The internet is a ghastly muck-up and I wish I’d never heard of it. It is dull and time-wasting. I’m NOT paying $50 a month to subscribe to The New York Times online (which cuts me off after 10, or is it 20, free articles?), and I’m certainly not paying $30 a year to WordPress to write my own blog!
One day last year I noticed ads popping up on my blog. I gulped when I clicked on my comments and saw a big ad for Hewlett-Packard. What? I’m not writing for money. I’m not even an Amazon affiliate: I decided not to exploit my readers by sending them inadvertently to Amazon when they click on “product” (i.e., books) icons, which would tempt them to buy books, and then I would get a cut if they bought anything.
So what the hell was this Hewlett-Packard thing doing on my blog? If I were going to advertise, which I’m not, it would be for Macs.
So I searched WordPress help and learned that they can run ads any time they want unless we pay $30 a year.
Now I wasn’t happy about paying, because I was in the process of cutting up credit cards. But I thought, Oh, well, I’ll pay this one time!
Naturally I forgot all about it. It’s time to pay again.
I could go back to Blogger, which is still free.
As a matter of fact, I started Frisbee: A Book Journal in 2006 at (free!) Blogger, but after a major Blogger redesign a couple of years ago, which made posting more complicated, I decided to move to WordPress. Then I moved back to Blogger. Then I moved back to WordPress.
I am established here now. I even managed to post a picture of the Loess Hills (we bicycle there) on my banner at the top.
So I paid the $30 because I don’t want to move again. But it’s really against my principles to pay for a blog platform. Isn’t it kind of like paying for e-mail? But I’ve had a good experience here, and it does seem absurd for me to move again.
I love urban neighborhood novels. Think Margaret Drabble’s The Needle’s Eye. I love The Needle’s Eye because I like Rose’s neighborhood. I’ve lived in some teetering-on-the-brink urban neighborhoods, where people raise goats and chickens, where there are glitzy indie bookstores and home-style restaurants, where there are Rich People’s Houses and Poor People’s Houses, where there are woods and bicycle lanes, and I was thinking only today about how much I love my neighborhood while I bought gummy mini-butterflies at the candy store.
Smith’s novel is the story of four residents of northwestern London, Leah, Felix, Natalie, and Nathan. Originally from the Projects, they have achieved different levels of upward or downward mobility . Leah, a muddled, unhappy Irish-English woman, majored in philosophy at college but didn’t really understand it, has a dull job working for the Council, and desperately wants NOT to have children. Felix, a black mechanic who lived briefly in the projects as a child, spends a Joycean day visiting his weed-smoking eccentric father, telling a former addict girlfriend that he must drop her since things are going so well with his new girlfriend, Jackie, and buying a car. Leah’s oldest friend, Natalie (whose given name was Keisha), is a successful black Caribbean-English lawyer whose internet addictions are sad and shocking. Nathan is a homeless drug addict who was beloved as a child in the Projects.
Smith’s fragmented descriptions of the beauties of NW London are reminiscent of Joyce Cary’s descriptions in The Horse’s Mouth.
Here is how Felix, my favorite character, sees the neighborhood.
Trees shaggy overhead. Hedges wild over fences. Every crack in the pavement, ever tree root. The way the sun hits the top deck of the 98. The trails have grown taller outside the Jewish school, and outside the Muslim one. The Kilburn Tavern has been repainted, shiny black with gold lettering. If he hurries he may even get home before her. Lie down in that clean room, that good place. Pull her into his body. Start all over again, fresh.
But there is certainly more than urban descriptions to this surprising novel.
In a series of very short chapters, Smith manages to sketch Natalie’s life from childhood to empty professional with children and problems. She also charts the internet-phone interruptions and addictions of our culture, and the short chapters reflect that. At one point Natalie’s mother asks her (I can’t find this quote, so I’m just writing an approximation), “Did you come to look at your phone or me?”
There is the tedium of the phone, the emails, and the IMs.
But there’s something about these short chapters that grieve me.
I like to settle into a novel because I want to spend a lot of time with the characters. I don’t want to read in short grating segments.
I appreciate what Smith is trying to do, and this section reads a little like a Virginia Woolf novel translated to our century.
But it is not my FAVORITE novel of the year.
Still, I would happily put the Woolfian/Caryian(?) NW on the Booker Prize list opposite Will Self’s Joycean Umbrella. But, whoops, it didn’t make the Booker list at all. I wonder why.
Here is a link to a live Hobbit Day festival: