certainly was intentional that the Romantics were woven into the film - the cruelest of literary periods.  For at the same time as one must learn to rely on emotions as their aesthetic guide, they must also remove the intellectual perspectives that inhibit the raptness of the present moment. Knowledge does not allow for the unascertained of the present; therefore we can only romanticize the past, and theorize about the future, but untimely fail to understand what this feels like. True emotion is only experienced in the present, everything else is just knowledge, memory, or theory.

The relationship between Dean and Jesse was one of my favorite parts of the film.  Not haunted by romanticism or nostalgia like other characters in the film, Jesse ultimately suffers devastatingly from the weight of his intellect. Jesse and Dean meet first in a coffee shop and briefly discuss an unnamed author, though it's clear by reference that the author is David Foster Wallace.
As I marinated further on the film, I couldn't help but think about the commencement speech that Wallace gave at Radnor's alma mater, Kenyon College, where this movie was mostly filmed. I read through the speech and found a quote that seem fitting as pairing to, or thesis for, Liberal Arts.

"Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education--least in my own case--is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me." - David Foster Wallace, Commencement Speech Given at Kenyon College, 2005