Coming of Age on the Council Estate

In recent months, three of Britain’s most important writers have published new novels. J. K. Rowling’s earnest The Casual Vacancy, Martin Amis’s comic Lionel Asbo, and Zadie Smith’s ambitiously ...

In recent months, three of Britain’s most important writers have published new novels. J. K. Rowling’s earnest The Casual Vacancy, Martin Amis’s comic Lionel Asbo, and Zadie Smith’s ambitiously experimental NW differ from one another in a good many ways, but they converge in their focus on a single subject: council housing. Like public housing in the United States, council housing in Britain is the place where the government has responded most visibly to poverty—and also the place, during Thatcherite privatization, where neoliberalism most visibly attacked the welfare state. In setting their novels in council housing, then, Rowling, Amis, and Smith not only grapple with the persistence of poverty in Britain, but also consider the fate of the welfare state under the neoliberalism of our own day.

When J. K. Rowling announced that she would follow the fabulously popular Harry Potter series with a novel for adults, the publishing world hoped for another blockbuster. The bookstore buyers spoke of a crime novel or a mystery; Rowling’s publicist promised a comedy. And indeed, the opening chapters of The Casual Vacancy could have been written by Barbara Pym. They’re set in Pagford, a timeless English village complete with manor house and village green and a parish council that awards certificates for cycling safety: when the death of one of the councillors, Barry Fairbrother, prompts a special election, it seems, at first, as if we’re in for some light satire of village politics.

But Rowling’s ambitions are larger than that. We soon learn that the parish council is actually preoccupied with more serious problems, those posed by the Fields, a nearby council estate. The cozy nostalgia of the novel’s opening chapters gives way to unsparing realist detail as Rowling describes a place where fathers abuse their children, mothers are addicted to drugs, and the death rate rivals that of a nation at war. Pagford is yoked to the Fields by a political arrangement that makes the village responsible for maintaining the council estate and permits the children of the council estate to attend the village school. Many villagers had long bridled at this arrangement, but Fairbrother had defended it and done what he could to strengthen the ties between these two very different worlds. His sudden death creates an opening for those parish councillors who have always wanted to cut government spending on the council estate, a desire that has only gained in force, Rowling emphasizes, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The special election thus divides the village into two factions: pro- and anti-Fields. At stake in the election is the question of whether the children of the Fields will continue to attend the Pagford schools and whether an addiction clinic will be closed.

The novel’s politics are clear: Rowling is on the pro-Fields side. She wants to teach her readers to sympathize with those in council housing. “A lot of otherwise intelligent people” fail to understand, she explained in a recent interview, that the poor “might have had such different life experiences that their choices and beliefs and behaviours would be completely different.”1 In order to increase our understanding of those who are different from us, Rowling has her omniscient narrator move from character to character, showing us what each is thinking and feeling. It’s a common novelistic technique, and Rowling deploys it with her customary efficiency, but little imagination. We see the world through the eyes of dedicated social workers and cynical politicians, a miserably depressed teenage girl and the bully who torments her on the back of the bus, and we learn, unsurprisingly, that each of them has reasons for acting as they do.

In addition to creating sympathy for the poor, Rowling also wants to shore up support for the welfare state.

Rowling is most strenuously sympathetic when it comes to Krystal Weedon, a young woman from the Fields who attends the Pagford school. Raucous and crude, her track pants hanging well below her thong, Krystal lets her male classmates feel her up during the math lesson and punches her female classmates in the face. She seems to embody all that is most pathological about the Fields, but Rowling takes care to show us what motivates the seeming pathology. When Krystal screams racial slurs at a Sikh girl, it’s because she believes the girl’s mother was responsible for the death of Krystal’s beloved gran; when she deliberately tries to get pregnant, it’s because she knows of no other way to secure an apartment of her own, away from her heroin-addled mother and her mother’s drug-dealing pimp. Even Krystal’s mother turns out—no surprise!—to have reasons of her own: heroin is her only way of forgetting her long-ago rape by her father.

In addition to creating sympathy for the poor, Rowling also wants to shore up support for the welfare state. She famously donated a million pounds to the Labour party in 2008, and she’s explained in interviews that her novel is particularly relevant now that the Tories are back in power. Rowling defends the welfare state, in part, by rehearsing familiar arguments, placing set-piece speeches in the mouths of her characters, who bandy about statistics somewhat awkwardly. But she also defends the welfare state by sketching a story of upward mobility. Or rather, Fairbrother does. As part of Fairbrother’s ongoing campaign to secure support for the Fields, he had begun writing a newspaper article about Krystal, trying to show the difference that attending the village school had made in her life. In writing about Krystal, Fairbrother was really writing about himself: he, too, had grown up in the Fields, and the village school is what saved him, enabling him to become a prosperous and happy banker.

It might seem odd to use a story of upward mobility to defend the welfare state, since upward mobility stories focus on individual agency and individual outcomes while the welfare state focuses on groups and structural forces. But read properly, upward mobility stories teach us that, as Bruce Robbins has argued, no one ever rises alone. In the great nineteenth-century bildungsromans, protagonists are always assisted by other people: Pip in Great Expectations has a mysterious benefactor, Jane Eyre has a rich uncle, and the eager young men from Stendhal’s and Balzac’s provinces all have worldly-wise Parisiennes. In the twentieth-century versions of the upward mobility story, most commonly found in memoirs and film, the role of benefactor is instead most commonly performed by some part of the government, whether it be welfare agencies or public universities or the FBI in The Silence of the Lambs. Thus the nineteenth-century stories make the case for assistance, the twentieth-century ones show that it comes most efficiently from the government, and together, Robbins argues, they secure support for the welfare state.

Stories like this, however, can no longer be told, and not just because Fairbrother died before he was done. By the time Krystal arrives at the school, her right to be there is no longer certain, and the addiction clinic that her mother needs even more urgently is about to be shut down. Rowling can’t show us how institutions help the poor to rise, only how the dismantling of them further immiserates the poor. In The Casual Vacancy, then, Rowling writes the troubled epilogue to the long tradition Robbins has identified, showing us what happens to the story of upward mobility now that the welfare state is coming undone.

Rowling does this competently enough, but at the cost of the novel’s other ambitions. The publishing world may have hoped for a blockbuster, but Rowling hoped for something else. It’s no coincidence that Fairbrother shares a name with the kindly vicar from Middlemarch: Rowling is attempting to write a Middlemarch for our day, complete with a local election that crystallizes national trends, an insistence on the power of sympathy, and a plot that turns on local gossip, here posted on the village website. In rewriting the most famously serious novel in the English tradition, Rowling reveals her desire to be seen as a serious novelist in her own right. But whereas she had once, in drawing on the classics of children’s fantasy, transcended her models and made the genre her own, here her efforts never rise above the well-intentioned, the dutiful, the dull.

The subtitle to Martin Amis’s new novel, “State of England,” harkens back to an earlier moment in literary history. In the 1840s, after the industrial revolution had destroyed customary social arrangements and left the poor at the mercy of an unchecked capitalism, a number of novelists responded to what they called “the condition of England.” Depicting the sufferings of the poor in vivid detail, those novels prompted parliamentary investigations and new labor laws. And in this way, they, like the upward mobility stories Robbins describes, played a role in preparing people to accept a welfare state. In Lionel Asbo, Amis nods to this genre from time to time. Each of the novel’s four sections concludes with passages that pull back from the events of the plot and report on conditions in council towers more generally, from the radioactive waste that rings them and seeps into the groundwater to the obese children suffering from malnutrition.

Most of the novel is written in a comic mode, however, and Amis uses the phrase “state of England” to mark moments when his satire is most broad. “State of England,” one character barks when learning that another plans on naming his baby “Lovechild”; “that’s England,” another sighs when he learns that the vogue for MILFs has spawned a fad for GILFs (the G stands for Grannies). But nothing, for Amis, captures the state of this satirized England more clearly than the council towers of Diston and their most notorious product, the titular Lionel. Lionel earned his first “anti-social behaviour order,” an innovation of New Labour policing, just after his third birthday, and commemorated that achievement when he turned eighteen by changing his last name to “Asbo.” His precocious and insouciant criminality perfectly embodies the council estate as Amis describes it: a place where weddings culminate in melees that land scores of guests in jail and where grandmothers have only a little compunction about sleeping with their grandsons (“round here, I mean, it’s not considered that bad”).

It’s possible to discern a political argument in all of this. Amis’s satire, no less than Rowling’s realism, reveals a pathological culture of poverty.

The novel gives us two intertwined stories of upward mobility, those of Lionel and of his nephew, Desmond Pepperdine. Living in council housing, Desmond is not of it. The typical passage from boyhood to manhood in Diston is a series of increasingly violent crimes punctuated by stints in increasingly severe prisons, but Desmond yearns to follow a more respectable path. He knows that he can’t rely on his uncle Lionel for guidance, and the local school offers no more help, its teachers having been replaced by “learning mentors” and “lifestyle consultants.” Nonetheless, Desmond manages, with some help from newspapers and a grammar book, to make his way in the world. He attends university, then establishes himself in a respectable career; he marries a sweet young woman, who gives birth to a baby even more sweet. It’s possible to discern a political argument in all of this. Amis’s satire, no less than Rowling’s realism, reveals a pathological culture of poverty. But where Rowling believes that such a culture can be reformed through more government intervention, Amis implies that no institution can make a difference, only the hard work and initiative of unusual individuals. It’s a familiar enough argument, but he doesn’t bother to make it convincingly.

The story that Amis is actually interested in telling is the parallel story of Lionel. Halfway through the novel, Lionel suddenly wins 140 million pounds in the lottery and begins his own improbable rise. He indulges in celebrity life for a while, finding a home in a hotel that caters to those celebrities (recently imprisoned actors, recently addicted models, reality TV stars) whose displays of “anti-social behaviour” are considered “a civic virtue.” After a few weeks of this, Lionel attacks a reporter to secure his return to prison, where he feels more at ease, and while there becomes involved in the world of finance: constantly on the phone with the team of investors he’s assembled, he shouts ever more reckless orders to buy and sell in the commissary, in the exercise yard, on the toilet in his cell, making more and more money with each one. Finally released from prison, Lionel buys a country estate and becomes more English than the most English gentleman. Attended by a woman wearing a Union Jack bikini, he proclaims his patriotic attachment to his nation. “I’ll never set foot outside my motherland. Well, Scotland and that. You know, maybe Wales. But I’m not going over that water, mate. I love this f***ing country. It’s England, my England, for Lionel Asbo.”

It’s hard to tell what Amis intends by all of this, since the novel’s satires of celebrity, finance, and nationalism are as unoriginal as the satire of the welfare state is underdeveloped. Conveniently, Amis has clarified his intentions in recent interviews. Lionel personifies, for him, the general triumph of the low in an England still struggling with the loss of empire. “The whole philosophy that we call ‘pc,’ levelism, cultural relativism and so on has been tremendously handy for England,” he argues, “because it got us through the loss of Empire.”2 Whether or not this analysis is true, its edge is blunted by the fact that no one delights in Lionel more than Amis himself. Dismissing Desmond as the “best-behaved” of his characters, Amis confesses that he has an “almost erotic affection” for Lionel.3 And he expects his readers to share that affection. But while there may be some humor in Lionel’s feeding his attack dogs a diet of Tabasco sauce and rogan josh or celebrating a pregnancy with gifts of sushi and cigarettes, there’s no humor at all in the scenes of Lionel beating the sneers off the faces of D[ivorcées]ILFs who pursue him—or in his having arranged the gang rape of a teenage boy who displeased him. There’s no surer sign that the state of England is not good than a novel that plays such things for laughs.

In recent years, Zadie Smith has established herself as one of our most important critics of the novel—in particular, of what she has famously identified as the genre’s two paths. The dominant path, which Smith calls “lyrical realism,” makes a familiar progress through realism (Jane Austen and George Eliot) and modernism (James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov), arriving finally at that mixture of realism and modernism that typifies literary fiction today (Joseph O’Neill and Smith herself). The alternate path is much less familiar, belonging to a quirky set of authors, among them Georges Perec and Georges Bataille, J. G. Ballard and Tom McCarthy. These are the writers we call “experimental,” and what unites their experiments, Smith argues, is precisely their skepticism about lyrical realism. They do not share the lyrical realist faith in “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth,” and, most importantly for Smith, “the essential fullness and continuity of the self,” and they therefore, Smith has come to feel, offer a much-needed counterbalance to a too-dominant lyrical realism.4 Thus far, Smith is simply repeating the warmed-over poststructuralism that has influenced some of these experimental authors, but her essay gives their critique of lyrical realism a striking political twist. The exploration of a full and continuous self has become a problem because it now substitutes, she suggests, for political action. “These are tough times for Anglo-American liberals,” she observes, referring to the war on terror. “All we’ve got left to believe in is ourselves.”

Smith returns to this claim and develops it in her most recent novel. NW focuses on three characters who are rising or have risen from council housing and explores what their stories look like when narrated in varieties of lyrical realism—or in an experimental alternative. The novel’s first section, which gives us a summer in the life of Leah Hanwell, is written in lyrical realism of a modernist variety. The section is quite challenging to read, made up of a Joycean stream of consciousness (“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.”) interspersed with passages of unattributed dialogue and descriptive passages that splash like prose poems across the page.

But however difficult this first section may be, it’s not experimental by Smith’s terms, since it is committed to exploring the self—in this case, the self of a person descending into an almost dissociative depression. Leah is depressed, Smith suggests, because she is unwilling to embrace motherhood. “How long did you think you could avoid me?” demands the centuries-old Madonna in the church Leah visits in a kind of fever dream. “Did you hope for something else? Were you misinformed?”

But there is another way of understanding Leah’s depression: in terms of her almost accidental rise. Dragged from council housing to a semidetached house by her mother’s ferocious energy, Leah is now married to a man, an African immigrant, who is equally committed to rising: they have already secured a car and a flat, and he now yearns for a house and a child. “I am always moving forward,” he repeats, “thinking of the next thing.” Leah’s insistence on standing still, her hope that nothing will change, covertly resist this celebration of upward mobility, and this is a resistance that the novel in general shares.

The novel’s second section, which gives us a day in the life of Felix Cooper, is written in a more pedestrian register of lyrical realism. After a decade spent dealing drugs and trying to break into film, Felix is seeking to lead a more respectable life. He has decided to break up with his old girlfriend, the drug-addicted niece of an earl, in order to commit more fully to his new one, the hardworking daughter of Nigerian immigrants. The new girlfriend speaks the language of rising, satirized in the slogan she lives by: “Never. Ignorant. Getting. Goals. Accomplished.” Felix has his doubts about her advice, skeptical that making a list of what he wants to receive from the universe will secure him more hours at his new job. But he dutifully recommends to others the self-help book she has recommended to him. “You know who reads this book?,” he repeats, “Bill Gates. The Mafia. The Royal family. Bankers. Tupac read it. Jewish people read this book.” This section is a tonal masterpiece, balancing Smith’s sharp satire of the discourses of upward mobility with a real sympathy for the lives she has captured in precise realist detail.

But even as Smith reproduces the story of welfare state upward mobility, she estranges that story through the section’s experimental form.

After these two sections, Smith turns from lyrical realism to an experimental alternative. This section gives us a story of upward mobility like the one that Rowling’s Fairbrother had tried to write. It follows Keisha Blake, the child of Jamaican immigrants, as she develops from a five-year-old child in council housing to a commercial barrister with a banker husband, two children, and an outrageously expensive house. Keisha believes that she rose because she “worked harder” and was “smarter” and always knew that she didn’t “want to end up begging on other people’s doorsteps.” But Smith shows us that Keisha’s hard work and ambition would not have been enough without assistance. Keisha’s rise is smoothed by government scholarships that enable her to attend university and a “very effective diversity scheme” that secures her admittance to one of the inns at court; it is hindered when there is no travel money for her to interview at universities outside of London, nor a stipend to support her during her unpaid pupillage year.

But even as Smith reproduces the story of welfare state upward mobility, she estranges that story through the section’s experimental form. This section is divided into 189 fragments, narrative episodes intermixed with social commentary, all narrated in a chilly voice that might or might not be Keisha’s own. The result is the fragmenting of what lyrical realism depends on, the full and continuous self. In part, this fragmentation is meant to register the psychic damage done by upward mobility. Keisha first recognizes this damage in the other young woman who leaves their council tower to attend university. A math genius, this woman breaks down just before graduation, refusing to attend class, refusing even to eat. She breaks down, Keisha understands, because she “had been asked to pass the entirety of herself through a hole that would accept only part.” Keisha herself has no trouble passing through; she is ready to jettison everything, and that’s why she succeeds. Casting off old attributes and assuming new ones, identity comes to feel like a costume: “Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag.” It’s hardly a surprise when Keisha starts styling herself, halfway through university, Natalie. By recounting Keisha’s rise in fragmented episodes that mirror a fragmented self, Smith suggests that the story of welfare state upward mobility might not have a happy ending.

But even if that story did have a happy ending, even if Keisha happily became Natalie, Smith would still dissent. And that’s because she sees upward mobility as contributing to the widespread celebration of the self that has come, in her view, to substitute for politics. Keisha used to be politically active, protesting the war in Bosnia and arranging to drive an ambulance there herself; Leah used to be active as well, dropping out of university to join other environmental activists sitting in trees. But now “only the private realm existed,” Keisha recognizes, “Work and home. Marriage and children.” Worse, the achievements of the private realm have come to seem political in themselves. This becomes clear when Keisha gathers for brunch with her upwardly mobile friends. Lingering over their coffee, reflecting on how far they’ve come, they think

They were all four of them providing a service for the rest of the people in the café, simply by being here. They were the “local vibrancy” to which the estate agents referred. For this reason, too, they needn’t concern themselves too much with politics. They simply were political facts, in their very persons.

Smith wants to restore a vision of the political beyond the personal, but she’s hard-pressed to find one. At one point, she gestures toward a critique of globalization, telling us that Keisha grapples, in her work as a barrister, with the border dispute in Kashmir, but only insofar as it relates to shipping Japanese stereos to India by way of Dubai. At another point, Smith gestures toward a critique of capitalism more generally, noting that the eighties were the decade in which Evian found a way to sell water and Nike, air. These gestures, however, remain only that.

But if Smith fails to give us a politics adequate to our present neoliberal moment, who can blame her? She brilliantly succeeds at the other task she has set herself, finding a way to reconcile the novel’s two paths. Confirming her mastery of lyrical realism and revealing a new formal inventiveness, NW shows Smith to be not only one of our most important critics of the novel, but also one of our most important novelists. icon

  1. Sarah Crown, “Class and Council Estates,” Guardian, September 22, 2012.
  2. Mick Brown, “Martin Amis: over-60 and under-appreciated,” Daily Telegraph, June 10, 2012.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Zadie Smith, “Two Paths for the Novel,” New York Review of Books, November 20, 2008.