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Layered Spaces, Literary Creation and Fictional Identities

Will Self and Zadie Smith’s Depictions of Post-Thatcherite London: Imagining Traumatic and Traumatological Space

Évocations post-thatchériennes de Londres et imaginaires de l’espace traumatique et traumatologique chez Will Self et Zadie Smith
Philip Tew


Cet article utilise la théorie du trauma et la théorie du roman en choisissant d’analyser deux romans dont l’action se déroule à Londres : Le Livre de Dave, de Will Self, et NW de Zadie Smith. Il démontre que le caractère apparemment décalé du trauma et son commerce avec l’après-coup (qui en rendent les origines incertaines et inaccessibles) est moins important, dans le monde de l’après 11 septembre 2001, que « le traumatologique », entendu comme le sentiment de menaces potentielles et immédiates dont on peut identifier l’origine, lesquelles caractérisent la société et la culture contemporaine. Cet article se concentre sur la manière dont la dystopie de Will Self, qui critique les systèmes de pensée dogmatiques, est une illustration du présent, et comment Dave « Tufty » Rudman, pris de folie après son divorce, crée un texte délirant que des lecteurs du futur vont utiliser pour fonder une nouvelle religion monothéiste, le Davinisme. L’influence pathologique de ce Livre de Dave permet de produire une satire de la foi aveugle animant l’extrémisme qui informe certains éléments de l’Islam extrémiste et des fondamentalistes du futur dans le contexte d’une Ingerland (ou Angleterre) largement submergée par les flots. Le roman de Smith évoque deux amies vivant dans les banlieues du nord-est de Londres, Leah Hanwell et Natalie (originellement prénommée Keisha) Blake, liées par un événement traumatique survenu dans leur enfance. L’article explore la cartographie littérale et viscérale des trahisons que les deux femmes font subir à leurs compagnons, leurs multiples tricheries, et leurs vies intérieures troublées et pleines de la nostalgie d’une éducation qui s’est déroulée dans un milieu moins privilégié que celui auquel elles ont eu accès à l’âge adulte. Les romans londoniens de Self et de Smith ne cessent d’intégrer des cartographies de la souffrance, repérant les réalités traumatiques et traumatologiques de l’identité urbaine

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  • 1 A typical example of such criticism is to be found in Onega, Susana and Jean-Michel Ganteau’s ‘Intr (...)

1In this essay I will seek to address some key issues concerning aspects of what is often referred to by many critics as ‘trauma’ fiction, which refers essentially to narratives that can and have been variously defined, and are interpreted, through varieties of trauma theory. Certainly many in the fields of humanities and social science have attempted to create a fundamentally orthodox approach, by following Cathy Caruth’s very particular (some argue distorting and partial) reading of Freud and Caruth’s arguably equally problematic insistence on a universal belatedness concerning both trauma as an event and its symptomology in human experience.1 Seemingly in the footsteps of Caruth, Anne Whitehead in Trauma Fiction (2004), for instance, argues that generally such fiction responds to ‘an event or experience which overwhelms the individual and resists language or representation’ (3) while noting the paradox of narrating such a set of relations. Furthermore, she suggests this in fact represents a historical condition of deferral and this is mediated incompletely through a hesitant and fragmented personal or aesthetic recollection. Others disagree fundamentally about such belatedness. In particular Ruth Leys in Trauma: A Genealogy (2000) describes such critics as believing in ‘the original traumatogenic event’ (298) or moment that initiates the profound trauma, which they persist in considering elusive and unattainable. As Leys intimates any critic suggesting this is significant is misguided, offering an erroneous interpretative model. I would add that they risk offering a platitude as if it might be profound, for as Georges Bataille says boldly and provocatively at the beginning of the unfinished system of non-knowledge (2001): ‘It is a banality to claim that there is a fundamental difficulty in human communication. And it is not hard to recognize in advance that this difficulty is partially irreducible’ (5). Additionally, as one of the authors I will consider, Zadie Smith, said recently in an interview with John Self:

To me writing is deeply irrational, idiosyncratic, because its medium—language—has so much ambiguity built into it. That argument that Alice and Humpty Dumpty have about the instability of meaning that’s the epigraph of a million graduate dissertations … Language is the absurd bit of writing that can’t be entirely suppressed or controlled . . . (n.p.)

2Plus of course perception itself has an innate belatedness that may well compound our sense of absurdities in life when traumatized, a time lag of visual and mental processing that comes after any particular instance of eventfulness and its potentially unmediated perception. Moreover one must recognize that even the supposed belatedness ascribed to traumatic repression is never complete, because in essence such events are recollected in a vicarious and displaced manner, often disguised as a set of symptoms.

  • 2 William Woodard ‘Will’ Self (born 26 September 1961) is a well-known English author, journalist, cu (...)

3I will consider the relevance of the concepts of both trauma and the traumatological, as well as the possibilities of collective trauma, in terms of a very particular analysis primarily of two post-millennial, post-9/11 fictions by two culturally-significant contemporary British novelists: Will Self’s The Book of Dave: A Revelation of the Recent Past and Distant Future (2006) and Smith’s NW (2012).2 I agree with Arthur G. Neal concerning the importance of 9/11 for the West, in that these events challenged people’s trust in the prevailing liberal norms of contemporary urban culture as a guarantee of a shared belief in personal security. As much as for America, in Britain 9/11 created at least an underlying sense of what Neal describes: ‘the violation of the trustworthiness of everyday life on September 11 resulted in feelings of personal vulnerability’ (181), a reaction on a local, particular level (quite different from the apocalyptic fears of nuclear holocaust, for instance). This was heightened by the 7/7 bombings of the transport system in London in 2005, with the death of 52 commuters (all but one of these were residents in London from a variety of backgrounds and origins) and the further injury of over 700 others. The fictions I will consider evoke a strong sense of such uncertain times and spaces.

4Self’s dystopia is concerned with dogmatic belief systems, a breakdown in enlightenment values, and is very much a vision of a post-9/11 world. Smith’s set of domestic crises is haunted by a city where distrust and violence subtend daily lives, and the text’s architectonics echo a larger fragmentariness that permeates events, thoughts and people’s understanding. Geographically both novels overlap in the main areas of London featured, and both consider the role of that city in shaping the consciousness of both individuals and groups, a partly spatial configuring of identity. In defining the traumatological I draw upon the second edition of my book The Contemporary British Novel (2007), which introduced this term through a commentary where I conjecture that post-9/11 a change of emphasis can traced in the British novel where such fiction ‘emphasises and responds to concrete historical conditions and expresses either overtly or covertly an awareness of radical simultaneous challenges to both personal identity and the social order’ (190). Naturally enough given the human condition and its embodied existence, this is not only a psychic threat, but one responding to multiple deeds enacted spatially, those of people and places. As Kevin Lynch indicates in ‘Notes on City Satisfactions’ there can be too much ‘[i]ntensity . . . [with] too much activity . . .’ (153) and terror intensifies such crowding by adding threat to its compacted proximities, for as Lynch notes in ‘The City as Environment’ the growth of cities already magnifies our fears since ‘the physical form of a city has a sensuous impact that profoundly conditions the lives of its people, and this is often ignored in the task off city-building,’ resulting in ‘the harsh and confusing physical environment that has been created, which in itself aggravates social and personal problems’ (87). Jeffrey Alexander in Trauma: A Social Theory (2012) ‘offers a social theory of trauma’ particularly ‘traumas that become collective. They can become so if they are conceived as wounds to social identity’ (2). Both novels analysed below consider acts of violence alongside the traumatizing effects of city life (and its legacies in the case of Self’s novel). In both narratives one encounters transgressions against the self and deaths, in each such acts involve ‘the spiral of signification’ in the everyday (7) that Alexander posits as required for such generalized trauma, part of a larger ‘cultural crisis’ (15). Henri Lefebvre’s terms found in The Production of Space (1991) are useful in comprehending acts of terror undertaken (and vicariously the fears they produce) in that they are often perversely atavistic, compounding and negating acts of spatialization since ‘social space is the result merely of a marking of natural space, a leaving of traces upon it’ (141). Terrorism destroys but further adds a variety of wounds or in effect further marks the urban landscape, both literally and psychologically.

5Violence stalks the characters in both narratives that I consider, permeating their social relationships variously, and as Jean Baudrillard notes:

All passion then takes refuge in violent death, which is the sole manifestation of something like the sacrifice, that is to say, like a real transmutation through the will of the group. And in this sense, it matters little whether death is accidental, criminal, or catastrophic: from the moment it escapes ‘natural’ reason, and becomes a challenge to nature, it once again becomes the business of the group, demanding a collective and symbolic response . . . (165)

6Such compulsion, which would appear to be derived from that which is enjoyed both in terms of exerting collective power and doing so by indulging and legitimizing a certain perverse voyeurism, is perhaps transformed by the sheer scale of certain spectacles such as 9/11 and the on-going global threat of financial meltdown. In such historical cases perhaps in fact such a compulsion becomes not heightened, rather it is conjoined with something so spectacular and fearful that any inherent possibility of any such underlying enjoyment is in effect displaced or superseded, transformed into barely suppressed terror. Bataille writes in ‘Laughter:’ ‘at the extreme limit of the ‘possible’, everything gives way: the edifice itself of reason—in an instant of insane courage, its majesty is dissipated; what subsists at the worst, like a piece of shaking wall, increases, does not calm the vertiginous feeling’ (7). What seems to be left in the zeitgeist, informing the sensibilities of the contemporary novel’s aesthetic are a series of paradoxical elements, because of what Leys would label a radical unbinding of inter-connectedness characterized by panic (34–5). First there is an event’s capacity to inculcate personal uncertainty and terror, where the residue of any supposedly pleasurable responses is suppressed, for a much stronger and deeper sense of abjection and of suffering surfaces when conscious and unconscious fears merge as a visceral torrent. Second, any such negation is itself doubled, for curiously in the case of such spectacular and social catastrophes, as René Girard says in Violence and the Sacred (1977) ‘sacrifice contains an element of mystery.’ (1) As Georges Bataille adds in Inner Experience (1988):

[I]n sacrifice, it is in the act itself that value is concentrated. Nothing in sacrifice is put off until later—it has the power to contest everything at the instant that it takes place, to summon everything, to render everything present. The crucial instant is that of death, yet as soon as the action begins, everything is challenged, everything is present.

Sacrifice is immoral . . . (136–37)

7When Girard’s mysteries are initiated by collective sacrifice and trauma, the sense of the present intensifies almost unbearably, we are drawn to the momentous spectacle, heightening paradoxically both a belief in the individual and the coherence of often spurious notions of community, seemingly (but actually inadequately) superseding our loss, our fears. I conjecture both novels are rooted in and seek to express in different ways such contradictory dynamics.

8Literary responses to terrorism and the so-called ‘War on Terror’ often consider the issues raised by such events, such as the loss of liberty and increasing social control, but do so tangentially or obliquely, narrating variously the fears of the dissolution of western culture, of the abandonment of a fragmented, almost demented present, to discover far worse dystopian futures. Self does so in The Book of Dave by projecting onto that future the underlying dynamics of an Islamic fundamentalism with its various dogmas, which have characterized recent decades, which Self satirizes. Collective ‘trauma’ and ‘terror’ permeate the novel’s main periods, shaping the collective cultural consciousness as well as the aesthetic dynamic of the novel. The trauma of Dave ‘Tufty’ Rudman, Self’s London cabbie protagonist, in the present period is personal and intense; for those characters in the future it is collective, the population threatened with torture redolent of the late medieval and early modern periods, akin to the work of the Inquisition and the Witch Finders of populist history.

9The recent past of the novel’s subtitle consists of reflections on the years, in order of presentation in the novel, 2001, 1987, 2002, 1992, 200 and 2003, which episodes in and around London revolve around the embattled life of Dave. Self offers an acerbic commentary of the Thatcher years, the system’s financial collapse and its dubious legacies, primarily through Dave’s ranting yet perceptive commentary, which includes:

  • 3 The Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) was founded in 1972 by Agha Hasan Abedi, a Pak (...)

At the beginning of the year the cabbie had been clearing a minimum of seven hundred pounds every week. A flat fucking neves, no joke, mate, double-bloody-bubble fer Sundays . . . Then BCCI collapsed. Gang of fucking coke heads, it never looked like a bank to me anyway, I remember ferrying those dodgy wallahs to their gaff on the Cromwell Road, all smirk an’ no bloody tips . . . And the unemployment figures cranked up to three million. (202)3

10Spurious beliefs underpin both the contemporary and future worlds, and their failings are traumatizing. Equally, the same is true of Dave’s marriage. He becomes progressively deranged after separation from his wife, Michelle, who leaves him taking their child, Carl. During therapy from a unit supervised by Self’s almost ubiquitous charlatan psychologist, Zack Busner, Dave writes a vitriolic, misogynist book of his ranting observations, a diatribe later printed on metal plates so that they might endure and left for his son in the garden of Michelle’s new Hampstead home, to be retracted, dismissed and forgotten by their author before his early death at the hands of Turkish gangsters to whom he owes money.

11Self’s long and complex novel deploys a series of overlapping, intersecting jumble of time sequences. In both eras individuals and larger social groups are bound together by codes of behaviour, in the present most saliently by London cabbies, or belief systems such as Islam, which derives from the Arabic islam, literally ‘submission’ to the will of God which of course is fundamental to the futuristic religion Self creates, more accurately to Muhammad’s interpretation of God’s encoded in the volume Muhammad produced, the Koran, from Arabic qur’an, a reading, recitation, book, and of course equally Self’s religion is also about a perverse and particular interpretative mind. So Islam’s extremist tendencies serve as precise model for Self’s futuristic, post-apocalyptic theocracy, which serves as a satirical critique of Talibanesque claims for Sharia law, and of extremists who seek to justify violence against women in particular, refusing them education, and a rejection of the canons of tolerance and the traditions of civility claimed by the West.

  • 4 In ‘Rank Outsider’ Self explains what cab-drivers call the Knowledge: ‘Those who have seen The Know (...)

12Self incorporates cultural realities from both periods that ought to be regarded as either inane—that is things that he indicates ought to be considered downright stupid 0r ridiculous—or even at times declared insane, that is in terms of both being characterized or caused by madness and states of mind that prevent balanced perception, behaviour, or social interaction. And yet the effect is similar to that which in ‘Will Self on JG Ballard’s The Drowned World’ Self describes with regard to Ballard’s novel: ‘[W]e feel simultaneously several different forms of the Unheimliche; that uncanny sensation which Freud (a major influence on Ballard) defined as drawing its potency from its very closeness to what is familiar—or, literally, “homelike”.’ In The Book of Dave the distant post-apocalyptic future consists of the years, in their order of presentation: 523, 509-10, 523, 510-13, 523–4, 522, 524 AD, which as Self adds in a footnote ‘Dating is from the purported discovery of the Book of Dave’ (1), intriguing because chapters concerned with this dystopian world where the low-lying lands have been drowned overlaps with those detailing the present, creating a set of telling parallels. The future is dominated by a religion that has emerged from the very obscurity of the past that becomes familiar to Self’s reader. Dave’s toxic legacy survives, as the cabbie has been hailed a prophet. His book has been rediscovered in the devastated world of Ham engendering in ing/Ingland/Ingerland, Dävinanity, a new monotheistic religion whose name is a phonetic contraction of the local London pronunciation of Dave conjoined with the word inanity. This is the book the reader eventually sees being written by a deranged Dave on an old Apricot computer (346): ‘In transcribing his Knowledge Dave Rudman embroidered it. This was no plain cloth word-map, but a rich brocade of parable, chiasmus and homily. Where to guv? He began each run . . .’ (347).4 Dave incorporates ‘his Revelation, but also his unique Doxology. For the Knowledge, once completed, naturally led to a series of Letters to the Lost Boy from the Driver’ (348) and he also even adds ‘evidence of his MARTYRDOM’ (352). Dave’s own trauma is transmuted into a cultural one, deferred hundreds of years, with its origins forgotten and tragically misunderstood. In ‘On the Physical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena: Preliminary Communication (1893)’ published in Studies in Hysteria, Bruner and Freud actually state that ‘the psychical trauma—or more precisely the memory of the trauma—acts like a foreign body which long after its entry must continue to be regarded as an agent that is still at work’ (6).

  • 5 The Public Carriage Office is mandated to licence London’s taxi and private hire services, and is l (...)

13Dave’s influence is pathological. Adherents chant his runs derived originally from the Knowledge, a test set for cabdrivers which the future followers cannot understand as the context is unavailable, a situation so redolent of the many Muslims who learn the Koran in Arabic, a language they do not comprehend. Following its founder’s profession Dävinanity’s future priests are Drivers, and Self’s adapts the argot of contemporary London cabdrivers to provide both the vocabulary and rituals of these future fanatics who greet each other with the phrase ‘Ware2 guv’, and who also torture apostates and non-believers on a giant wheel. Such terror becomes intrinsic to both the ideology and practice of the theocratic state, governed by the PCO, which acronym is derived from the Public Carriage Office that tests ‘the Knowledge’ in contemporary Britain.5 And ironically this belief and its very vocabulary originates in familiar territory, the Thatcher period and the subsequent years her ‘ideology’ shaped. In this distorted context, souls are ‘fares’, adolescent women ‘opares’, ‘Dads’ refers to men, ‘chavs’ to slaves, and ‘flyers’ to heretics who are punished severely: ‘The least punishment was branding and exile, followed by the cutting out of the tongue and exile. The most severe penalty—which was frequently applied—was death. Dads were wheeled until their brain haemorrhaged, then they were disembowelled.’ (184)

14The possibility of perhaps being drawn to such appalling spectacles is precisely because of the combination of violent death is related to the sacrificial in our unconscious understanding of its potentially deeply-buried, in theological terms almost anthropological signification. As René Girard says in Violence and the Sacred (1977) ‘sacrifice contains an element of mystery.’ (1). In ‘Death and the Concept of Person’ Maurice Bloch suggests ‘such complex exchanges between life and death, intended to make the dead live and living seem to die is, and always have been, the logic of sacrifice, where the death of a victim which is both identified with, and substituted for the sacrificer, regenerates his life’ (14). Sacrifices also allow that anthropologically inscribed urge described by Bloch to unify life and death, in an elaborate ritual of memorialization. It is as if culturally one is possessed by the event, by both those who died and their traumatic end, where the medium requires a synthesis of the aesthetic and the visceral to bring back to legitimacy the moment of a spectacular ending, something in excess of meaning. Moreover, such trauma may serve to remind individuals at least unconsciously of a more atavistic state of mind and state of social being, for as Mary Douglas writes in Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo (1966) in such cultures it is believed ‘words trigger cataclysms, sometimes acts, sometimes physical conditions’ (5) and much is animated by ‘fear of malevolent spirits’ (13). Words throughout acquire new and suggestive meanings, linking the periods. Dave labels Muslim women’s burkas as ‘cloakyfings’ which his later followers apply to similar external clothing women are required to wear. In the future ‘chellish’ has clearly derived from the name of Dave’s wife, Michelle, and is used to signify ‘evil, bad, deceiving, wanton, licentious, venal’ (482). Dave’s post-uxorious misogyny has proliferated, permeating every part of the future’s mores and beliefs in Ingerland. The cohabitation of husband and wife is blasphemous, and they share childcare according to the ordained weekly ritual of the ‘Changeover’, all patterns and views derived from Dave’s ranting confessional text which reflected on the reality of separation.

15Emerging from Dave’s savage and maniacal reflections, the strictures of Dävinanity drawn from his supposedly divine text may be used to justify brutality and a brutalizing set of social and ethical codes mercilessly, reminiscent of the Taliban, certain strands of extreme Islam and life under the Spanish Inquisition or Santo Oficio de la Inquisición. This new draconian religion satisfies the archetypal mystification and empowerment indicated by Thomas Szasz in The Myth of Psychotherapy, where the psychiatrist’s role is akin to an ancient Greek priest who interprets sacred mysteries. In the future the reader follows the fortunes of youngster Carl Dévúsh (the family name a contraction of that of Cal Devenish, Michelle’s lover and Carl’s real father), who lives on the remote island of Ham (from its origins in Hampstead). Future Carl escapes to New London in a search for the father, Simon, who was sent there to be punished, and who has returned unbeknown to Carl in secret with the knowledge that the religion’s primary texts was recanted by Dave, which knowledge in this future constitutes a dangerous heresy. The quest may allow an epiphany or revelation for Carl, but finally the ending is enigmatic, with the distinct possibility that the repressive social order will essentially be unaffected, where a traumatizing repression may well triumph. In many senses such trauma is elusive, protean intensely personal, its experiences much like the experience of pain described by Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985): ‘Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language’ (4). Yet paradoxically this animates the traumatic narrative, for as Bataille exclaims in The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge ‘the idea of silence (the inaccessible) is disarming!’ (79). On Carl’s return the authorities send the Supreme Driver to oversee the destruction of the motos (childlike, genetically modified creatures who can speak and understand at the level of a child), Ham and possibly the Hamsters themselves. Carl descends to face them. ‘Carl took a deep breath. He needed no intercom to tell him this: that if it hadn’t been Dave who so blighted the world, it would’ve been some other god—Jeebus or Joey or Ali—with his own savage edicts.’ (450) As I wrote in The Contemporary British Novel finally ‘Carl’s uncertain future typifies the traumatological aesthetic, its provisionality rather than being conceptual in fact derives from immediate, attributable threats, neither playful or inchoate in any sense that matters’ (220). It looks as if Dave’s legacy will remain a savage one, a traumatic reverberation where what is inherent in the present day plays itself out in its full horror and vindictiveness in the future.

16According to Jenny Edkins in order to become traumatic an event (which presumably includes specific acts behaviourally situated) must not only involve ‘utter powerlessness’ but ‘a betrayal of trust as well’ (4). These together with Edkin’s ‘extreme menace’ and ‘threat of violence’ (4) are all elements in Smith’s most recent novel, NW. Her often impressionistically described landscape is a variously urban, determinedly post-financial meltdown and insistently quotidian, yet is at times a melancholy depiction of London. The city as experienced may be full of life, yet remains curiously low-key and dispiriting. Lynch claims in ‘Notes on City Satisfaction’ that ‘the city is continually talking to the observer, it is full of written or pictorial symbols, directing, informing, exhorting’ (147). For Smith’s characters the message is confusing, contradictory, unconvincing, a cacophony that becomes a matter of unacknowledged trauma at times. The apparent vitality of Smith’s city is mediated and transformed by the troubled inner lives of the four central characters, of whom I will concentrate on the two women with whom the reader maintains a certain level of empathy, Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake. As Boyd Tonkin says of the balance of the four central characters: ‘Two men shadow their trajectories, snakes to their ladders: Nathan, who sinks back into the street-life hustling of drugs and crime, and Felix, whose intermittent toehold on a ‘creative’ career is dislodged by the demons of addiction’ (n.p.). Despite leaving the sink estate where they all once lived, both of these less than perfect women seem determined to test their relationships with their male partners by multiple acts of deceit, unable to name their acts or articulate the fears that animate them. Effectively the two men suffer, the women perform a personal drama that seems to have its origins in traumatic experience. As Françoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudillière observe: ‘the theater of cruelty opens out where things without a name have an impact and make it necessary to find an other who is able to hear the inaudible, to put words to the unnanmable.’ (243) Both Leah and Natalie want to be understood, but cannot access a way of conveying the underlying viscerality and contradictoriness of their inner selves.

17Leah Hanwell’s degree seems radically irrelevant to her office job distributing lottery funds for, so much she wonders ‘What was the point of it all? Three years of useless study. Out of pocket, out of her depth. . . . Philosophy is listening to warbling posh boys, it is being more bored than you have ever been in your life, more bored than you though it possible to be’ (28–9). Her Afro-Caribbean colleagues have an ‘issue’ as black women with white Leah being with her handsome Nigerian (via France) husband: ‘No offence. (Brighton weekend, team-building exercise, hotel bar, 2004). What kind of issue exactly was never made clear’ (29). Leah at the opening is conned out of thirty pounds by a former pupil of the school they both attended, Shar, which moment of weakness obsesses Leah and her husband, Michel. Certainly Leah is less than completely happy in other ways, deceiving Michel, a hairdresser, who desperately wants a child while Leah is secretly taking the contraceptive pill (supplied by Natalie). And yet ironically the narrative opens on the day that she has taken a positive pregnancy test, a matter of dread. Leah reflects in an early monologue:

She fears the destination. Be objective! What is the fear? It is something to do with death and time and age. Simply: I am eighteen in my mind I am eighteen and if I do nothing if I stand still nothing will change I will be eighteen always. For always. Time will stop. I’ll never die. Very banal, this fear. Everybody has it these days. (22)

18Subsequently Leah has an abortion at a private clinic, and reflects on the difference from a previous occasion, another traumatic moment: ‘Money avoids relationship, obligation. It is quite different. Back then she was nineteen, the university nurse organized everything’ (50). However, this is not her earliest, buried traumatic moment or point of traumatic origin. Subliminally, in a half-moment of thought (51), Leah also recollects her fear of deep water, presumably a legacy of the time she almost drowned as a child and another black girl, Keisha (who later changes her name to Natalie), aged four had saved Leah, this moment of initiating a friendship forged from trauma, although aged ten Natalie misremembers the details, drawing on future knowledge of a range of familial relationships. Smith’s vocabulary indicates though the traumatic possibilities: ‘there had been an event’ (151). Smith seems to indicate an aesthetic sense of the more general more general traumatic origin akin to that which Kai Erikson describes: ‘trauma results from a constellation of life experiences as well as event’ (185). However, her childhood ‘traumatic event’ bonds the two female protagonists, and is not explicitly referred to or developed as having had any particular effect on Leah. Ironically the death of her dog (even perhaps more so than that of her father) is for Leah the most obviously traumatic event in the novel, plunging her into a depression and bringing her marriage to a crisis point.

19Natalie appears highly motivated. She has become a successful black lawyer, transforming her life after a tentative start on a council estate, and the level of her success seems to be in stark contrast to the casual lifestyle of best friend, Leah, whose progress has been less stellar in large part to an innate desire to muddle through and remain as much as she can just as she had been as an adolescent. The narrative comments of Natalie: ‘Educated herself on the floor of Kensal Rise Library while Leah smoked weed all the live-long day’ (62). As Lorentzen says:

NW is full of split selves, people alienated from the very things they thought defined them. Their nostalgia—for old movies, old songs, buses they don’t ride anymore—is less a salve than a form of pain. You can always listen to an old record, but you’ll never again be your old self. This is Smith’s grimmest novel, and may be her best.

Although in adulthood both women have changed and both have advanced themselves, there is a threat from the past from which they have separated themselves, as Boyd Tonkin indicates:

From the outset, when a crack-addled neighbour scams cash out of trusting Leah, we grasp that the ladder of mobility has been hauled up and stashed away. Yet Leah and Keisha, born (like their creator) in the mid-1970s, have both climbed it—though to very different heights. (n.p.)

20Moreover, in reality beneath the social surface about which Smith insists upon ruminating at times, the complex spaces of Natalie’s relationship to both her banker husband, Frank, and to Leah emerge as unsatisfactory, as if mal-configured, distorted in an almost unfathomable fashion.

21Natalie has become a parent of two children, but underlying the family everyone else assumes is settled are yearnings and dissatisfactions. There is an innate intensity concerning parenthood or motherhood that Smith relates to John Self when interviewed in 2012:

To me, the intense awareness of time that parenthood creates makes a different person of you, and necessarily a different writer. I hate waste of all kinds now. I hate padding. I want only essential things. . . . If I’m going to write it, it better be a necessary word. It better be essential. Because otherwise I could be hanging out with my family, which most days is about infinity times more enjoyable than struggling over a paragraph in the library. (n.p.)

22James Wood concludes that NW is Smith’s best novel to date, that it is ‘intensely English’, a text that offers: ‘the imagined, lived, tragic-comic, polyphonic reality of London—its speech, accents, dusty pavements, whining buses, gloomy offices . . ., wet parks, scandalous disparities (this is as much a book about class as about race), grim housing estates.’ (n.p.) Without disagreeing in any general sense, my reading concludes that death and sex (Thanatos and Eros), and fertility (that which implies, leads to childbirth) are central to the novel, all sites of traumatic experience. After two children have altered her life fundamentally, curiously unimpassioned erotic bodily exchanges and encounters seem to Natalie as if they might offer another spatial dimension for her existence, for it emerges that she commences setting up anonymous sexual encounters via the internet as if to relieve her boredom or stave off her underlying despair. As Christian Lorentzen writes in his aptly entitled review, ‘Why Am I So Fucked Up?’: ‘significantly, she identifies herself online as Keisha, as if trying to recover a lost, more feral self’ (n.p.). In fact her email is ‘’ and her adopted online identity is ‘‘wildinwembley’’ (259). A major crisis or trauma is precipitated for Natalie when her double life is discovered by her partner when he searches her ubiquitous laptop. She has enacted her desires and, as Lefebvre comments, social practice occurs spatially, as if it were holding sway, determining our lives. He says ‘Man does not live by words alone; all ‘subjects’ are situated in a space in which they must either recognize themselves or lose themselves, a space which they may both enjoy and modify’ (35). In this sense neither friend is in a fundamentally satisfactory relationship, yet both are regarded positively in terms of their lives and partners by others. In Lefebvre’s terms they are both lost and their modifications—anonymous group sexual encounters, avoiding parenthood by lying to one’s partner—fail to bring any resilience or happiness. If Leah acquiesces to Michel’s wish it would involve a personal sacrifice, an admission of the social requirement to mature and procreate, the death albeit a symbolic one of her younger self. Social convention and interpersonal expectations would negate the self she prefers. She finds this traumatic. And as Piotr Sztompka reflects ‘traumatizing events or situations may produce dislocations in the routine, accustomed ways of acing or thinking, changing the life-world of the people in often dramatic ways, reshaping their patterns of acting and thinking.’ (164) In this case this does not reverberate outwardly, at least not initially, and hence the women’s surface normality is essential to the intersecting traumatic structures, for as Erikson comments, ‘We are encouraged to think we can control both the best in nature and the worst in ourselves, and we continue to think so until the momentum of some adventure carries us beyond the edge of our own intelligence.’ (191)

23Boyd Tonkin insists of the novel, ‘the spectacular collisions and disjunctions of a divided city enact its author’s doubts about what kind of novelist she is—and how the novel might make sense of these jagged splits and rifts’ (n.p.). And clearly this observation is in large part correct. However, I think the experimental aspects of the novel are there to reinforce the always potentially inchoate qualities, the traumatologies of our lives, always subject to immense waves of acts of terror, criminality, death, debt, desperation, fear, poverty, suicide, unemployment, violence, wars and so forth that can be created by appalling events and the very economic systems that underpin our daily exchanges. The apparent orderliness of lives for instance is found wanting at the revelation of Natalie’s betrayal and she ends up in a crazed, guilt-ridden trek around North-West London where she encounters her past in the shape of old school acquaintance, junkie drug-dealer, Nathan Bogle, a modern-day Bill Sikes on the run after stabbing the other of Smith’s central male characters, Felix. Natalie reflects to herself ‘there is a connection between boredom and the desire for chaos. Despite many guises and bluffs she had never stopped wanting chaos’ (267). Drawing on this compulsion Natalie recognizes something inherent in the world; as Smith observes finally our epoch may well be utterly characterized by the kind of ‘sudden and total rupture’ (282), personified doubly in terms of human coordinates by the victim and perpetrator in Nathan Bogle’s violent, murderous act, relevant and yet marginal to the lives of women traumatized by the inner tensions of forging a contemporary identity. Toward the end they discuss their relative privilege over those with whom they grew up such as Felix, Nathan and Shar, with Leah still disturbed by this disconnection, but rather unsympathetically Natalie concludes ‘people generally get what they deserve’ (293). The novel ends with Leah and Natalie reconciled and identifying Nathan as a suspect, the past permeating the present, the traumatic beginning of their initial relationship reemerging: ‘Leah found the number, Natalie dialled it. It was Keisha who did the talking’ (294), reminding the reader that trauma is not only negative.

24However, whatever tentative bringing together is achieved at the end of both novels, finally both Self’s and Smith’s London fictions incorporate insistently cartographies of suffering, charting the traumatic and traumatological realities of urban selfhood, doing so to offer an understanding of how such traumas are inherent in our very selves. As François Flahault says in Malice (2003) that ‘Being decent, just and benevolent is a way of existing. Being malicious is equally a way of existing’ (167) and concludes that ‘Every form of relationship between human beings, even if it contains something intolerable, engenders an “addiction”’ (173). His comments evoke two of the dynamic understandings that frame and structure both of these post-9/11 traumatological fictions.

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Alexander, Jeffrey, Trauma: A Social Theory, Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity, 2012.

Bataille, George, Inner Experience, trans. Leslie Anne Boldt. New York: State U of New York P, 1988.

———, George, ‘Laughter’, The Bataille Reader, eds. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson, Oxford and Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997, 59–63.

———, George, /the unfinished system of non-knowledge, /ed. Stuart Kendall, eds.Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall, Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 2001.

Baudrillard, Jean, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Ian Hamilton Grant (1976), London and Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1993.

Bergmann, Martin S., ‘Reflections on September 11’, Living with Terror, Working with Trauma: A Clinician’s Handbook, ed. Danielle Knafo, Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Oxford: Jason Aronson, 2004, 401–413.

Bloch, Maurice, ‘Death and the Concept of Person’, On the Meaning of Death: Essays on Mortuary Rituals and Eschatalogical Beliefs, eds. S. Cederroth, C. Corlin and J. Lindström, Stockholm, Sweden: Almquist and Wiskett for Universitatis Upsaliensis, 1988, 11–29.

Davoine, Françoise, and Jean-Max Gaudillière, History Beyond Trauma: Whereof one Cannot Speak, Thereof One Cannot Stay Silent, trans. Susan Fairfield, New York: Other Press, 2004.

Edkins, Jenny, Trauma and the Memory of Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Erikson, Kai, ‘Notes on Trauma and Community’, Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995, 183–199.

Flahault, François, Malice, trans. Liz Heron, London and New York: Verso, 2003.

Knafo, Danielle, ‘Introduction’, Living With Terror, Working With Trauma: A Clinician’s Handbook, ed. Danielle Knafo, Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Oxford: Jason Aronson, 2004, 1–15.

Leys, Ruth, Trauma: A Genealogy, Chicago and London: Chicago UP, 2000.

Lorentzen, Christian, ‘Why Am I so Fucked Up?’, London Review of Books 34.21, 8 November 2012: 21–22,, last accessed on April 9, 2014.

Lynch, Kevin, ‘Notes on City Satisfactions’, City Sense and City Design: Writings and Projects of Kevin Lynch, eds. Tribid Banerjee and Michael Southworth (1953), Cambridge, MA. and London: MIT P, 1990, 135–153.

———, ‘The City as Environment’, City Sense and City Design: Writings and Projects of Kevin Lynch (1953), eds. Tribid Banerjee and Michael Southworth, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: MIT P, 1990, 87–95.

Neal, Arthur G. National Trauma and Collective Memory: Extraordinary Events in the American Experience, 2nd ed., Armonk, New York and London: M. E. Sharpe, 2005.

Onega, Susana and Jean-Michel Ganteau, ‘Introduction: Traumatic Realism and Romance in Contemporary British Narratives’, Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Literature, eds. Jean-Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega, New York and Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge, 2013, 1–14.

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Self, John, ‘Zadie Smith Interview’, Asylum: John Self’s Shelves, 12 Sept. 2012, , last accessed on April 9, 2014.

———, ‘Rank Outsider’, The Independent 18 May 2006,, last accessed on April 9, 2014.

———, The Book of Dave: A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future, London and New York: Viking, 2006.

———, ‘Will Self on JG Ballard’s The Drowned World’, The Telegraph 31 August 2013,, last accessed on April 9, 2014.

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1 A typical example of such criticism is to be found in Onega, Susana and Jean-Michel Ganteau’s ‘Introduction: Traumatic Realism and Romance in Contemporary British Narratives’ where they claim ‘trauma is characteristically registered as a surplus of affects that cannot be accounted for or channelled properly’ (7). As Whitehead indicates such fiction actually attempts very largely to so do.

2 William Woodard ‘Will’ Self (born 26 September 1961) is a well-known English author, journalist, cultural commentator, television personality and Professor of at Brunel University. Also an essayist and short story writer, Zadie Smith (born on 25 October 1975) is perhaps one of the most celebrated of other contemporary British novelists and a bestseller, who is currently a Professor of Fiction at New York University.

3 The Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) was founded in 1972 by Agha Hasan Abedi, a Pakistani financier. Registered in Luxembourg, head offices in Karachi and London; it became within a decade the 7th largest private bank in the world with assets in excess of US$20 billion. Investigations revealed BCCI involvement in huge money laundering and other financial crimes, and it frequently handled money for dictators such as Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Hussain Mohammad Ershad and Samuel Doe. On 5 July 1991 in seven countries branches were raided and assets locked down, after which the enterprise collapsed.

4 In ‘Rank Outsider’ Self explains what cab-drivers call the Knowledge: ‘Those who have seen The Knowledge know exactly what it is: an encyclopaedic understanding of all the London streets within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross, together with all the principal buildings and places of interest. The London cabbie is unique in the world in his mastery of this arcanum, which involves committing to memory twenty lists of sixteen “runs”, together with all their significant “points”’ (n.p.).

5 The Public Carriage Office is mandated to licence London’s taxi and private hire services, and is located at 15 Penton Street London N1 9PU.

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Philip Tew, « Will Self and Zadie Smith’s Depictions of Post-Thatcherite London: Imagining Traumatic and Traumatological Space »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 47 | 2014, mis en ligne le 23 janvier 2015, consulté le 21 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Philip Tew

Philip Tew is Professor in English (Post-1900 Literature) and Deputy Head for Research of the School of Arts at Brunel University, a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a member of the Royal Society of Literature. Among his main publications are B. S. Johnson: A Critical Reading (Manchester UP, 2001), The Contemporary British Novel (Continuum, 2004; rev. second ed. 2007), Jim Crace (Manchester UP, 2006) and, co-edited with Glyn White, Re-reading B. S. Johnson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). Tew is the founding Director of both the Modern & Contemporary Fiction Studies Network and the B. S. Johnson Society; he is also currently Director of the Brunel Centre for Contemporary Writing. More recent books have included: Zadie Smith (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); a multi-authored policy report on ageing, Coming of Age (Demos, 2011); with Nick Hubble Ageing, Narrative and Identity: New Qualitative Social Research (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013); and, with Jonathan Coe and Julia Jordan, Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B. S.Johnson (Picador, 2013).

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