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The Desire of Common Sense (co-written with Natalie Schall)

pialikesowls's picture

We all have ideal stories for book characters. When we see a character struggling, common sense takes over and forces the reader to think about how their story should be happening. Zadie Smith’s NW refuses to allow the reader have this perfect story, and instead defies the flawlessness of common sense for all characters.

From a common sense point of view, Felix would be perfectly happy in his relationship and sure that it’s right for him, without having to check that he loves Grace because he doesn’t like sex with other women anymore. In a perfect world, he would separate himself from anything to do with Annie, his ex-girlfriend with whom he still has sex and meaningful conversations with.

It isn’t that Felix is not happy with Grace, just that he’s not as happy as he could be. She is not his true love, but she is good enough that he can feel content and safe spending the rest of his life with her. Especially after going back to Annie and double checking that Grace is, indeed, seemingly better for his sake.

Grace gives Felix a way up on the social ladder. Felix grew up in poverty, in a relatively bad neighborhood. Grace pulls Felix up, not to the level that Natalie grew with Frank, but just high enough that he feels more high-class but is still comfortable with his place in society. Annie would have kept Felix at the same level if he had stayed with her, and this is perhaps why he left her. And why he was ultimately still uninterested in her after he visited her. He had to check that he didn’t still feel things for her, and that he was making the right decision by staying with Grace, that Grace really did pull him farther up than he could ever get on his own.

Another way Felix advanced was that he decided to be sober and maintained sobriety despite him being offered alcohol twice. This may have been a reason why he felt so disgusted by Annie – she made no effort to leave such things behind, and when he did, he knew that he couldn’t stay with someone who’d just keep right on harming herself with “coke, weed, drinks [and] pills” (173).

Straying from our original, common sense definition of the relationship that Felix should have (easy, uncomplicated, without need for double checking his feelings), we find that his relationship is in fact far more complicated. It seems as if he is in the relationship with Grace not just for the relationship itself, but for what the relationship can do for him. Grace might be a safety net from the troubles that Annie has caused; however, there is a large hole in the net that keeps leading him back to her. This flaw in the net is preventing Felix from properly dedicating himself to Grace and moving on from his past with Annie. While it seems as if Felix might be much happier and complete with Annie, describing his time with her as a “not-yet-invented process called particle transfer, wonderfully, blissfully light” (189), he realizes that his “serious” (174) relationship with Grace is much more beneficial to his overall self-being.

Natalie’s relationship, if she lived in a common sense world, would find her happy with her handsome, rich husband and cute children, living in high society. We would see her stripped of her past life, full of poverty and hardships. She would be Natalie; not Keisha.

Natalie tries to figure out how to be just Natalie, but she does not know how to identify herself. She has two very distinct “personalities”, or ways to act around people: Natalie, upper class, sophisticated, and put together, and Keisha, tough and raised in poverty. Even with these two options, she doesn’t know how to act like herself. She feels as if everyone around her has their lives figured out, and has the desire to be the same way. As a result, she resorts to placing ads on the Internet, looking for sex partners. Despite feeling that she is the “Keisha” part of her personality, and that she can do whatever she wants to under that guise, she is only successful at following through with her idea of having a threesome when she feels at her most vulnerable, after a day spent with her kids, unsure of what to do with them. She feels “trapped in a white painted box with two mysterious black-eyed others” (348).

Natalie tries to hide from this feeling by going to have sex with two young men. But this eventually backfires, when her husband, Frank, finds her emails and asks “Who are you?” (354). Neither Natalie nor Keisha can answer this question; she might know who she wants to be, but not who she is at the current moment. This might be the reason for her promiscuity and experimentation with sex. She knows that she doesn’t want to be Keisha and wants to be Natalie, but doesn’t yet know who Natalie is. The last time Natalie knew who she was, she was sixteen years old and Leah had given her a dildo. Because of this, Natalie seems to think that if she could only achieve that degree of sexual freedom again, she would once again know who she was. She does not want to escape back to her past, but to feel like she knows herself again, as she did when she was younger.

Natalie is cannot even explain who she is to her best friend Leah. Leah wants Natalie to not be perfect, so that she can feel better about her own life falling to pieces. “The perfect gift at this moment [would be] an honest account of her own difficulties and ambivalences, clearly stated, without disguise, embellishment or prettification. But Natalie Blake’s instinct for self-defense, for self-preservation, was simply too strong” (399). Although Leah and Natalie have known each other for most of their lives, Natalie still cannot admit that Leah might realize she and her relationship are not always perfect. Natalie wants everyone who knows her to believe that she has her life together, but inside she could not be farther from that state.

If we try to look at Natalie’s relationship from the common sense point of view, we find, again, just like with Felix, her relationships are much more complicated than you’d expect. Natalie, with her lack of identity and vulnerability, hides behind a façade of what she believes would be her ideal persona. Felix, with his attempt to hide his past and proudly display his seemingly healthy relationship with Grace, can’t assert his future until he figures out his past and stops trying to mask it.