In our increasingly confusing modern world – a place of blurring borders and shifting identities, where our desire to be permanently connected threatens to alienate us from ourselves and each other – the tradition of the city novel feels more salient than ever. As populations grow and cities spread, so too does our fascination with high-density living and its implications, particularly in Australia, where our predilection for clustering around the coastline is giving way to unstoppable urban sprawl.
In fiction, cities become perfect microcosms of the human experience. They chart our dramas and frailties along narrow alleyways and smog-choked high streets, through dingy sublets and airy lofts, refracting our selves through our surroundings.
Interestingly, Australian fiction often seems to look the other way. Classic and contemporary novels alike, from Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright to Jennifer Mills’ Gone, explore themes of alienation and community (or lack thereof) in rural or small town settings that evoke the Australian landscape in all its forbidding might. Equally, suburbia, such as that depicted in John Charalambous’ Two Greeks and Christos Tsolkias’ The Slap, gives Australian writers ample opportunity to investigate cultural displacement or social milieu.
Of course, Australian writers still produce fine city novels. Gail Jones’ Five Bells and Charlotte Woods’ Animal People are two examples that subtly reveal the contrast between Sydney’s teeming surrounds and the complex inner lives of its residents.
But it is London that has long given writers a rich backdrop to stories of urban sprawl, although their emphasis seems to change with the times. Nineteenth-century novelists such as Charles Dickens and George Gissing explored the effects of industrialisation and the subsequent struggles of the working class – Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Gissing’s The Nether World unflinchingly show the grim lives of factory workers, child labourers and slum dwellers in London’s increasingly overpopulated, smog-choked surrounds. Contemporary novelists, however, turn their attention to more current issues, such as multiculturalism, capitalism and community.
John Lanchester’s epic Capital, and Zadie Smith’s rather less tome-like NW, offer us the London of today: a place of incredible ethnic and economic diversity, of burkas and hoodies, curries and fish and chips, cashed-up bankers and struggling single mums – the ultimate global city. In their portraits of modern London, they characterise the modern urban experience: England’s capital becomes the fictional stage on which we can all see our lives played out.
Ironically, as our urban spread and cultural diversity have increased, we seem to have become overfond of the term ‘community’ to describe any cluster of people who may, however tangentially, be connected by their geography, hobbies or beliefs. Capital and NW may be fiction, but they address a modern condition that’s very real for urban dwellers everywhere: the paradoxically widening gap between our geographic and emotional closeness, and our growing lack of real community.
Smith’s work often broaches the many ethnic, cultural and class divides that complicate our lives today. Her debut novel, White Teeth, is a sprawling, witty saga that follows two London-dwelling friends, Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and Englishman Archie Jones, and their families. The 2005 Orange Prize-winning On Beauty, is a deft retelling of Forster’s Howard’s End, its characters – two mixed- race families living and working in Boston and London – negotiating the inevitable clash between their differing cultural backgrounds and personal values.
Both novels offer a critique of contemporary Western culture and the vexed question of belonging and attempting to forge a place in an urban community. It’s an approach with which many Australian writers, particularly those who are the children or grandchildren of immigrants, are familiar; Australian–Vietnamese writer Nam Le’s award-winning 2008 short-story collection, The Boat, is one example that crosses international borders as it explores issues of cultural division and identity. Smith comes from a working-class background, with Jamaican and British heritage. While she ‘grew up in a community in which nothing could be more normal than a mixed-race girl’, she also acknowledged in a recent Telegraph interview that for many people in the UK, ‘being black is a political statement’. Race aside, NW is perhaps a broader exploration of the distance you can put between yourself and your roots without physically leaving them behind.
The novel sees Smith return to her home territory of Willesden. In her interlocking narratives of four young Londoners from the grim Caldwell council estate, Smith gives us a sombre portrait of how what ostensibly unites us – our class, our background, our postcode – can also divide us.
This is particularly so for Leah and Natalie, best friends since the age of four. Now, Leah works for a not-for-profit organisation and still lives in Caldwell; Natalie, on the other hand, earns megabucks as a lawyer and lives in a huge house just far enough away from her childhood home to constitute a hefty leap up the socio-economic ladder. She’s become the kind of person who serves heirloom tomato salad at dinner parties, one of the many things that stoke the fire of Leah’s resentment. ‘She looks up at her best friend, Natalie Blake, and hates her.’
But for all her accusatory belief that Natalie has somehow abandoned her roots, Leah is perhaps as adrift as her erstwhile friend. In the book’s opening scene, Leah answers her doorbell and falls for a common scam: a local woman, Shar, begs her for cab money so she can rush to visit her ill mother in a nearby hospital. The tale is a ruse; nonetheless, Leah unquestioningly hands over the cash. She is ‘as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries’, but it’s a faith that doesn’t win her any sense of belonging. She seems forever out of place: embarrassed by the comfort of her council flat in Shar’s presence, bored by the upper-middle-class banter of Natalie’s tedious social gatherings, and the only white woman in her office, where her colleagues – ‘From St Kitts, Trinidad, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, India, Pakistan’ – joke and laugh in ‘some shared knowledge of their sex to which Leah is not party’.
Natalie endures her own version of this problem. Whereas Leah is beset by worries and insecurities, Natalie is curiously absent from her own life, spending most of it ‘wondering whether she herself in fact had any personality at all or was in fact only the accumulation and reflection of all the things she had read in books and seen on television’. Indeed, London itself is a kind of vast and bewildering accumulation and reflection, a crazed mishmash of cultures and peoples and experiences: ‘Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock…Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World.’
NW’s London is an almost aggressive, visceral presence in her story, both backdrop to, and partial cause of, the crises endured by Smith’s quartet – the city and its people are inextricably connected. Compare this with how Australian cities have been characterised in some recent contemporary fiction – less visible, evoking urban living in a way that’s not so specific to a particular postcode. Emily Maguire’s 2009 novel Smoke in the Room follows three housemates struggling to deal with life’s endless complications, and while its western Sydney setting is certainly apt due to the area’s diverse population, Maguire noted in a Crikey interview that her story’s backdrop ‘could have been a few cities’. Gail Jones’ Five Bells is undoubtedly a Sydney novel – how its characters respond to their surroundings (most notably Circular Quay, where the novel opens) is a fundamental part of the narrative – but the city becomes secondary to the protagonists’ internal experiences.
Everyone in NW seems torn between accepting their roots and wanting to escape them, between a longing for community and an inability to find one. Ultimately, they face the same problems as Jones’ or Maguire’s characters, albeit in a more powerfully iconic setting. NW evokes the arbitrary and anonymous nature of city living, and how easily our internal experiences undo our geography and class ties.
Capital addresses the question of alienation on a larger scale: John Lanchester takes us to Pepys Road, a place with such a desirable postcode that owning a house there is like ‘being in a casino in which you were guaranteed to be the winner’. Drawing us into the lives of those who live and work in this little corner of London, we’re shown how much more than bricks and mortar separates us from our neighbours.
Capital represents a departure from Lanchester’s early fiction, at least in form: The Debt to Pleasure and Mr Philips are character studies with more concentrated time-spans; Fragrant Harbour, published in 2002, weaves together the voices and stories of multiple characters over several decades of British rule in Hong Kong. But like Smith, Lanchester keeps returning to themes that exemplify our modern condition: alienation, identity and the myth of urban community.
As its title might suggest, Capital also addresses the effects of the global financial crisis and our doomed love affair with credit and material goods. Australian writer Elliot Perlman also tackles the latter in Three Dollars, a novel set in Melbourne exploring the effects of economic rationalisation in the late 1990s. Just as Perlman uses the experiences of one family to illuminate his themes, so Lanchester uses the lives of ordinary city dwellers (although on a larger urban stage) to explore the contradictions between our social and emotional selves.
Lanchester’s ambitiously large cast in Capital represent all kinds of ethnic and class backgrounds: there’s Zbiegniew, the taciturn Polish builder who makes his living renovating for the rich and day trading on the side; Quentina, a Zimbabwean refugee working illegally as a parking inspector, and who is, consequently, ‘the most unpopular woman on Pepys Road’; Smitty, ‘performance and installation artist and all-round art world legend’, whose anonymous contributions to the city’s cultural landscape are suspiciously reminiscent of Banksy; his grandmother Petunia, who has lived in the same house for 80 years and whose kitchen is like ‘time travel to 1958’; and, of course, the inevitably grating rich people: an investment banker whose failure to get a seven- figure bonus represents the worst kind of crisis, and his oblivious and lavish wife.
Many of these characters – particularly those who work on Pepys Road, but live elsewhere and come from a different country entirely – grapple with the concept of home. London, for them, is a place of transit, a means to an end. For Zbiegniew, it’s a way to earn enough money to build a comfortable life for himself back in Poland; for Quentina, it’s a refuge (however lacking in comfort) from the political turmoil of her own country.
Even for those who are London born and bred, such as Petunia, the city’s rapidly accelerating pace of life and unrelenting sensory assaults are a source of increasing anxiety and dislocation. Visiting her doctor’s office on the 18th floor of a tower block, Petunia realises that:
every other person seemed to have a clear idea of where they were going and of how to get there and a keen sense of their own rightness about the need to get there in a hurry, which was daunting for Petunia who had none of these things except an awareness that she needed to find the lifts.
This fish-out-of-water sensation seems an inescapable part of modern life. In Charlotte Woods’ Animal People, set in Sydney over the course of a single day, browbeaten zoo employee Stephen finds himself increasingly frustrated and blinkered by his rather grim urban milieu (‘this was the problem with living in Norton. It was full of fucking nutters’) as he endures the longest day of his life. Woods and Lanchester share a wry comic tone and unerring eye for capturing that special kind of alienation that ironically strikes when you are surrounded by others.
In a broader reflection of their multiple displacements, the lives of Lanchester’s characters rarely intersect: paradoxically, what does unite them (in circumstance only) is a curious campaign of anonymous postcards that begin arriving in their letterboxes, each featuring images of its recipient’s home and the cryptic message We Want What You Have.
It’s an ironically misplaced sentiment: as the postcards keep coming, their addressees deal with numerous crises, large and small, from career changes to illness to visits from dreaded mothers-in-law; significantly, they negotiate these private dramas largely without crossing paths. Their connections are fleeting or circumstantial, orchestrated by chance and not community: each person’s home is their own universe, and rarely are the boundaries breached.
Lanchester’s own experience clearly informs the novel. In an interview with Richard Fidler on 612 ABC, Lanchester – who was born in Germany, grew up in Hong Kong and now lives in London – admits that his sense of ‘fromness’ is ‘fairly thin’. This isn’t uncommon, in a world where many of us now move freely from country to country or city to city. The consequences, as Lanchester sees it, are that people no longer derive a sense of community from simply living next door to one another. It’s not just a London thing, he believes, but more widely representative of life today: a ‘sense of dislocation’ that’s become ‘a condition of modernity’.
This leads us back, full circle, to the vexed question of locating a fixed identity in a world that is constantly on the move. Increasingly, like much of the cast of Capital, we no longer live in the places that we come from; on the flipside, like Smith’s quartet in NW, many of us who remain on home ground become emotionally or economically removed from it. In these variable circumstances, community itself takes on a state of flux, shifting and ebbing in time to our changing needs and wants.
There’s no better mirror with which to show us the changing nature of our lives than fiction. London – ‘the microcosm of the world’, according to Lanchester, with its diaspora populations and international influence and iconic place on the global map – is an ideal backdrop to stories of displacement and identity and imagined community. Equally, Australian city novels, while they might have a more subtly rendered sense of place, tell the same tales of alienation, evoke the same confounding experience of urban isolation.
Ultimately, novels like Capital and NW speak to us with heart and soul about what dry social commentary can only disclose. And while both novels show us the less desirable aspects of our urban existence – the splintering of true community, the inevitability of displacement, even as we can reach out and touch our neighbours – their stories don’t mean that thriving urban communities can’t or don’t exist. Rather, they should prompt us to consider that our perception of community, like the thing itself, must evolve; that in the wake of our changing lives, our idea of urban togetherness could be different to the reality, which may function in more complex and elusive ways than we imagine or want to believe.