Pushcart XL: Zadie Smith, “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” from Paris Review, #208

Photo by Blane Bussey, from the 2013 Legendary Children queer art exhibit in Atlanta

Photo by Blane Bussey, from the 2013 Legendary Children queer art exhibit in Atlanta

Clinton Corset Emporium. No awning, just a piece of cardboard stuck in the window. As Miss Adele entered, a bell tinkled overhead – an actual bill, on a catch wire – and she found herself in a long narrow room – a hallway really – with a counter down the left-hand side and a curtained-off cubicle at the far end, for privacy. Bras and corsets were everywhere, piled on top of each other in anonymous white cardboard boxes, towering up to the ceiling. They seemed to form the very walls of the place.
“Good afternoon,” said Miss Adele, daintily removing her gloves, finger by finger. “I am looking for a corset.”

I’m interested in how this story starts, both because of where it doesn’t start (hint: it doesn’t start with the above paragraph), and because of the context in which I’ve read it.

It serves as a beginning, in itself – the first story in the 2016 Pushcart anthology. Unlike BASS and the PEN collections, which order stories alphabetically, Pushcart chooses the order in which material is presented. I spent some time wondering about last year’s choice, since Henderson’s introduction made a particular point of using a first-published-story to lead off. I wonder now why this one was chosen, what it says about the material to come. Maybe by the time I’ve read a few more selections, I’ll have some ideas.

But in the context of the story itself, what interests me is how different a story it would be, if this were the opening paragraph, how different our snap judgment of what this story will be about, would be. The paragraph above sounds a bit like a 40s movie, doesn’t it, with a prim Miss Adele, dressed with her proper hat and gloves, entering a store to request service from polite staff waiting to help. A very white Miss Adele. A very female Miss Adele.

But that ain’t the Miss Adele of this story, and it ain’t that kind of story at all. The actual beginning gives a much clearer picture of just what’s happening here:

“Well, that’s that, ” Miss Dee Pendency said, and Miss Adele, looking back over her shoulder, saw that it was. The strip of hooks had separated entirely from the rest of the corset. Dee held up the two halves, her big red slash mouth pulling in opposite directions.
“Least you can say it died in battle. Doing its duty.”
“Bitch. I’m on in ten minutes.”
“When an irresistible force like your ass…”
“Don’t sing.”
“Meets an old immovable corset like this… You can bet as sure as you liiiiive!”
“It’s your fault. You pulled too hard.”
“Somethings gotta give, somethings gotta give, SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE.”
“You pulled too hard.”
“Pulling’s not your problem.”

Come to think of it, the prim and proper 40s may have more in common with Miss Adele’s life than one might think at first (not to mention a cleverly wicked nod to Scarlett O’Hara’s famous corsetting scene, trying to get her 20-inch post-baby waist into her 18-inch corset). The crooner ballad. The corset. The need to dress properly before leaving the house. The expectations and rigid roles. And, indeed, as in the 40s, something, for Miss Adele, had to give. Her corset was merely the first thing that gave on this day.

It’s not a particularly easy story to orient to. The clues are all there – the theatre references, the stage name, the song. But it’s all going by very quickly; dialog tags are dispensed with in the interests of pace, perhaps, and I was a bit lost. The corset’s about the only sure thing, and that’s torn in half. That metaphor persists throughout the story: lives, neighborhoods, experiences, all depending on the supporting undergarment that has now been rendered useless. Replacement comes at a cost.

As Miss Adele heads to the corset shop, we find out a little more about her:

Aside from the nights she worked, Miss Adele tried not to mess much with the East Side. She’d had the same sunny rent-controlled studio apartment on Tenth Avenue and Twenty-Third since ’93, and loved the way the West Side communicated with the water and the light, loved the fancy galleries and the big anonymous condos, the High Line funded by bankers and celebrities, the sensation of clarity and wealth. …. Her brother accused Miss Adele of turning rightward in old age. It would be more accurate to say that she was done with all forms of drama—politics included. That’s what she liked about gentrification, in fact: gets rid of all the drama.
And who was left, anyway, to get dramatic about? The beloved was gone, and so were all the people she had used, over the years, as substitutes for the beloved. Every kid who’d ever called her gorgeous had already moved to Brooklyn, Jersey, Fire Island, Provincetown, San Francisco, or the grave. This simplified matters. Work, paycheck, apartment, the various lifestyle sections of the Times, Turner Classic Movies, Nancy Grace, bed. Boom. Maybe a little Downton. You needn’t put your face on to watch Downton. That was her routine, and disruptions to it—like having to haul ass across town to buy a new corset—were rare. Sweet Jesus, this cold!

I confess to not knowing much about the inner lives of drag queens; The Birdcage and that episode of Project Runway’s about it. In fact, I was reminded of the conflict between Hedda Lettuce and… was it Kayne? No – Suede… during this story, a very similar kind of misunderstanding that just escalated, though everyone really had good intentions, but was merely focused on a different goal, and lost sight of the other’s needs and reactions. That’s pretty much how Zadie Smith, in a BBC interview, sums up the conflict in this story: “Nobody really offends anybody, but everybody already feels offended,” in part because of a longstanding cultural divide between people like Miss Adele, and people like the corset shop owners. Add in the RAGE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS playing on the radio, and a sales staff overwhelmed by too many customers, plus the general impatience and abruptness endemic to NYC (and, let’s be honest, most cities, my tiny city included), and you’ve got a pot just waiting to boil over. A theme most appropriate to the current moment, when everyone seems angry, and most people are angry at someone who’s angry about the wrong things.

I very much liked the progression of this story: from the torn corset that leads things off, to the store, to the conflict that grows so quietly I didn’t even realize it was going to explode until it did, to the ending that seems to sum up Miss Adele’s life:

…surely looking to everyone she passed exactly like some Bellevue psychotic, a hot crazy mess, an old-school deviant from the fabled city of the past – except every soul on these streets was a stranger to Miss Adele. They didn’t have the context, didn’t know a damn thing about where she was coming from, nor that she’d paid for her goods in full, in dirty green American dollars, and was only taking what was rightfully hers.

Haven’t we all been there – the public fight that’s the headline, but nobody sees the story of where it came from? Miss Adele limping away from the store, wig askew, face scraped, clutching her new corsets, that’s the headline, the viral Instagram. How she got to that moment is the 6000 word story no one on the street has time to read before making their judgments.

That, for me, is the crux of this piece: the violence of snap judgments based on a single image. We have all paid in full for our goods, in some currency. Everyone, every moment, has a unique story beyond the headline. It may go back an hour, or twenty years, or four hundred, or four thousand. Maybe we need to take time to read it, before jumping to conclusions.

Zadie Smith: “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” from TNY, 2/10/14

Aert van der Neer: "Moonlit Landscape with Bridge" (c. 1650)

Aert van der Neer: “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” (c. 1650)

Within the hour, efficient young Ari would drive the Minister to the airport, and from there—all being well—he would leave to join his wife and children in Paris. The car would not be a minute out of the driveway, he knew, before the household staff fell on these boxes like wild beasts upon carrion. The Minister of the Interior rubbed the trouser leg of the gray between his fingers. He was at least fortunate that the most significant painting in the house happened also to be the smallest: a van der Neer miniature, which, in its mix of light and water, reminded him oddly of his own ancestral village. It fit easily into his suit bag, wrapped in a pillowcase. Everything else one must resign oneself to losing: pictures, clothes, statues, the piano—even the books.
“So it goes,” the philosophical Minister said out loud, surprising himself—it was a sentence from a previous existence. “So it goes.” Without furniture, without curtains, his voice rose unimpeded to the ceiling, as in a church.

As I read this story (available online), one margin note predominated: “Bullshit.” That isn’t an indictment of the story; it’s character analysis. Then again, the main character is a politician, so what else would you expect?

Smith’s last TNY story “Meet the President” was set in near-future Scotland under siege of rain and regime; this one is also a blend of weather and revolution. Coincidentally, as I read, I was receiving tweets from the UK about floods in Oxfordshire, just a few weeks after similar comments about similar storms. I’m not sure if the UK is unusually stormy this winter (as it has been here), or if it’s just coincidence, but combined with the setting of her last story it set the story for me somewhere in the UK. I had the sense the two stories were connected, perhaps initial parts of a novel-in-stories-in-progress, but Smith’s Page-Turner interview doesn’t indicate any such thing. In fact, it specifies that the country in this story is unnamed; she says it was written shortly after the typhoon in the Philippines last November (isn’t that a remarkably short turnaround?): “I think I always have the same thought when I read about disaster zones. Who are the people on those early flights out?”

And for the second time in three weeks, a TNY story makes heavy use of a painting as a symbol, in this case, “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” by Aert van der Neer. I wonder if that timing was planned, or a coincidence. Vonnegut also features in the story from the very top (“So it goes”) though it enraged me that this character could use Vonnegut for his own purposes: Vonnegut is supposed to be for the rest of us. But as Smith’s interview reminds us, sometimes the bad guys read good books, too.

As our Minister of the Interior attempts to get out of the drowning country, we discover just how little he thinks of the people – his housekeeper, his driver – who were put on this earth to serve him. Yet, this is a man who has better angels in his nature and occasionally indulges them: he has a humane instinct to stop and unload his trunkful of water for a group of bedraggled citizens clamoring along the road. His driver, alarmed at the prospect, turns out to be right: it’s this instinct, that leads to catastrophe. Not of the physical variety, though there is plenty of threat. No, this catastrophe is more like the Ghost of Christmas Past, made flesh.

So it goes. Together the Minister of the Interior and the thoughtful boy who would later give him that title had read a thrilling book by an American with a German name—Vonnegut! A tale of war. It had so electrified them at the time, and yet, forty years later, the Minister found that he retained only one sentence of it and could not even retrieve its title. But he remembered two young men bent over one battered paperback, under a tree in the cleared center of a village. Books had been important back then—they were always quoting from them. Long-haired boys, big ideas. These days, all the Prime Minister read was his bank statements. Yet, in essence, he was the same good and simple man, in the Minister’s view—naïve, almost, doglike in his loyalties and his hatreds. If you were on the right side of the Prime Minister, you stayed there. So, at least, it had been for the Minister. Whatever he had needed had always been granted, up to and including this evening’s flight. He had been lucky, always.

To a consummate politician capable of navigating the path he has, this too is manageable. Even as he’s recognizing his own failure as a human being, the bullshit never stops. I’m reminded of… well, never mind, insert your own favorite political scandal here. If you wait long enough, chances are, no matter how bad the offense, you’ll see a comeback. That’s the up side of cutting yourself off from your past. The down side: you may one day unexpectedly end up in a car on a flooded road, face to face with it.

Zadie Smith: “Meet the President!” from TNY 8/12/13

TNY Art by Martin Ansin

TNY Art by Martin Ansin

Not for the first time the boy was struck by the great human mysteries of this world. He was almost fifteen, almost a man, and the great human mysteries of this world were striking him with satisfying regularity, as was correct for his stage of development. (From the Pathways Global Institute prospectus: “As our students reach tenth grade they begin to gain insight into the great human mysteries of this world, and a special sympathy for locals, the poor, ideologues, and all those who have chosen to limit their own human capital in ways that it can be difficult at times for us to comprehend.”) From the age of six months, when he was first enrolled in the school, he had hit every mark that Pathways expected of its pupils — walking, talking, divesting, monetizing, programming, augmenting — and so it was all the more shocking to find himself face-to-face with an almost nine-year-old so absolutely blind, so lost, so developmentally debased.

This story made me terribly sad. Not because Melly abandons the bereaved nine-year-old Aggs with a stranger instead of taking her to her sister’s funeral; not because a fifteen-year-old is working hard on learning how to kill people in hopes of achieving governmental approval and paternal pride; but because when a writer this good publishes mediocre science fiction in a high-profile literary context, it reinforces the prejudice against science fiction, and makes it harder for good science fiction to be taken seriously.

All the elements are here (and it’s available online): the slightly surreal style, the juxtaposition of “old” and “new” using Bill Peek, teenage dronemaster-in-training as the lens thru which we see this near-future world and, specifically, nine-year-old Agatha, one of those left behind by the high-tech future in a Scotland becoming more flooded as years go on: “The only people left in England were the ones who couldn’t leave.” Reminds me a bit of post-Katrina New Orleans.

I’m particularly interested in the juxtapositon of Bill virtually storming the White House while he’s talking to Aggs. Even without the high-tech gear, we never really know what’s going on in someone’s head when we’re talking to them; for all we know, the sweet old lady with whom we exchange small-talk in a dentist’s waiting room has cannibal dreams, and the guy on the elevator who mumbles, “Nice day” might be planning his mother’s axe murder. Throw virtual reality into the mix, and you’ve got a teenager slashing throats while a little girl prattles on about her dead sister. That’s powerful. But Smith loses me when she underestimates her readers and adds too much information to be sure we “get” it:

He listened in wonderment. Of course he’d always known there were people who thought in this way—there was a module you did on them in sixth grade—but he had never met anyone who really harbored what his anthro-soc teacher, Mr. Lin, called “animist beliefs.”

The story’s heart is in the right place. Bill is the spokesperson for the “new,” and he horrifies us with his simplistic dismissal of anything not incorporated into his training. He acts as apologist for whatever New Order there is, embodied by the Incipio Security Group, a sort of global CIA to which one seems to be born into; he’s out to please his father, as is every 15-year-old boy. And he’s just playing a game; but it seems virtual reality first-person-shooters are used to train future drone-wielding assassins; this gives it a particularly timely feel. His inability to react to Aggs, to her fear and her unexpressed sadness at the death of her sister, bodes well for future missions, if not for humanity; there is at the end an indication he may be seeing more than he can integrate into his training.

So, if the pieces and the heart are there, why did it not work for me? Personal taste as much as anything, I suppose; I’m fussy about my science fiction. There’s a bit too much “gee-whiz” on Bill’s part, as he encounters Aggs. It’s a bit too on-the-nose perhaps: drones bad, global warming bad, training children as warriors bad. No kidding. Compare this with Eric Puchner’s “Beautiful Monsters” where defamiliarization is, I think, handled much more smoothly, and the issues are a bit more muddled and complex.

“If you’ve done nothing wrong,” Bill Peek said, solemnly parroting his father, “you’ve nothing to worry about. It’s a precise business.” He had been raised to despair of the type of people who spread misinformation about the Program. Yet along with his new maturity had come fresh insight into the complexities of his father’s world. For didn’t those with bad intent on occasion happen to stand beside the good, the innocent, or the underaged? And in those circumstances could precision be entirely guaranteed?

There’s no Page-Turner interview, so I have no idea if this is an excerpt or even a sketch; in that context, it might work, since the internal structure of alternating physical and virtual reality creates an interesting style. There are hints, as in the quote above, that Bill might be on the brink of evolving into a Winston Smith antihero; I think we’re meant to see his experience at the funeral as the tipping point. That’s a great start for a novel, to have him remember Aggs as he grows into a revolutionary-from-within role. A graphic novel might be another approach: two characters inhabiting two different landscapes on the same page. But as a short story, there’s just nothing to care about beyond the talking points.

Zadie Smith: “The Embassy of Cambodia” from TNY 2/11/13

New Yorker art by Zohar Lazar

New Yorker art by Zohar Lazar

In a discarded Metro found on the floor of the Derawal kitchen, Fatou read with interest a story about a Sudanese “slave” living in a rich man’s house in London. It was not the first time that Fatou had wondered if she herself was a slave, but this story, brief as it was, confirmed in her own mind that she was not. After all, it was her father, and not a kidnapper, who had taken her from Ivory Coast to Ghana, and when they reached Accra they had both found employment in the same hotel. Two years later, when she was eighteen, it was her father again who had organized her difficult passage to Libya and then on to Italy—a not insignificant financial sacrifice on his part. Also, Fatou could read English—and speak a little Italian—and this girl in the paper could not read or speak anything except the language of her tribe. And nobody beat Fatou, although Mrs. Derawal had twice slapped her in the face, and the two older children spoke to her with no respect at all and thanked her for nothing…. On the other hand, just like the girl in the newspaper, she had not seen her passport with her own eyes since she arrived at the Derawals’, and she had been told from the start that her wages were to be retained by the Derawals to pay for the food and water and heat she would require during her stay, as well as to cover the rent for the room she slept in. In the final analysis, however, Fatou was not confined to the house….
No, on balance she did not think she was a slave.

I’ll admit up front that, while I was impressed by the technical composition of this story, I didn’t fully absorb and comprehend it. So, being limited in time and mental concentration, I cheated: I refer you to Betsy of The Mookse and the Gripes who often fills in the spaces in my understanding with her insight, and whose analysis I’ll be drawing on in a moment. And, fortunately, to the story itself, which is available online.

Smith uses some wonderful techniques in this story, and in spite of my weak grasp of the overall point, I enjoyed it and admire it. It’s structured as a badminton game, with numbered sections showing the score going from 0-1 to 0-21, to play off the partially-seen badminton game in the Cambodian Embassy of the story:

Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It’s a surprise, to us all. The Embassy of Cambodia!
….It is only a four- or five-bedroom North London suburban villa, built at some point in the thirties, surrounded by a red brick wall, about eight feet high. And back and forth, cresting this wall horizontally, flies a shuttlecock. They are playing badminton in the Embassy of Cambodia. Pock, smash. Pock, smash.

The other interesting technique is the use of first-person-plural, the “we” voice representing the people of Willesden, alternating with a close-third-person narration of Fatou’s activities and thoughts.

Although there are significant differences, the story called to mind Jess Row’s “The Call of Blood” in that the characters are ethnic minorities who seek each other out to discuss complicated, intense socioeconomic topics of personal import to them. Here, however, those discussions are somewhat dysfactual (in her Page-Turner interview, Smith discusses “imperfect knowledge,” which is how we all face the world every day), and that plays a part in the point of the story. We all see things through our own lenses.

Betsy makes two points that strike me as crucial, but that eluded my first read: insularity, and the invisibility of mass casualties. It seems like there’s always a badminton game going on at the Cambodian Embassy, but because of the eight-foot wall, passers-by can only see the shuttlecock flying back and forth, not the game itself. The town, in the “we” voice, asserts: ” I doubt there is a man or woman among us, for example, who—upon passing the Embassy of Cambodia for the first time—did not immediately think: “genocide.” That is the image of Cambodia, the shuttlecock that is seen. Fatou is likewise isolated from the town; we readers are privileged to see what the town does not, the fragility of her everyday life. And yet she and her friend Andrew are also isolated in their own little island of understanding.

This other point Betsy brought to the forefront for me: For all the counting of the dead in holocausts and slaughters that Fatou and Andrew do during their discussions, it is only when she encounters a single death, via an encounter with the personal belongings of one of nine schoolchildren whose bodies washed up on a beach in Accra, that she cries. This makes a stunning dramatic depiction of what charities have long understood: telling you there are thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of starving, sick, poverty-wracked children in the world won’t do much good, so they ask you to sponsor one child, whose name you know, whose photo you receive – much the same as Fatou’s discovery of the belongings of one dead child, that moves her to tears when knowledge of the death of the nine did not.

And it just occurred to me, as I prepared my draft for posting, that point of view is crucial to this story, and everything from the technical structure to the story itself reflects that. The use of the two different pov’s; the view of the embassy that shows only the shuttlecock, not the game; Fatou and Andrew comparing the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Rwanda; Fatou’s debate about whether she is or is not a slave. When I wrote, above, that we see things through our own lenses, I didn’t realize how deeply and profoundly the story incorporated that theme, or how the “we” voice mattered beyond an interesting technical trick.

So while I initially thought the construction just got too complicated, and started distracting me from Fatou, from the ideas she and Andrew talk about, from the story itself, I now realize the technical structure of the story, along with the events depicted, do in fact work together to unite what had seemed disparate images of the shuttlecock, genocide, and a young girl trying to figure out whether or not she is a slave. This is why I blog these stories: my understanding evolves as I try to come up with a cohesive post, even when I don’t start with a cohesive grasp. Even if I do sometimes need Betsy’s help along the way.

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.