Zadie Smith, in a recent Granta interview, mused that "the problem of life is basically: I only have one and it moves in one direction. People tend to seek all kinds of solutions to that dilemma, and the anonymity of technology has offered us a new kind of 'out.'"
I scribbled this on a piece of paper, so that I could see those words when I wasn’t working on my computer, and thought about my own novel. As I write it, I'm obsessed by the question of identity: how the self is defined, and divided.
I was once asked why my bookshelf had barely any titles published before 1950. My answer, then and now: I'm less interested in the theodicy of The Inferno or the social mores of Madame Bovary than I am in the perceptual miasma of American Psycho and the personal struggle for authenticity in Tom McCarthy's Remainder.
The philosophers to read on personal identity and the self — Derek Parfit and Thomas Nagel and Galen Strawson — are on my shelf, too. They all discuss identity from a personal point of view. Take Parfit’s thought-experiment: If I am perfectly replicated, down to my memories, on Mars, and my original Earthbound body is simultaneously destroyed, is my identity — memories and consciousness and all — continuous from one body to the other? (For the answer as well as further complications, read part 3 ofReasons and Persons.)
My question isn’t Am I the same person in these cases? so much as Do other people think I am the same person?
These problems are at the heart of Smith's novel, NW. They're not new problems, but she presents a relatively new solution: the Internet. Her characters change names, take on new virtual identities. The inverse, identity theft, is just as compelling: Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply (and let's not forget The Talented Mr. Ripley) exploits the divide between the self we experience and the self other people perceive.
Whether multiple people are occupying the same identity, or one person is shifting between many identities, the allure for readers is the same: the inside does not match the outside, and one person has to struggle to keep up — or confront — the lie.
We keep reading because we believe the truth will out. Oedipus is one of the oldest stories of mistaken identity, and we feel weirdly vindicated when the king realizes the real relationship between himself and Jocasta. But it took gods and prophets to bring out the truth; we have no such props in the arsenal of postwar fiction. We are more like The Man Who Folded Himself, watching helplessly as the same person splits in two, four, a hundred...
So we wait and watch for our characters to betray themselves? I certainly do. I want Adam Gordon in Leaving the Atocha Station to admit that he does not know Spanish. I want Patrick Bateman in American Psycho to realize whether he is hallucinating or not. I want Julius in Open City to acknowledge the horrible act his old friend accuses him of.
I want the truth; I suspect we all do. We want to see two lives collapse back into one. Maybe it will show us how to collapse the identities we, too, harbor.