Zadie Smith: “Permission to Enter” from The New Yorker, 7/30/12

New Yorker art by R. Kikuo Johnson

New Yorker art by R. Kikuo Johnson

There had been an event. To speak of it required the pluperfect.

I often rail against the sneaking of novel excerpts into TNY under the guise of “short fiction” but I was surprised to discover this piece not only is a novel excerpt, but comes towards the end of a novel (NW, due out in September from Penguin). It seems the bulk of the novel is the story of Leah’s adult life – not the main character of the excerpt – and this section serves to introduce the reader to Keisha/Natalie and how they met.

It feels complete. There’s a sense that there is more to come (“Many of the men Natalie Blake became involved with afer Rodney Banks” indicates a progression beyond the one this excerpt ends with, and hints at her increasing independence as an adult woman) but it’s also very satisfying to end the story shortly after college, with Frank (who was her breakaway man – the one she became a different person with, the first close relationship with someone from beyond her neighborhood), at a point of change for Keisha/Natalie. It’s quite a nice story of two women growing up together, growing apart, and growing back towards each other as young adults.

The structure is unusual: a series of 67 numbered sections, with headings that function in various ways. For example, they might provide context for the narrative within:

The red-and-white air technology of the Greek goddess of victory. Keisha Blake put her hand against the reinforced shopfront glass. Separated from happiness. It had been everywhere, the air, free for the taking, but she had come to desire it only now that she saw it thus defined, extracted, rendered visible. The infinitely available thing, now enclosed in the sole of a shoe! You had to admire the audacity. Ninety-nine quid. Maybe at Christmas.

or they might indicate structure:

(Some schools you “attended.” Brayton you “went” to.)

I enjoyed this, once I stopped worrying about the structure and the details and just read, and let myself get caught up in Keisha’s growing up. It’s set in England. I admit: I haven’t read that much British fiction, and while I’m fine with some things, others (like the terminology of the educational system) throw me. It’s my deficit; I need to get out more.

Keisha is from what I gather we would call “the projects.” She and Leah become friends when, at the age of 4, she saves Leah from drowning in a wading pool. This is the “event” in the opening sentence quoted above. The girls are not that similar; Leah is white, Keisha black, and Leah is better off in socioeconomic terms. But they become friends anyway, until age 14, when they drift apart. Leah simply grows up a little faster, it seems, and without the church grounding that Keisha has, she’s more willing to strike out in unexpected directions. The rift has a bigger effect on Keisha than just losing her best friend:

She had not noticed until the break that the state of “being Leah Hanwell’s friend” constituted a sort of passport, lending Keisha a protected form of access in most situations. She was now relegated to the conceptual realm of “those church kids”…. [S]he struggled to think of anyone, besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus, who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness she now knew to be the one and only true reality of this world.

There’s no fight, no animosity; Leah simply does different things with different friends. She even presents Keisha with a gift on her 16th birthday: a vibrator. Keisha masters vaginal vs. clitoral orgasms within three minutes. This scene is written in “tell” form, a summary instead of narrative. And I’m torn. We’ve all had it drilled into us that this is wrong; it works anyway, if in abbreviated form. After all, the point is conveyed quite effectively.

Keisha goes to great pains to hide the vibrator from her mother, but of course, mom finds it anyway, and finds a boy for her. Pushes him into her path, more like it. Rodney is exactly the type of boy a mother would want for her daughter: solid and reliable, he has his eyes on the prize, and he’s fine with having a girlfriend but isn’t going to let anything get in his way:

He, like Keisha, was fond of strategies. This was one of the things they had in common, though it should be noted that the substance of their strategies was quite different. Keisha meant to charm her way through the front door. Rodney intended to slip through the back, unnoticed. Rodney Banks highlighted so many passages in Machiavelli’s “The Prince” that it became one block of yellow…

and later, when they are both at the same college:

When he finally allowed Keisha Blake to have sex with him, it turned out to be a technical transaction. She learned nothing new about Rodney’s body, or Rodney, only a lot of facts about condoms: their relative efficacy, the thickness of rubber, the right moment – the safest moment – to remove them afterward.

Again, it’s a “tell” scene. And again I’m torn. But everything I need to know is right there. Do I really need to hear the conversation, have the movements described? The writer has done the work of reading and summarizing for me. And now I realize, just now as I type this, that’s exactly what she’s done. The summary was all I needed; maybe I like being allowed to create the details of the scene myself?

But here’s where I freak out: in her TNY online Interview, she gives three reasons for the unusual structure. First, Keisha’s point of view “that life is a meaningful progression towards some ultimate goal—in her case, “success”—and this made the numbered sections the obvious choice.” I don’t quite follow, but I frequently don’t follow what writers are talking about. Second, “I wanted to see if I could make a fragmentary third person work.” All well and good. But the third reason bothers me: “Finally, there is the simple time restraint of having a kid. Four hours a day is as much as I had. I didn’t have the time or inclination for sixty-page chapters. The idea of writing at any great length became absurd.”

Now, I’m torn here. I like the sections. They have their limitations, sure, and in a few places, I wish it was narrative. But it’s an effective way to convey information about twenty years in a few pages, and as a catch-up flashback in a novel, I can see how it works far better than a full narrative that might run six or eight times as long. But… dang, you didn’t have time? You didn’t have time to write a book you want people to find the time to read? It seems like a foolish thing to say, and again, like between whether or not I like the sections at all, I’m torn between thinking this was a stupid thing to say, or it was incredibly brave and is pretty much what most writers do, anyway: they write the book they have time to write.

But back to Keisha, who at some point in college, changes her name to Natalie. And more:

More prosaically, Natalie Blake was crazy busy with self-invention. She lost God so smoothly and painlessly that she had to wonder what she’d ever meant by the word. She found politics and literature, music, cinema. “Found” is not the right word. She put her faith in those things….
She cultivated a spirit of decadence.

Part of what inspires her growth is Leah, who comes to visit. Mostly I think it’s just that Keisha/Natalie is experiencing the “growth spurt” that Leah went through six years earlier. Rodney is another hangover from the old days that has to go; Natalie sets her sights on another student, Frank – “An indescribable accent. Like he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren” – and he, too, inspires her to be someone who might be right for him.

When Natalie now thought of adult life (she hardly ever thought of it), she envisioned a long corridor, off which opened many rooms – each with a friend in it – a communal kitchen, a single gigantic bed in which all would sleep and screw, a world governed by the principles of friendship. For how can you oppress a friend?

This hints at something sad coming down the road. I suspect the novel will include a diagram of exactly how a friend can be oppressed, or otherwise treated as not-a-friend. But of course I don’t know. Fact is, I don’t really have a handle on how this story fits into the novel. But I enjoyed reading it anyway; it felt like a short story, if an unusual one, and I found the sections provided an interesting variety and were effective at communicating nuance in the absence of narrative.

And I’m glad I finally got to read Zadie Smith, even if this isn’t, as I understand it, typical of most of her writing. Maybe I’ll encounter her again in the future and discover more.

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