July 30, 2012

"Permission to Enter"

By Zadie Smith
~9900 words

In the Kilburn neighborhood of northwest London, two girls divided by race and class are united by a traumatic event as toddlers but drift apart as they age.

The third-person narrative adopts the perspective of Keisha Blake, daughter of Jamaican immigrants who, at the age of four, saves the red-haired (and Irish) Leah Hanwell from drowning in a wading pool. The story follows Keisha's friendship with Leah through their teens and university years. It also recounts Keisha's first sexual relationship, with a Caribbean boy named Rodney Banks, whom Keisha's mother nudges her toward as a safe romantic option: "They were like siblings in every way, aside from the fact that they occasionally had sex with each other." Gradually, Keisha's ambition "to charm her way through the front door" leads her to abandon the familiarity of her roots—including Rodney—and even to adopt the more canonically English name Natalie.

The story's strength lies in the complexity of the racial relationships it portrays. The more Natalie enters the world of white power, the more alienated she becomes from her white friend Leah and the more attracted she becomes to an exotic young man she meets in a philosophy of law lecture. The description of him is worth citing at length because it embodies the racial complexity to which I am referring:
He was made of parts that Natalie considered mutually exclusive, and found difficult to understand together. He had a collection of unexpected freckles. His nose was very long and dramatic, in a style she did not know enough to call Roman. His hair was twisted into dreadlocks that were the opposite of Leah's, too pristine. They framed his face neatly, ending just below his chin. He wore chinos with no socks, and those shoes that have ropes threaded along the sides, a blue blazer, and a pink shirt. An indescribable accent. Like he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren.
The young man is Francesco De Angelis, rumored to be the product of an Italian mum and "some African prince." The remainder of the story portrays Natalie's gradual drift into his orbit, or, as the narrator quips: "There was an inevitability about the road toward each other which encouraged meandering along the route." In a satisfying denouement, a recriminating letter from Rodney accuses Natalie of selling out to Francesco: "Keisha, you talk about following your heart, but weird how your heart always seems to know which side its bread is buttered."

This story places considerable demands on the reader and may require several perusals to be fully appreciated. Told in an elliptical, postmodern manner, it's divided into sixty-seven numbered sections, each with its own title and containing such disparate contents as lists of secret desires, quotes by Nietzsche and Montaigne, menu ingredients, and obscure allusions to popular culture and current events (which will be especially obscure to non-British readers). Because of the fragmentation, the voice is unstable and vacillates between admiration and cool irony toward the main character. Major events, such as Keisha's name change to Natalie, happen with no warning. And so on.

One could argue that the complex themes of "Permission to Enter" justify its challenging form. I'm not sure I agree with that argument, as I can imagine the story told in a more conventional manner without losing much. Furthermore, the language has a few tired moments not in keeping with the postmodern style ("the one and only true reality of this world"; "the strange life journey she was preparing to undertake"; "the revolution had arrived"; etc.). Nevertheless, Smith has produced a compelling, nuanced tale noteworthy for the depth of its characters and the true-to-life messiness of their relationships.


Reader poll: I found "Permission to Enter" to be ___.

No comments:

Post a Comment