I’m starting some work on Zadie Smith this summer, specifically her novel NW (2012). It seems to me to be the first attempt by a British author to directly address what it means to use the Internet, or to communicate digitally, and to ask (if only partially) how digital forms lead to a recalibration of ethical boundaries (or an augmenting of the possible acts available to us). This work comes after my draft first chapter, where I was trying to pick a route through digitality, literary ethics, modernism and twenty-first century literature, to set up a critical foundation from which to proceed. It tried to do too much at once – obviously – but the process was useful at least.
Part of what I was attempting to say in that first bit of writing, though, was that it is valuable to think about stuff written in the twenty-first century through the prism of the technological. Looking at texts from the modernist period in this way – Virginia Woolf, Henry James – highlights some important cultural conflicts, political anxieties and ethical concerns. Modernist writers were attempting to transcribe, translate or put into a form the relationship that society had with new mechanical and electrical stuff which created new ways of seeing the world. And there was a politics of expression that went along with that – which meant that a modernist perspective was often coupled with an acceptance that new technologies couldn’t be shunned, but must be understood, seen as an essential part of the cultural fabric, maybe even worshipped. Smith’s novel is one that understands this impulse. The difference in the contemporary period is that the technology, the new thing, is not only mechanical or electronic but the digital.
NW is a novel that testifies to the ubiquitous nature of digital interactions. It confirms the centrality of digital forms to many elements of lived experience. Most simply, mentions of digital forms of communication are littered throughout the book, as might be expected of the realist mode in which Smith tends to write. Characters get out their phones, look at websites, sit at laptops. The ills of technology are drably agreed upon during a dinner party by faceless guests.
Critically, a digital form of communication works as a central plot device, creating perhaps the defining moment of conflict in a novel which is generally more interested in the quotidian or the points when characters notice time passing. The central character, who changes her name from Keisha to Natalie, performs a sexual transgression which is primarily a digital one. In a section knowingly entitled Love in the ruins, she cheats on her husband with two young men in a “50s semi” in Wembley, facilitated by a “listings” website, on which she is known by the handle WildInWembley and her email address is KeishaNW. The freedom Keisha/Natalie finds in this particular form of communication is that of temporarily leaving her role as head of household and “big lady jesus” lawyer. Having changed her name once, the textual avatars she uses online refer back to her previous identity. In one sense, the online space provides a place where Keisha can perform an identity that she feels she can no longer materially embody – she has moved on too far from her family and her upbringing. At the same time, in the “listings” website she is “BF [black female] 18-35” – she becomes a sought after sexual fantasy, a racially-defined fetish for couples and naive young men. “Why?” asks the narrative “What do they think we can do? What is it we have that they want?” This, however, is as far as the narrative goes in questioning the racial biases of the “listings” website. Keisha turns up at the house of drug addicts, and then later a moneyed bourgeois couple – on both occasions the sex is cancelled, the first because the couple are too high, and the second because Keisha is not able to, in that moment, satisfactorily separate her status as fetish from her life as Natalie, the professional.
There is more to be said about the extant presentation of digital forms in this novel, not least the fact that Keisha’s use of the website is a) described in flat, quotidian terms (“She went to the website. She went to bed”) which perhaps reflects a complacent, liberal understanding of the Internet as a utopian space. There is also the Chat Roulette used by the men that Keisha engages in sexual activity with, whom she chastises (“Boys, boys, why are we doing this? You’ve got the real thing right here.”)The political dimensions of the digital forms seem essentially flat, impotent. “Look, there is race, anonymity, and porn online” the text seems to say, “isn’t it terrible?”
I’ll finish this piece about my initial ideas with what I think is the most important engagement with digitality in the novel, a chat dialogue between Keisha and Leah which is printed in the text itself. From one perspective, it’s just another epistolary gimmick (Exhibit B being Smith’s On Beauty, where she re-imagines the opening letter of Howards End as an e-mail). But I would argue the effect is more radical than that, that there is evidence that this particular passage says a lot about the different ways of seeing that this particular digital form facilitates and how they are transformed when it is fixed into the pages of a print novel:
shut it blake
That’s just so fucking FASCINATING
Hello hanwell DARLING. What brings you to the internets this
woman next to me picking nose really getting in there
tried to call but you no answer
This can be viewed as rupturing the form of the novel, because it cancels the normally ever present omniscient-third-person voice, one which is highlighted in ironic asides or philosophical observations. It becomes absence here, where in the rest of the novel it is either explicit or dropped into at certain moments. As such, the computer-mediated-communication, the tangible presence of this particular layout, this peculiar form, emphasises the absence of the controlling, omniscient voice. It becomes an ethical encounter which lacks the mediating presence of the novel. Any mediation or distance between the reader and characters comes in the form of the permanent appearance of a normally permeable (or alterable) textual form – the chat dialogue. It is in the midst of these textual tensions that an important ethical question is raised:
lady jesus I am getting married
that’s great! When did this happen???
Six in registry same like u but irth actyl guests
I’m really happy for you seriously
Iz for mum really.
also, I really love him.
Important to him and he wants to.
It’s what people do innit.
sorry clerk one min
The important ethical question, although one of privilege and bourgeois choice – should I marry this man – is never answered by Keisha, and the reader might choose to assume the veracity of her need to suspend the conversation for work. (Incidentally, both characters are at work, in the kind of jobs which afford them basically unobstructed internet access. I can’t work out what to say about this yet past the fact that internet is not a magical world but another aspect of material living conditions from which you can be alienated/prevented from accessing). Keisha couldn’t answer her phone, so Leah tells her using an instantaneous message. Later, the irony of the speed of the message is emphasized when she complains that the two of them are getting old. A moment of life-changing significance – one which a reader might explain a realist novel to make more of – happens instantly – should-I-get-married is not, “a different kind of moment” as Leah describes the Kierkegaardian “instant” earlier in the novel. The mediated nature of their interaction influences the ways there are of reading their relationship, changes the ethical possibilities available for knowing their relationship. For example, when Keisha asks Leah about having children, her emoji response changes the texture of the exchange:
Does this mesn
FUCK OFF WOMAN
FUCK OFF WITH YOUR SMILEY FACE
The emoji shifts the mode signification – it’s a familiar element of internet discourse, but it’s unfamiliar when fixed in the pages of a novel. Face, and the presentation of the face as an important element of the way that human beings relate to each other, is foregrounded here, as it is throughout the novel. The smiley face of Keisha is, perhaps, an over-determined signifier. It appears to represent her inarticulacy, and her desire to mask seriousness with humour, yet it also tells us she has an understanding of internet culture and language patterns (she welcomes Leah to “the Internets” earlier in this section). Leah’s reaction is comic, but also neutralizes the seriousness of the question which is then not addressed again – a question which is arguably the ethical dilemma which defines Leah’s character. The smiley alters the ethical terrain of the interaction – and the two characters suppress or change the direction of the conversation. The digital format of this interaction means the effects of it are stark, because the ethical ground on which it happens is unfamiliar.
Much more could be said about this passage, in terms of its poetics, the way that the text-as-novel consciously manipulates the form of the communication (the knowing line breaks, the lack of time stamps, the switching between standard and non-standard English, the asynchronicity of the communication , the presence or absence of a Levinasian version of the face). But I’d best stop, and start reading again.