Post-Hysterics: Zadie Smith and the Fiction of Austerity

Post-Hysterics: Zadie Smith and the Fiction of Austerity

For Zadie Smith, the time had come for the radicalism of experiment and the realism of political economy—for a new social realism that was capable of capturing both the mechanics and experience of today’s growing inequality.

Robin Hood Gardens Council Estate in East London (Amanda Vincent-Rous/Flickr)

The nineties were strange years. For a decade after history had purportedly “ended” a lot happened. The Soviet Union dissolved, seemingly in days and without a gunshot. A bloody war broke out between rival ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia. The United States and much of the West were experiencing a burst of economic activity after decades of stagnation, and a revolutionary new mode of communication had emerged: the Internet.

But running alongside the monumental was the downright absurd. Americans, it seemed, had not only grown prosperous in the years after the Cold War but also preposterous. In the midst of a government shutdown, the president of the United States ate pizza while he cavorted with an intern only slightly older than his daughter. The Internet turned out to be a blessing and a curse. Life felt diffuse, centrifugal, spread thin. We could trace a track-pad finger across the globe, and yet there was often nothing to touch, nothing to see, and nothing to feel. In an increasingly postindustrial age, our lives felt more and more disconnected, our labor more and more abstract. Billboard hits rang with paralyzed irony. “How bizarre”—as one particularly catchy refrain went—“how bizarre, how bizarre.”

Fiction followed suit. The literature of the 1990s and early 2000s was a catchall of voices and styles: experimental and staid, high and low, monumental and grotesque—often all at once. While an older generation of novelists—Peter Carey and Philip Roth, J.M. Coetzee and Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison and Barry Unsworth—retreated to history, choosing to fictionalize the past rather than be consumed by the present, a new group of avant gardists—Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, and Zadie Smith—tried their hand at the now. Inspired by the speculative fiction of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, they sought to write the next BIG NOVEL: fiction capacious enough to contain the wide girth of post–Cold War capitalism.

But if the literature of the turn of the twentieth century appeared to be a frenzy of new voices and styles, it was also oriented toward a common goal. For unlike their predecessors, this new generation sought to rebuild the world rather than deconstruct it. While Pynchon and DeLillo emphasized the unseen networks of government agents and advertising executives that limited our everyday lives, the new group tried to map out more local, more empowering connections: to mine the present for those rare, fragile moments of contact—those brief human intersections that remind us that while we are all each desperately unknowable and alone we are also in this together. As Wallace put it in an early interview, “We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible.” But “a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain. This is nourishing, redemptive.” This is why one writes and reads: to “become less alone inside.”

There was, of course, a lasting irony in this ambition. For although Wallace and his contemporaries were spurred by the Forsterian imperative—“Only connect!”—they also ended up writing novels that felt far from any real human connection. Kinetic, fractal, encyclopedic in detail and entropic by design, they often spoke too loudly, too feverishly, too cleverly and chaotically. In their effort to seek out the human, they drew too much in. Instead of transcending those dull noises that drone out the simpler, more humane frequencies of everyday life, they often found themselves adding to the sonic distortion.

Take, for example, an excerpt from one of Wallace’s many chapter-long digressions in Infinite Jest, a passage in which the description of how we experience a thing—in this case, the videophone—loses itself to a seemingly endless discursion of fact and footnote.


In describing a world in which we are frequently estranged—a world in which loneliness is, as Wallace once put it, “what we have in common”—his own act of communication stretched our everyday experiences so thin they had become translucent, almost invisible.

James Wood perhaps best captured this line of criticism in his 2000 review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. The problem with “hysterical realism,” as he called it, was not only that it imitated the world around it too closely but that it also confused motion for vitality, narrative acrobats for emotional complexity, catalogues of facts for the drama of knowing. “The conventions of realism are not being abolished,” Wood argued, “but, on the contrary, exhausted.” The hysterical novel failed not “at the level of verisimilitude, but…morality.” It reproduced the chaos it hoped to resist, replacing meaningful self-discovery with the solitudes of self-consciousness. It knows, Wood concluded, “a thousand different things—How to make the best Indonesian fish curry! The sonics of the trombone! The drug market of Detroit! The history of strip cartoons!—but [not] a single human being.”

Zadie Smith was one of the first to be labeled a hysterical realist and, fittingly, she was also one of the first to rebel against its growing orthodoxies. After publishing White Teeth—a novel that mapped out the antic soul-seeking and comedic, if also often tragic, misunderstandings of melting-pot London—she went on to publish Autograph Man: an even more hysterical novel that tracked the life and times of one Alex-Li Tandem as he “lurched from one ill-fitting ‘identity’ to another” in a desperate search for a stable self.

The new group tried to map out more local, more empowering connections: to mine the present for those rare, fragile moments of contact—those brief human intersections that remind us that while we are all each desperately unknowable and alone we are also in this together.

But the world was changing. The moral excesses of dot-com prosperity were fast becoming the fretful anxieties of our brave new “age of horrorism”—as one British novelist put it. And if there were any question about the profligacy of the Anglo-American novel at the end of the millennium, then the bombed-out days after September 11 seemed to confirm, once and for all, its negligent decadence. Writing a week after the attacks, Wood argued—not without some smug satisfaction—that what we now needed was not exuberant experiment but empathy: fiction that told “us not ‘how the world works’ but ‘how somebody felt about something’—indeed, how a lot of different people felt about a lot of different things (these are commonly called novels about human beings).”

Smith, remarkably, agreed. “These are hysterical times,” she confessed.

Any novel that aims at hysteria will now be effortlessly outstripped….Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like every-body else….Most mornings I think: death of the novel? Yeah, sure, why not?

And while she did not give up the novel altogether, she did exchange the maximalist experiments of her early work for a more disciplined and more sober realism.

Written in a skillful but familiar third person, Smith’s 2005 On Beauty updated one of the least modernist of modernist novels—E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End—for contemporary Anglo-America. A weave of parlor-room drama and intrigue, it knitted together the transatlantic goings-on of two academic families as they negotiated the ups and downs of love and death, success and failure, over-education and prejudice. In many ways, it was everything Wood had called for: a novel that gave up giddy experiment for psychology, perpetual motion for ponderous ambiguity, a work of fiction that focused less on “how the world worked” than on “how it felt”—at least, how it felt for the Anglo-American bourgeoisie.

In a 2003 essay on Forster’s novels, Smith clarified her turn from style to ethics and from exuberant self-expression to restrained empathy. When “you put people on paper and move them through time, you cannot help but talk about ethics.” A novelist cannot merely manufacture “an exquisitely worked game”; he or she must also create a world complex enough to preserve the often-muddled ambiguities of human experience. As Howard Belsey—one of Smith’s often-muddled characters in On Beauty—was to put it to a classroom of soon-to-be bankers: “What we are trying to…interrogate here…is the mytheme of artist as autonomous individual with privileged insight into the human.”

Of course, there was a glaring gap in the turn from hysterical to empathetic and ethical realism—one that was a bit naïve, especially for someone who grew up in the public housing of Northwest London: Smith had stopped interrogating the very question of whether one can exist as autonomous individual in an age full of soon-to-be bankers. For what makes life so ambiguous and morally complex today is that our very prosperity rests upon distant but not unknown inequalities and traumas happening elsewhere, to other people. The true turn toward ethics, toward our sacred human complexities, means mining not only the ways in which we feel but also exposing the stratified ways we live.

Zadie Smith was one of the first to be labeled a hysterical realist and, fittingly, she was also one of the first to rebel against its growing orthodoxies.

This is an old complaint, this desire that our increasingly dire political economy begin to find expression in our literature as well as in our social movements and public policies. But it is a crucial point, nonetheless, for an age that is so evidently equipped to abstract the ethics of form from content, the commodities we buy from the conditions in which they are produced. And what we need today is a more sociological realism: a social novel capable of capturing not only the ways we experience life but also the ways in which it happens to us. What we need today is Dreiser with a better sense of syntax.

Smith, ever on point, was one of the first novelists to realize this. Writing in a recent essay, she observed that the Anglophone novel faced a crisis on two fronts: that both its form—its empathetic realism—and its content—the drawing-room anxieties of the middle class—were increasingly irrelevant. The time had come for the radicalism of experiment and the realism of political economy—for a new social realism that was capable of capturing both the mechanics and experience of today’s growing inequality.

Smith’s latest—NW—satisfies, in many ways, this need for a more sociological and also more experimental realism. Certainly lacking in stylistic austerity—the novel boldly returns to the metafictional and maximalist experiments of her early years—it is, however, a catalogue of economic austerity: a work of socio-psychological genius that registers the psychic and material shocks of those left behind in Northwest London—those living in the type of public housing familiar on both sides of the Atlantic, where the buildings have regal names but also cracked-cement lawns and boarded-up windows.

Several early reviewers have pointed to the Joycean qualities of her prose and narrative. To be sure, the novel does invoke many similarities: the bold challenge of its stream of consciousness, the jarring peculiarity of its use of page and punctuation, the post-Newtonian sense of space and time. But the novel’s true inspiration is perhaps less Joyce than his often-neglected acolyte: the American novelist Henry Roth. At bottom, NW seeks to render not only the cognitive disorder of postmodern experience but also the social and psychological disorders of postmodern—that is, post–welfare state—capitalism. Instead of Joyce’s roving and associative stream of consciousness, Smith’s is empirical, cartographic, and sharply focused on the spiritual trauma and material limits of poverty.

Take, for example, the book’s opening scene:

The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides. Four gardens along, in the estate, a grim girl on the third floor screams Anglo-Saxon at nobody.

Like Roth’s Call It Sleep, NW is, at heart, a tenement novel: a work of fiction built on the clipped images, solicitudes, and often spectral traumas of class. The fenced in, on all sides; the Anglo-Saxon scream at nobody. The haunted mania of heat and hunger. This is a world of public housing gone wrong, of social planning no longer planned. Leah Hanwell, our protagonist, gets out a pencil and tries to write out the line from the radio:

I am the sole I am the sole author Pencil leaves no mark on magazine pages. Somewhere she has read that the gloss gives you cancer. Everyone knows it shouldn’t be this hot. Shriveled blossom and bitter little apples. Birds singing the wrong tunes in the wrong trees too early in the year. Don’t you bloody start! Look up: the girl’s burned paunch rests on the railing. Here’s what Michel likes to say: not everyone can be invited to the party. Not this century . . . I am the the sole Ash drifts into the garden below.

This is not a freewheeling stream of consciousness about the mobilities of self-invention but the painful immobilities of class. While set in the same neighborhood as White Teeth, NW is no longer concerned with the ambiguities of identity but with the clear, determined aspects of inequality: those determinacies born out of where we live and what we do. We are not the sole authors of the dictionaries that define us; in fact, we are not, even in part, the authors of who we are. The freedoms afforded to us—the liberties of the market—are in fact working against us, making us less, not more, free. We are not empowered but trapped by what makes us, to use Milton Friedman’s phrase, “free to choose.” As one of Leah’s less fortunate classmates—a high school dropout and junkie by the name of Nathan Bogle—explains: “Everyone loves a bredrin when he’s ten…After that he’s a problem…That’s how it is…There’s no way to live in this country when you’re grown.”

This is a far cry from the Victorian intrigue and empathetic realism of On Beauty. Hard-bitten ambiguities there are—but not of the moral and speculative kind. Claustrophobia, rather than hysteria, predominates; the psychic traumas of closed-in spaces rather than those anxieties of freedom. The sense that we are all masters of our own destinies has been baldly dismissed. For some—those of us fortunate to live in the middle and upper brackets of society—it is still possible to believe in the myth of self-definition, of autonomy and self-making, but for the rest there is little hope. There is nowhere to go if you come from Northwest London. Adulthood is not empowering; it is the land of the un-free.

One of the ingenuities of NW is to capture this sense of immobility within the very structure of its narrative. This is a novel that lets out a lot of leash before tugging us back, before reminding us that we are not as free as we think we are. Like a released top, Smith’s narrative spins out in ever-widening circles but never drifts too far from its geographic center: the council estates of Northwest London. We begin in the outer margins of Willesden, move through Kilburn into the posh inner-city of Soho before then circling back out to Hampstead, where the spinning top of our narrative drags to a halt at its outskirts: in an area where the neat rows of single-family homes turn into abandoned lots and broken bridges and, eventually, overgrown heath. In the puzzle-piece streets of Northwest London, we realize that there is very little that provides coherence but the estates themselves. They alone—as one of Smith’s characters observes—“had a logic.”

The time had come for the radicalism of experiment and the realism of political economy—for a new social realism that was capable of capturing both the mechanics and experience of today’s growing inequality.

This logic is what comes to haunt Smith’s characters, even to shape their biographies. Leah, a child of Willesden, spends the “noughties” moving between political and sartorial fads—popping party drugs and wearing cargo pants, tying herself to trees and amassing large swathes of debt—before realizing that she is just an estate girl, destined to live and work a handful of blocks from where she grew up. Felix—a young Caribbean on the make—is full of the mantric catchphrases of self-help but finds that he can’t help himself when he is jumped by Nathan Bogle and a rather sinister accomplice. Keisha, Leah’s friend and rival, appears, on the surface, to be an exemplar of self-making and self-improvement. She changes her name to Natalie, becomes a barrister, and marries up. But she also spends much of the postmillennium on her BlackBerry, pushing strollers, and drifting between chat rooms and unconsummated threesomes.

All three of Smith’s protagonists spend their lives trying to un-tether themselves from the council estates and each discovers that, despite the prevailing myths of the day, they are just not that “free to choose.” Leah becomes consumed by the poverty around her—haunted by sallow-faced former classmates who now live on the streets—and eventually succumbs to a nervous breakdown. Natalie consummates a liaison—a rather unsatisfying affair with two (how shall I say it?) rather efficient young men—and loses her husband. Felix is murdered blocks from his home. He has less than thirty pounds in his pocket.

Smith was once more hopeful, believing in the liberating freedom of self-definition: finding solace, even empowerment, within the contradictions of twenty-first century identity. In a 2008 essay celebrating the double-voiced dexterities of Barack Obama, she argued “it’s my audacious hope that a man born and raised between opposing dogmas, between cultures, between voices, could not help but be aware of the extreme contingency of culture,” that, in fact, his choice to remain in between—to “speak in tongues”—was a way not only to break free but to heal a nation increasingly riven by its differences. “Flexibility of voice,” as she concluded, “leads to a flexibility of all things.”

These days, however, Smith has begun to sound a bit chastened about the flexibility of all things. Writing in the summer of 2012 about the new regime of austerity that has gained traction under David Cameron, she observed that while “England made me”—from “my NHS glasses aged 9” to “my NHS baby aged 33”—“the charming tale of benign state intervention [is now] relegated to the land of fairy tales: not just naive but actually fantastic.” “The state is not what it once was. It is complicit in this new, shared global reality in which states deregulate to privatize gain and reregulate to nationalize loss.” A flexible, contingent sense of identity is no longer enough. We may still be free to choose how we want to speak, but many of us are not able to choose how we want to live.

This seems to be the ultimate message of NW, and a difficult one to convey since the Anglophone novel has often narrated the story of expanding freedom and choice, following the picaro as he attempts to make anew or as he decides to break from the old. This was true of the novel at its origins, with the picaresques of Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, and also became a central pivot on which the nineteenth-century novel—in particular, the Bildungsroman—turned. The theme, then, that we are trapped—that, in fact, we are just not that “free to choose”—is a tricky one to pull off, especially if one wants also to emphasize just how pervasive the sense of our freedom has become.

A flexible, contingent sense of identity is no longer enough. We may still be free to choose how we want to speak, but many of us are not able to choose how we want to live.

This is, in many ways, where Smith’s turn to sociological realism meets with her empathetic impulses and it is, in this way, that one might see NW as a consolidation of the exuberant sense of invention in White Teeth and Autograph Man with the ethical realism of On Beauty. Her characters’ lives are ultimately determined by where they grew up, but they are also given the freedom—the range—to narrate this determinacy in their own way. Each goes through life not only espousing the doctrines of self-help—“time management,” as Natalie rattles them off, “identifying goals, working hard, respecting oneself and one’s partner, and the importance of a good education”—but also insisting that they deserve to do better, that, in fact, they have a right to do better. For obvious reasons, Felix is the greatest victim of this unredeemed optimism. But Leah and Natalie come pretty close: Natalie’s husband, Frank, discovers her various indiscretions and leaves for good; and Leah’s husband, having discovered her own indiscretions, may soon follow suit.

Perhaps the most moving scene is the novel’s last: when Leah and Natalie, sitting in the walled-in backyard where the novel begins, come closest to realizing just how foolhardy this faith in their freedom is. Trying to persuade herself and Leah that their sense of upward mobility has not led them astray, Natalie talks herself into a rather different epiphany, realizing not only how false her self-help mantras ring but how alone they have left her. “We were smarter,” she explains. “We wanted to get out. People like Bogle—they didn’t want it enough. I’m sorry if you find that answer ugly, Lee, but it’s the truth.” But as she “carried on with her bright list” of reasons why, she realizes just how “automatic” and “self-referential” they had become, and “her only real thought was of Frank.”

Freedom has come under attack these days. Not our actual political and civil liberties, which have been limited and/or expanded over the past two centuries in America and in the West, but the very idea of it. More and more novelists and social critics deploy the term with irony (as did Jonathan Franzen in his 2010 novel, Freedom). There is an increasing sense that our current regime of economic freedom is working to undermine other realms of freedom—social, political, spiritual. Many have come to realize that the West, despite appearances, “only looks free”—as Teju Cole wrote in Open City, his own novel about “the margins”—that, in fact, the so-called “dream was [only] an apparition.”

Frankfurt School theorists made this observation years ago. Erich Fromm, in his work on the rise of fascism, examined the reasons we might want to escape from this type of freedom. Herbert Marcuse contemplated the ways in which these freedoms were, in fact, repressive: that they limited the range of spiritual, as well as libidinal, liberation. And now, it seems, a new novel is emerging that is willing to confront the ways in which today’s freedoms—freedom from taxes and regulation, freedom of trade, freedom from state debt—have come to limit those more humane liberties that a novel preserves: those human desires and disappointments that ought to remain the property of each individual.

Smith’s novel is the first, as far as I know, to deal directly with the consequences of student debt. It is also one of the first to show how the nineties, despite our governing myths, were not that prosperous for the West: that, in fact, for many of us the economic bubble burst decades ago, in the 1970s, and things have only gotten worse since then.

As a new regime of austerity begins to take effect, NW is a potent reminder of the psychological, as well as social and financial, burdens of debt that will be accrued. It is a reminder that austerity—freedom from state debt—is, in fact, just another way of passing these burdens from those better off to those who are increasingly worse off. If it turns out that there is no such thing as truly being free to choose, NW then is a salient insistence that there is also no such thing as truly being free from debt. Insolvency cuts in many ways; it has its balances. And a solvent state often also means an insolvent citizen.

In a strained metaphor that marks the last page of NW, Smith suggests that when Leah and Natalie call the police to alert them that they believe their former classmate Nathan Bogle is responsible for Felix’s death, the two became “infused with new energy”: an energy that reminds them of “nothing so much as the calls two good friends used to make to boys they liked, back in the day . . . two heads pressed together over a handset.” There is something unsettling, even sinister about this comparison. For Leah and Natalie are not calling a junior high crush but, in fact, possibly putting a former one in jail: a man of acute danger but who also has never been given a chance—a man who, despite our “age of freedom,” has found that there is “no way to live in this country when you’re grown.”

There is nothing pleasing or satisfying about this end, even if some kind of justice is served. It only reinforces the need for a new type of social novel that would be capable of capturing the increasingly determined ways in which the world works as well the ways it has often come to feel. The lyrical complexities, the drawing-room intrigues, the searching desire for “an authentic story of the self”—as Smith once put it—may have helped us recover ourselves from the traumas of the early millennium. But in our present moment, we need fiction that is dedicated to exposing the ways in which we can no longer realize ourselves—the ways in which we are just not that free. Smith’s NW—a novel that captures the taxing human and social costs of austerity—might help lead the way. If nothing else, its pointed sense of direction reminds us just how lost we now are.

David Marcus, an editor at Dissent, last wrote on the intellectual origins of Occupy Wall Street.

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