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Against Community

We are adept [... ] at saying what we make of places - but we are far less

good at saying what places make of us (MacFarlane 2013: 27).

Natalie De Angelis, a barrister of Jamaican heritage specialising in commercial law, resides in Willesden with her husband Frank, a fellow lawyer of Trinidadian and Italian parentage, who looks ‘like he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren’ (179). Despite their enhanced financial situation they still reside near Leah’s apartment by the rundown Caldwell housing estate. Their exact location, however, betrays their desire for social mobility. While Leah can still see her old estate ‘full of people from the colonies and the Russiany lot’ from her garden, Natalie ‘lives just far enough to avoid it’ (67, 55). Leah extends hospitality out of inherent empathy, whereas Natalie only performs the role of a host in order to inflict envy upon her guests, inviting Leah and Michel to her house parties in order ‘to provide something like local colour’ (75). At these parties even Leah’s husband Michel echoes Natalie’s individualism. While Michel is captivated by Natalie and Frank’s social and economic capital, Leah is more interested ‘in their morals than their money’, rhetorically questioning: ‘[t]o live like this you would have to forget everything that came before. How else could you manage?’ (70, 55).

For Natalie, the accumulation of money acts as a purposefully constructed barrier signifying ‘the distance the house put between you and Caldwell’ (221). Wealth allows Natalie to extricate herself from both her ethnic background and her local area, providing solutions and strategies to avoid associating with undesirable sectors of the community: ‘[p]rivate wards. Private cinemas. Christmas abroad [... ] Security systems. Fences. The carriage of a 4 x 4 that lets you sit alone above traffic. There is a perfect isolation out there somewhere, you can get it, although it doesn’t come cheap’ (76). Within the narrative in general, individual progress is often equated with a loss of connection from community and an absence of cosmopolitan empathy. Natalie is disembedded and apathetic in an atomised state, merely propagating the notion of the individual-centred society. The simple act of moving location in the Willesden neighbourhood is equated in Natalie’s mind with social mobility. Her attempts at personal advancement are prioritised over community-building or even familial concern. Smith’s implied criticism of Natalie’s behaviour seems to stem from the fact it is not conducive to social change, communal interaction, or cultural progression. As Smith emphasises, in her essay collection Changing My Mind, ‘the business of ethics properly concerns good relations between people rather than the individual’s relation towards some ultimate goal, or end’ (2009: 293). Natalie comes to adopt the thoughts and beliefs of her solicitor colleagues, losing faith in the value of her area and perceiving Willesden as ‘a hopeless sort of place, analogous to a war zone’ (216). On this basis, she embodies what Helen Kirwan-Taylor labels ‘cosmoprats’ - elitist individuals who treat those less successful members of communities ‘as though they were wearing a loincloth and clutching a handful of glass beads’ (2000: 190-1). Not only does Natalie relinquish an engagement with locally relational socioeconomic issues, but she manipulates both Willesden’s resources and its multicultural composition to project an idealised sense of self, confirming her mercurial and egocentric cultural outlook: ‘[t]hey were [... ] providing a service for the rest of the people in the cafe, simply by being here. They were the “local vibrancy” to which the estate agents referred’ (221).

Upon hearing of Leah’s encounter with Shar, Natalie’s first question merely betrays her own racial ignorance: ‘[h]ow could you tell me that whole story and not mention the headscarf?’ (52). In pitying Leah’s cosmopolitan empathy, claiming that she is ‘always trying to save somebody’, Natalie insinuates that her own occupation avoids an interrogation of morality: ‘[d]efending someone is very different from saving them. Anyway, I mostly do commercial these days’ (52). Although Leah considers Natalie’s severing of ties to be evidence of her hypocrisy (leaving a detached woman who has cast off all reminders of her original community), she notes that Natalie cannot entirely hide her ethnic origins: her ‘wild Afro curls shoot out in a million directions’ (58). Whereas the two friends were once inseparable, Leah and Natalie are now economically, ideologically and morally distant, squinting ‘at each other across an expense of well-kept lawn’ (52). Natalie’s egocentrism works against the ideals of joint commitment and mutuality integral to local community (rejecting ties that are often strengthened and broadened over a long period of residency in an area), and prevents more extensive forms of sociality with her fellow residents. Resistance to these attachments is reflected in the chapter title, ‘Host’, indicating that by constructing a false cultural identity Natalie is consequently inhabiting a foreign body. Natalie’s personal displacement and loss of cultural identity in London mirrors her chapter’s syntactical and formal structure, as her narrative becomes an impersonal and fragmentary Bildungsroman of individual vignettes. By abandoning the free indirect discourse evident in Felix and Leah’s chapters, the novel’s narrative form thus mirrors its content. Natalie’s chapter systematically documents the chronology of her friendship with Leah, revealing her own transformation from compassionate Keisha Blake to the cold, indifferent, egocentric Natalie De Angelis. Michel endorses her desire for social mobility and individual gain, perceiving in Natalie’s chameleon-like transformation the means of escaping his own meagre beginnings: ‘[y]ou changed your name [... ] It’s like: “Dress for the job you want not the one you have”’ (55).

As a lawyer, Natalie possesses a startling lack of knowledge regarding global issues and is clearly ignorant of social or moral debates. An offer from her friend Imran to drive supplies to Sarajevo on a humanitarian mission and aid in the reconstruction of the city is met with initial interest, yet ultimately forgotten. Natalie convinces herself that the incident stands as an indication of her selfless nature; the fact that ‘she never actually went on the trip seemed, in memory, somehow less important than the fact that she had fully intended to go’ (185). For Natalie, good intentions happily serve as the equivalent of altruistic actions and global events are only given prominence or attention due to their impact on her own personal advancement. However, Natalie does not consciously resist the pull of wider collectivities engendered by transnationalisation, she simply drifts through day-to-day occurrences morally indifferent to socio-cultural engagement with others as it draws attention away from herself. In doing so, she not only rejects local loyalties, but simultaneously avoids embracing a more global community through her superficial and commercialised cosmopolitan engagement.

To assuage her feelings of guilt, Natalie decides to undertake pro bono work in the Caribbean islands and donates ten per cent of her income to both charity and family members; these veiled examples of self-interest fail to alleviate her troubled conscience, and merely persuade Frank of her inherent sentimentality. The decision to join a more morally sound legal aid firm (rather than commit to a more commercially-viable paralegal tenancy) is also questionable, later revealed to be an act of self-preservation in case her application was unsuccessful. To pre-empt any signs of failure she invents ‘a story about legal ethics, strong moral character and indifference to money’ - all qualities which she does not, in truth, possess (213). Her profession subsequently clashes with Leah’s humanitarian tendencies, and Natalie resents being forced to listen to Leah’s ‘self-righteous, ill-informed lectures about the evils of globalization’ (235). Working for a transnational corporation ultimately fractures her identity, and she is left disconnected from herself and others, inventing projected selves which mirror her supposed ideas of progression. Natalie’s failure to construct a stable identity reflects the instability of her London environment following unprecedented socio-cultural changes and increasing cos- mopolitanisation. Although instability of ethnic identity was noticeable in White Teeth, identity politics in NW develop outside of this framework, placing an emphasis on class and personal idiosyncrasy away from collective grouping.

A prolonged period of individualism and isolation inspires Natalie to seek connection and community online, becoming addicted to internet chat rooms. In Natalie, we have an isolated example of how digital networks are further displacing community-based social interactions: ‘[e] veryone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster [... ] yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates’ (76).8 Although Smith is demonstrating how face-to-face interaction is eroded by digital communication, her main issue is not with the form of communication itself, but how Natalie exploits its purpose. By forging digital connections to advance and propagate her atomised existence, Natalie’s social interaction is increasingly reliant on superficial ties mediated by digital technology. The internet fails to bring her salvation, but instead provides another form of escapism as she seeks out couples for an extra-marital threesome under the pseudonym of her true identity, Keisha. Drifting through a series of failed sexual encounters, Natalie is unconsciously striving to establish some form of grounded authenticity and solve her identity crisis. For one rendezvous she meets an African couple who mirror her own marriage and whose house reflects the inauthentic African decor and interior design of her own home. The couple are unaware of her personal success and lecture her on the possibilities for ‘black’ advancement in contemporary society (ironically advising the one woman who has sacrificed nearly every socio-cultural tie in order to get ahead). After meeting the ‘mirror-image’ couple, Natalie realises that any attempt to escape her true identity through insincere virtual and physical sexual encounters is antithetical to individual or cultural advancement. The narrative pinpoints technology to be responsible for the privileging of personal isolation over communal interconnection, impinging upon contemporary life and leading Natalie away from the more positive interactions engendered by that most local of communities: her family unit.

Predictably, Natalie maintains little contact or consanguinity with her relations. Even the birth of a daughter is greeted with cold, analytical dissection: ‘[o]h look, I’m giving birth’ (237). She struggles to relate to her baby, with humility and joy only arriving once she perceives her child to be a metaphorical extension of herself. In comparison to the dominant, unassailable reality of money and social advancement, Natalie claims Frank and her daughter are merely ‘human shadow-play on the wall’ (239). Instead, her house becomes ‘the unimpeachable reality’, with the financial crash the only cultural event which registers in her mind: the ‘Crash dislodged a little plaster in the wall in the shape of a fist and stopped plans for a basement extension’ (239). Natalie’s sister, Cheryl, avows that she would seek help from the council before she resorted to asking for Natalie’s help, while her cousin Tonya’s exaggerated ethnic features contrast sharply with Natalie’s shapeless appearance. The desire to lose her own ethnicity for the sake of self-advancement has led to Natalie possessing no personal identity or inscription of ethnicity at all - she struggles to find close friends or family members who can relate to her insincere new persona. To avoid intimacy or the potentiality of forging a connection with her cousin, Natalie manufactures a fake exterior that fails to deceive Tonya: ‘[w]as that pity in her cousin’s eyes? Natalie Blake did not exist’ (215). Natalie is thus unable to prevent her cultural, ethnic, moral and psychological degradation from both her true ‘self’ and others: the ‘longer she spent alone the more indistinct she became to herself1 (236). At various stages of her narrative, however, Natalie often exploits her ethnic background as an indicator of difference. For a company picnic she chooses to wear ‘hoop earrings and [... ] her hair in a giant Afro puff1; no part of this outfit ‘came from Africa’ but Natalie ‘felt African’ by maintaining the illusion (226-7, 227). The presence of a few African masks in her home, rather like the masks within the Belsey’s home in Smith’s earlier novel On Beauty (2005), does not demonstrate any viable cultural or ethnic ties to either Frank or Natalie’s heritage, and indicates the extent to which Natalie is manipulating an imagined genealogy to project an idealised and inauthentic self. Further, rather than retaining any symbolic personal value, the masks instead indicate the effects of cosmopolitanisation in contemporary society, as symbols of authentic local cultures are deconstructed and manipulated to serve as manufactured global commodities.

Among all the barrage of narcissistic individualism, Natalie experiences brief moments of ethical enlightenment which echo Leah’s desire to ‘slip into the lives of other people [... ] Follow the Somali kid home? Sit with the old Russian lady [... ] Join the Ukrainian gangster’ (245). This sporadic hunger for transnational connectivity emerges in several episodes throughout the novel. At the funeral of Leah’s father, kinship and geographical affiliation are demonstrated to be vital to the connectivity of a community; the mourners ‘who had shared the same square mile of streets with the man now recognized that relation, which was both intimate and accidental, close and distant’ (250). Natalie yearns for this propinquity and affinity to others but she is unable to achieve this in her day-to-day relations: ‘[i]f only someone could have forced Natalie Blake to attend a funeral every day of her life!’ (251). Tellingly, however, Natalie still places her career and personal success as central to this vision: ‘I will be a lawyer and you will be a doctor [... ] and I will be the first black woman and you will be the first Arab [... ] and everyone will be friends, everyone will understand each other’ (186-7). As a result, her revelation that ‘there would probably be something beautiful in the alignment between the one and the many’, continues to resist an active engagement with the inequalities of her local community (237). She imagines an idealised and delusory construct of community founded on idyllic cooperation and communal homogeneity rather than a realistic community founded on similarities and differences, positives and negatives, heterogeneity and unity. Her desire for a new space of utopian interconnection populated by a harmonious multitude (equating to Irie’s blank space of futurity in White Teeth) is misguided without the acknowledgement of cultural heterogeneity and local cooperation as the source for cosmopolitanism’s implementation. The chapter consequently emphasises a need for mediation between the abstract and often idealised tenets of cosmopolitan theory and its practical application in a contemporary urban environment.

Natalie’s argument with a pot-smoking youth in her local park demonstrates how, despite London often being positioned as a global monolith, individuals consider themselves to belong to specific communities within the city. The incident indicates the dialectal distinctions, polyphonic mul- tivocality and microcosmic divisions intrinsic to a local multicultural space: ‘[w]e don’t do like you do here. In Queen’s Park. You can’t really chat to me. I’m Hackney, so’ (247).9 Natalie’s inauthentic performance in the park, demonstrating her linguistic capacity for code-switching, is an attempt at ‘passing’ as a genuine member of her community and feels distinctly out of character: ‘[j]ust put it out, man [... ] She had not ended a sentence in “man” for quite some time’ (248). If ‘[v]oice adaptation is still the original British sin’, as Smith argues, then at least the attempt hints at the continuing presence of ‘Keisha’ underneath Natalie’s ‘mask’ (2009: 134). Janna Thompson even contends that, rather than being antithetical to the cosmopolitan mode, a complex ethnic identity is instead ‘compatible with cosmopolitanism. It is conducive to the establishment of procedures for resolving conflicts between communities’ (1998: 187). Cosmopolitanism, after all, favours cultural pluralism over cultural homogenisation and suggests a broadening of existing local attachments. The argument in the park therefore not only demonstrates an attempt by Natalie to re-engage with the citizens and socio-cultural issues of her community, but pays attention to the ways in which vernacular language can be employed to both construct a fluid cosmopolitan identity, and act as a marker of situated territorial identity.

Smith’s narratorial voice can be clearly discerned through the character of Natalie Blake. The spaces of north-west London have ultimately become bio-geographical for Smith, reflecting David James’s assertion that ‘local attachments deeply inform the responsibility that writers evince towards the places they depict’; Smith therefore emerges as an example of the new breed of novelist who creates environments which can ‘re-envision the landscape of everyday life, receptive to the social and historical forces under which new habitats are forged’ (James 2008: 7, 168). Her own experiences have been shaped by, respond to, and are inscribed upon, the cityscape of which she writes. Natalie’s shedding of her old identity and voice mirrors that of Smith herself, who admits that: ‘this English voice with its rounded vowels and consonants in more or less the right place - this is not the voice of my childhood. I picked it up in college [... ] I genuinely thought this was the voice of lettered people, and that if I didn’t have the voice of lettered people I would never truly be lettered’ (2009: 133). For Smith, this new voice is not simply ‘an exotic garment I put on like a college gown whenever I choose - now it is my only voice, whether I want it or not. I regret it; I should have kept both voices alive in my mouth [... ] But how the culture warns against it!’ (2009: 134). Through Natalie, the narrative gives voice to Smith’s own desire for multivocality and multiple personae. A subject who is able to appreciate the values of each voice should be less inclined towards ethno-cultural bias and more able to practice openness towards others through empathetic relationality. Smith values this linguistic quality of polyglottism highly, arguing that ‘flexibility of voice leads to a flexibility in all things’, whereas ‘hesitation in the face of difference [... ] leads to caution before difference and ends in fear of it’ (2009: 149). NW, then, subscribes to the belief that ethical awareness towards others stems from the active cultural agency of the self, justifying the evident authorial criticism aimed at Natalie Blake.

 
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