Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith


  There are those clouds again. Under them, Hans is rendered authentic, real, natural. It’s the dream that Plato started, and Hans is still having it.

  But Netherland is anxious. It knows the world has changed and we do not stand in the same relation to it as we did when Balzac was writing. In Père Goriot, Balzac makes the wallpaper of the Pension Vauquer speak of the lives of the guests inside. Hans does not have quite this metaphysical confidence: he can’t be Chuck’s flawless interpreter. And so Netherland plants inside itself its own partial critique, in the form of Hans’s wife Rachel, whose “truest self resisted triteness, even of the inventive romantic variety, as a kind of falsehood.” It is she who informs Hans of what the reader has begun to suspect:“Basically, you didn’t take him seriously.”

  She has accused me of exoticizing Chuck Ramkissoon, of giving him a pass, of failing to grant him a respectful measure of distrust, of perpetrating a white man’s infantilizing elevation of a black man.

  Hans denies the charge, but this conversation signals the end of Chuck’s privileged position (gifted to him by identity politics, the only authenticity to survive the twentieth century). The authenticity of ethnicity is shown to be a fake—Chuck’s seeming naturalness is simply an excess of ego, which overflows soon enough into thuggery and fraud. For a while Chuck made Hans feel authentic, but then, later, the submerged anger arrives, as it always does: what makes Chuck more authentic than Hans anyway? It makes sense that Hans’s greatest moment of antipathy toward Chuck (he is angry because Chuck has drawn him into his shady, violent business dealings) should come after three pages of monologue, in which Chuck tells a tale of island life, full of authentic Spanish names and local customs and animals and plants, which reads like a Trinidadian novel:Very little was said during the rest of that journey to New York City. Chuck never apologized or explained. It’s probable that he felt his presence in the car amounted to an apology and his story to an explanation—or, at the very least, that he’d privileged me with an opportunity to reflect on the stuff of his soul. I wasn’t interested in drawing a line from his childhood to the sense of authorization that permitted him, as an American, to do what I had seen him do. He was expecting me to make the moral adjustment—and here was an adjustment I really couldn’t make.

  Once the possibility of Chuck’s cultural authenticity is out of play, a possible substitute is introduced: world events. Are they the real thing? During a snowstorm, Hans and Rachel have the argument everyone has (“She said, ‘Bush wants to attack Iraq as part of a right-wing plan to destroy international law and order as we know it and replace it with the global rule of American force’ ”), which ends for Hans as it ends for many people, though you get the sense Hans believes his confession to be in some way transgressive:Did Iraq have weapons of mass destruction that posed a real threat? I had no idea; and to be truthful, and to touch on my real difficulty, I had little interest. I didn’t care.

  But this conclusion is never in doubt: even as Rachel rages on, Hans’s mind wanders repeatedly to the storm, its specks of snow like “small and dark flies,” and also like “a cold toga draped [over] the city.” The nineteenth-century flaneur’s ennui has been transplanted to the twenty-first-century bourgeois’s political apathy—and made beautiful. Other people’s political engagement is revealed to be simply another form of inauthenticity. (“World events had finally contrived a meaningful test of their capacity for conscientious political thought. Many of my acquaintances, I realized, had passed the last decade or two in a state of intellectual and psychic yearning for such a moment.”) The only sophisticated thing to do, the only literary thing to do, is to stop listening to Rachel and think of a night sky:A memory of Rachel and me flying to Hong Kong for our honeymoon, and how in the dimmed cabin I looked out of my window and saw lights, in small glimmering webs, on the placeless darkness miles below. I pointed them out to Rachel. I wanted to say something about these creaturely cosmic glows, which made me feel, I wanted to say, as if we had been removed by translation into another world.

  This sky serves the same purpose as another one near the end of the novel in which “a single cavaliering cloud trailed a tattered blue cloak of rain” and to which a “tantalizing metaphysical significance” attaches, offering Hans “a sanctuary: for where else, outside of reverie’s holy space, was I to find it?” Where else indeed? These are tough times for Anglo-American liberals. All we’ve got left to believe in is ourselves.

  In Netherland, only one’s own subjectivity is really authentic, and only the personal offers this possibility of transcendence, this “translation into another world.” Which is why personal things are so relentlessly aestheticised: this is how their importance is signified, and their depth. The world is covered in language. Lip service is paid to the sanctity of mystery:One result [of growing up in Holland] in a temperament such as my own, was a sense that mystery is treasurable, even necessary: for mystery, in such a crowded, see-through little country, is, among other things, space.

  But in practice Netherland colonizes all space by way of voracious image. This results in many beauties (“a static turnstile like a monster’s unearthed skeleton”) and some oddities (a cricket ball arrives “like a gigantic meteoritic cranberry”), though in both cases, there is an anxiety of excess. Everything must be made literary. Nothing escapes. On TV “dark Baghdad glitter[s] with American bombs.” Even the mini traumas of a middle-class life are given the high lyrical treatment, in what feels, at its best, like a grim satire on the profound fatuity of twenty-first-century bourgeois existence. The surprise discovery of his wife’s lactose intolerance becomes “an unknown hinterland to our marriage”; a slightly unpleasant experience of American bureaucracy at the DMV brings Hans (metaphorically) close to the war on terror:And so I was in a state of fuming helplessness when I stepped out into the inverted obscurity of the afternoon. . . . I was seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers. The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space between the road and the undercarriage, where icy matter stuck to the pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark.

  To which one wants to say, isn’t it hard to see the dark when it’s so lyrically presented? And also: grapefruits?

  In an essay written half a century ago, Robbe-Grillet imagined a future for the novel in which objects would no longer “be merely the vague reflection of the hero’s vague soul, the image of his torments, the shadow of his desires.” He dreaded the “total and unique adjective, which attempt[s] to unite all the inner qualities, the entire hidden soul of things.” But this adjectival mania is still our dominant mode, and Netherland is its most masterful recent example. And why shouldn’t it be? The received wisdom of literary history is that Finnegans Wake did not fundamentally disturb realism’s course as Duchamp’s urinal disturbed realism in the visual arts: the novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry the trace of the Real. But if literary realism survived the assault of Joyce, it retained the wound. Netherland bears this anxiety trace; it foregrounds its narrative nostalgia, asking us to note it, and look kindly upon it:I was startled afresh by the existence of this waterside vista, which on a blurred morning such as this had the effect, once we passed under the George Washington Bridge, of canceling out centuries. . . .

  The centuries are duly canceled. What follows is a page of landscape portraiture, seen from a train’s window (“Clouds steaming on the clifftops foxed all sense of perspective, so that it seemed to me that I saw distant and fabulously high mountains”). Insert it into any nineteenth-century novel (again, a test first suggested by Robbe-Grillet) and you wouldn’t see the joins. The passage ends with a glimpse of a “near-naked white man” walking through the trees by the track; he is never explained and never mentioned again, and this is another rule of lyrical realism: that th
e random detail confers the authenticity of the Real. As perfect as it all seems, in a strange way it makes you wish for urinals.

  Halfway through the novel, Hans imagines being a professional cricketer, lyrically and at length. He dreams of the ball hanging “before me like a Christmas bauble,” of a bat preternaturally responsive by means of “a special dedication of memory,” and after he’s done, he asks for our indulgence:How many of us are completely free of such scenarios? Who hasn’t known, a little shamefully, the joys they bring?

  It’s a credit to Netherland that it is so anxious. Most lyrical realism blithely continues on its merry road, with not a metaphysical care in the world, and few of its practitioners write as finely as Joseph O’Neill. I have written in this tradition myself and cautiously hope for its survival, but if it’s to survive, lyrical realists will have to push a little harder on their subject. Netherland recognizes the tenuous nature of a self, that “fine white thread running, through years and years,” and Hans flirts with the possibility that language may not precisely describe the world (“I was assaulted by the notion, arriving in the form of a terrifying stroke of consciousness, that substance—everything of so-called concreteness—was indistinct from its unnameable opposite”) but in the end Netherland wants always to comfort us, to assure us of our beautiful plenitude. At a certain point in his Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek passes quickly and dismissively over exactly this personal fullness we hold so dear in the literary arts (“You know . . . the wealth of human personality and so on and so forth . . .”), directing our attention instead to those cinematic masters of the antisublime (Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, David Lynch) who look into the eyes of the Other and see no self at all, only an unknowable absence, an abyss. Netherland flirts with that idea, too. Not knowing what to do with photographs of his young son, Hans gives them to Chuck’s girlfriend, Eliza, who organizes photo albums for a living:“People want a story,” she said. “They like a story.”

  I was thinking of the miserable apprehension we have of even those existences that matter most to us. To witness a life, even in love—even with a camera—was to witness a monstrous crime without noticing the particulars required for justice.

  “A story,” I said suddenly. “Yes. That’s what I need.”

  I wasn’t kidding.

  An interesting thought is trying to reach us here, but the ghost of the literary burns it away, leaving only its remainder: a nicely constructed sentence, rich in sound and syntax, signifying (almost) nothing. Netherland doesn’t really want to know about misapprehension. It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really realism?

  In the end what is impressive about Netherland is how precisely it knows the fears and weaknesses of its readers. What is disappointing is how much it indulges them. Out of a familiar love, like a lapsed High Anglican, Netherland hangs on to the rituals and garments of transcendence, though it well knows they are empty. In its final, saccharine image (Hans and his family, reunited on the mandala of the London Eye), Netherland demonstrates its sly ability to have its metaphysical cake and eat it, too:A self-evident and prefabricated symbolism attaches itself to this slow climb to the zenith, and we are not so foolishly ironic, or confident, as to miss the opportunity to glimpse significantly into the eyes of the other and share the thought that occurs to all at this summit, which is, of course, that they have made it thus far, to a point where they can see horizons previously unseen, and the old earth reveals itself newly.

  And this epiphany naturally reminds Hans of another, which occurred years earlier as the Staten Island Ferry approached New York, and the sky colored like a “Caran d’Ache box” of pencils, purples fading into blues:Concentrat[ing] most glamorously of all, it goes without saying, in the lilac acres of two amazingly high towers going up above all others, on one of which, as the boat drew us nearer, the sun began to make a brilliant yellow mess. To speculate about the meaning of such a moment would be a stained, suspect business; but there is, I think, no need to speculate. Factual assertions can be made. I can state that I wasn’t the only person on that ferry who’d seen a pink watery sunset in his time, and I can state that I wasn’t the only one of us to make out and accept an extraordinary promise in what we saw—the tall approaching cape, a people risen in light.

  There was the chance to let the towers be what they were: towers. But they were covered in literary language when they fell, and they continue to be here.

  2

  If Netherland is a novel only partially aware of the ideas that underpin it, Remainder is fully conscious of its own. But how to write about it? Immediately an obstacle presents itself. When we write about lyrical realism our great tool is the quote, so richly patterned. But Remainder is not filled with pretty quotes; it works by accumulation and repetition, closing in on its subject in ever-decreasing revolutions, like a trauma victim circling the blank horror of the traumatic event. It plays a long, meticulous game, opening with a deadpan paragraph of comic simplicity:About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology, parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.

  It’s not that I’m being shy. It’s just that—well, for one, I don’t even remember the event. It’s a blank: a white slate, a black hole. I have vague images, half-impressions: of being, or having been—or, more precisely, being about to be—hit; blue light; railings; lights of other colours; being held above some kind of tray or bed.

  This is our protagonist, though that’s a word from another kind of novel. Better to use enactor. This is our Enactor. He has no name, he lives in Brixton and recently he has been hit on the head by some kind of enormous thing. For a long time he was in a coma, his mind “still asleep but getting restless and inventing spaces for me to inhabit . . . cricket grounds with white crease and boundary lines painted on the grass.” After a time, he recovers, though he has to learn to move and walk again. But there is a remainder: it appears that the “parties, institutions, organizations—let’s call them the bodies—responsible for what happened” are offering him a settlement on the condition of his silence (though he can’t remember what happened). His lawyer phones to tell him the amount. It is eight and a half million pounds. The Enactor turns suddenly to the window, accidentally pulling the phone out of the wall:The connection had been cut. I stood there for some time, I don’t know how long, holding the dead receiver in my hand and looking down at what the wall had spilt. It looked kind of disgusting, like something that’s come out of something.

  For the first fifty pages or so, this is Remainder’s game, a kind of antiliterature hoax, a windup (which is, however, impeccably written). Meticulously it works through the things we expect of a novel, gleefully taking them apart, brick by brick. Hearing of the settlement, he “felt neutral. . . . I looked around me at the sky: it was neutral too—a neutral spring day, sunny but not bright, neither cold nor warm.” It’s a huge sum of money, but he doesn’t like clothes or shoes or cars or yachts. A series of narrative epiphany MacGuffins follow. He goes to the pub with a halfhearted love interest and his best friend. The girl thinks he should use the money to build an African village; the friend thinks he should use it to snort coke off the bodily surfaces of strippers. Altruism and hedonism prove equally empty. We hear of his physiotherapy—the part of his brain that controls motor function is damaged and needs to be rerouted: “To cut and lay the new circuits [in the brain], what they do is make you visualize things. Simple things like lifting a carrot to your mouth.” You have to visualize every component of this action, over and over, and
yet, he finds, when they finally put a real carrot in your hand, “gnarled, dirty and irregular in ways your imaginary carrot never was,” it short-circuits the visualization. He has to start from the top, integrating these new factors. All this is recounted in a straightforward first person that reminds us that most avant-garde challenges to realism concentrate on voice, on where this “I” is coming from, this mysterious third person. Spirals of interiority are the result (think of David Foster Wallace’s classic short story “The Depressed Person”: a first person consciousness rendered in obsessive third person, speaking to itself). Remainder, by contrast, empties out interiority entirely: the narrator finds all his own gestures to be completely inauthentic, and everyone else’s too. Only while watching Mean Streets at the Brixton Ritzy does he have a sense of human fluidity, of manufactured truth—the way De Niro opens a fridge door, the way he lights a cigarette. So natural! But the Enactor finds he can’t be natural like De Niro, he isn’t fluid. He’s only good at completing cycles and series, reenacting actions. For example, he gets a certain tingling pleasure (this is literal; he gets it in his body) from having his reward card stamped in a certain “themed Seattle coffee bar,” on the corner of Frith Street and Old Compton. Ten stamps, ten cappuccinos, a new card, start the series again. He sits at the window people watching. He sees inauthenticity everywhere:Media types . . . their bodies and faces buzzed with glee, exhilaration—a jubilant awareness that for once, just now, at this particular right-angled intersection, they didn’t have to sit in a cinema or living room in front of a TV and watch other beautiful people laughing and hanging out: they could be the beautiful young people themselves. See? Just like me: completely second-hand.

 
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