my fluent mundo: on dawn powell & zadie smith

That’s what Powell shows so brilliantly: that when you’re vulnerable, you often act against your own interest, and what good is intelligence then? It only helps you see more acutely how you’ve screwed yourself up….”


by kristina eldredge


The reason there was no Fluent Mundo column last month is the same reason that this month’s is about Dawn Powell as well as Zadie Smith — that New York hasn’t really returned to normal. Today I heard a woman in a store say, “Well, there’s a new ‘normal,’ so that’s what we’re getting back to.” That’s it. We’re less jittery, but there’s still uneasiness — planes seem to be flying lower, sirens seem more frequent and sinister. I dreamed the Empire State Building was destroyed, and when I mention it, friends report similar dreams. So there’s still trauma, not to mention grief. But in the time-honored New York tradition of ignoring everything except our own obsessive concerns, most of us are acting as if things are normal or ‘the new normal.’

But my reading habits have continued to reflect a need for something reassuring over something new and challenging. (I wonder how long I’m gonna be making this excuse. Maybe my entire tenure as a contemporary fiction columnist will be spent whining that I don’t have the moral strength to read the stuff.) That doesn’t mean Dawn Powell is some kind of sedative, but she writes about the old, pre-television, black-and-white New York, with plots that bear some resemblance to breezy Hollywood comedies, and a George Eliot-sized intelligence as underpinning. You can hardly get better than that. Powell is a social satirist — which Zadie Smith is too — and can be scathing, but she knows what matters to people, what really twists the heart. Her characters are vulnerable beneath their social smiles and pretensions (but boy, can she anatomize pretensions).

Powell’s The Locusts Have No King (1948) shows the breakdown of a love affair against a backdrop of downtown writers, artists, would-be celebrities and genuine ones that’s startlingly close to the New York of today. Then as now, young artistic hopefuls surround the established greats, trying for the right mixture of admiration and ambition. Powell’s hero and heroine, a wealthy successful playwright and an impoverished scholarly writer, see through every nuance of social maneuvering that surrounds them, but they have no power over their own feelings. That’s what Powell shows so brilliantly: that when you’re vulnerable, you often act against your own interest, and what good is intelligence then? It only helps you see more acutely how you’ve screwed yourself up.

So as the plot unfolds, we watch the lovely, distinguished Lyle (she’s the successful playwright) descend into social gracelessness after being ditched by her lover who has long resented both her wealth and her marriage. As cliched as this situation is, Powell sees into it so penetratingly that the book has real power. Once Lyle has lost Frederick, he perversely becomes the very things she wanted him to be when he was with her– socially visible and successful — while she begins to see the truth in his former attitude of disdain for the social climbers of her world. In one scene, she’s hanging out in a loft with the kind of raffish bohemians she used to have nothing to do with, and Frederick happens to come in on his way to the kind of wealthy society party he used to refuse to go to with Lyle. The teeth-gritting encounter between the two ex-lovers is an example of Powell’s compassion as a writer. Irony, sarcasm, brittle politeness — these are just tools hiding the genuine sorrow the characters feel over the loss of each other.

This is readable because it feels so real — and I’m working on some theories about why contemporary fiction often doesn’t have such an absorbing, human quality. It’s got something to do with the distance young writers often keep from their characters. I bought Zadie Smith’s White Teeth so I could have something remotely contemporary (2000) to write about. I was curious about Smith because for a while she was so in your face — the boldly simple design of her paperback was featured in window displays everywhere. And you read her name a lot. For ages, I whizzed past the displays automatically rejecting her on the strength of her popularity alone. I pictured her as some latter-day Tama Janowitz. Wrong. Smith is a Londoner who had White Teeth, her first novel, accepted when she was only 23, on the strength of the first 80 pages, for which she was paid a staggering advance. She’s attracted rave reviews — and been compared to Salman Rushdie, which may be a dubious honor — for her subtle and well-observed portrait of immigrants and mixed-race families in contemporary London. She has a crack ear for dialogue and an astute eye for absurdity, which she finds everywhere. She’s smart as hell. She’s as smart as Dawn Powell.

But the book is notable more for revealing a first-rate intelligence than for pulling you into a narrative. White Teeth begins with an unassuming Englishman called Archie Jones attempting suicide outside a butcher shop. Smith shows her wit:

Mo advanced upon Archie’s car, pulled out the towels that were sealing the gap in the driver’s window, and pushed it down five inches with brute, bullish force.

“Do you hear that mister? We’re not licensed for suicides around here. This place halal. Kosher, you understand? If you’re going to die round here, my friend, I’m afraid you’ve got to be thoroughly bled first.”

The mind that could write that scene is worth following, but Smith doesn’t settle down and get inside the situation. Archie wants to kill himself because his wife has recently divorced him, but she’s characterized as so crazy that you lose sympathy for Archie, on several levels, almost at once. His second wife is met and married in a random kind of way and the relationship sketched in too thinly. Smith’s ribald tone makes the characters seem almost cartoon-like, doll figures she’s playing with desultorily rather than having an overall plan in mind. (In fact, the novel does develop an impressive plot from about mid-point on, but that leads to the suspicion that she thought of it halfway through, and was just spinning her wheels before that.)

White Teeth is best at zeroing in on the paradoxes of the immigrant experience. For instance, Samad Iqbal, a major character, is obsessed with trying to keep his twin sons holy as a way to atone for a brief affair he has with their teacher (a potent situation Smith drops too quickly). He can’t afford to send both away, but sends one twin back to relatives in Bangladesh to experience a traditional Muslim upbringing. Of course, it’s this twin who returns at age 18 in a proper British suit, revealing a passion for genetic science that horrifies his older relatives. The twin who grew up in London, smoking pot, wearing the latest fashions and charming every female in his path, ends up getting involved with fundamentalist Muslims with a predictably violent program. This neat and resonant irony is worthy of Dawn Powell — or that’s selling it short, maybe. It’s as good or better than anything in Powell. But Smith takes such a long time to get us there.

White Teeth suffers from too much writing. There are flashback scenes and minor characters that could be handled much more swiftly or done away with. In a way, Smith’s skill trips her up — she’s such a dextrous writer that even when the action is dull, the writing’s not, and she can’t seem to cut and edit judiciously. It’s the blathering-on syndrome that can be, not unfairly, attributed to the advent of the word-processor writer. It leads to writing like this:

It seemed Joely and Crispin met and fell in love at the University of Leeds in the summer of 1982, two young student radicals, with Che Guevera on their walls, idealism in their hearts, and a mutual passion for all the creatures that fly, trot, crawl, and slime across the earth.

It’s a sentence you can picture flying from someone’s brain out their fingers onto a keyboard, and what’s wrong with it except that it seems so glib, uninterested, and faintly mocking that why should we take the slightest interest in these people ourselves?

Powell isn’t immune to glibness, but her observations are more often deeply felt. Here’s Lyle thinking about her lover:

Was it reticence, or was this all there was? Granted that taciturn people through no fault of their own are always credited with deep reserves of emotion; then, as the guards hold so relentlessly for so long, the suspicion dawns that there is no feeling there at all; and they are berated for monstrous insensitivity in their later years, as if it was a crime that natural coldness was construed as controlled passion.

But Smith is every bit as thoughtful near the end of White Teeth, which is after all her debut novel, suggesting that amazing things are to come from her.

It’s a funny thing about the modern world. You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, “Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He didn’t love me. He just couldn’t deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me.” Now, how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way?

This is a pretty smart taking down of current pieties — of the easy, Sex-and-the-City line on men as emotionally damaged commitment-phobes. Smith’s daring to ask this question gives a sense of the scope of her gaze. It’s true that Powell’s focus is tighter and I think that makes a more satisfying read. But Smith has unusually huge reservoirs of humor and insight. Given more experience and better editors, she could do everything Powell did and more.


Originally published:
Issue Seventeen
February 2002


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