Zadie Smith: NW

 

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Written for Exeunt

In elegantly precise, shorthand stage-directions, Smith pulls her world up to the curb alongside us and says Get in. She doesn’t stop; you have to run a little, then throw yourself in a way that is neither comfortable nor expected. There is a barely cursory You in? before she accelerates off. There just isn’t time for the nonsense language usually associates itself with because by the end of the one and a half page first chapter, she has got you to a place most books don’t even attempt to take you in their entirety. She is saying, let’s cut the bullshit. Let’s admit that we see things and we know what they means. Let’s not pretend our outsides are our insides; we all know the truth here.

Set around the trajectories of four people – Leah, Natalie (nee Keisha), Nathan and Felix – who grew up the Cadwell housing estate in Wilsden, we spend time some time inside each characters mind. Life has been kinder to some than to others, but it is not always easy to tell which. This is a book about the price of escape, the price of idealism and the price of turning away from it. The very first page offers us this: “Here’s what Michel likes to say: not everyone can be invited to the party.” Leah doesn’t agree with this statement- or doesn’t want to agree. It is in this gap between what she wants to think and what she can no longer deny, that the book takes place.

Smith says that one of the reasons for the fragmentary, stop-start nature of the narrative is that she now has a young daughter and can only write in short bursts. Whatever the reason, it works: we live in bursts; what is life if not a strange combination of absolutely unrelenting continuity and absolutely nothing of the sort. In an interview earlier this month she also said that she wanted to write something like a “problem play…one of those little machines in which you come out the other end and feel odd.” Something akin to Clydeborne Park perhaps; plot, merely an excuse for a gentle yet brutally final stripping away of our excuses. In this elegant yet ruthless dissection, NW is similar to Richard Yate’s Revolutionary Road (a book that could also, in many ways, be seen as the very necessary novelisation of a play.) Richard Ford’s famous comment about Revolutionary Road also sums up NW : “Handing it over cold feels clumsy. We almost would rather not, for all the crucial things that cannot be thought and said again.”

We are often given no depth of field. Sometimes this seems unnecessarily confusing, as when in an early chapter, song lyrics from The Kinks blend, undifferentiated into Woolfesque stream of consciousness and dialogue. Yet it soon becomes clear that it is far more than self-conscious quirkiness or posturing: Smith’s technique of non-differentiation is crucial; we are given this ongoing stream of advertisements, sights, sounds, speech, interior monologue and memory unfiltered so that we can witness the characters filtering; we get to know them by watching how they make the objective subjective; what they focus on, what they prioritize and what they ignore.

This is a book that begs to be re-read. You find yourself reading, looking forward to re-reading. On the first go, you don’t have time to suck out the meaning that is packed into every offhand observation because you want to find out what’s going to happen next. And what’s-going-to-happen-next doesn’t mean action or plot: In the hands of an author with this much fierce insight, a character simply walking down the street, thinking, is an epic battlefield.

The middle section follows Felix, and allows Smith to display her talent for dialogue. She can have a man breathing in front of you with one line and have you caring about what happens to him in two. Smith’s people do not speak to illuminate their character, describe their predicament or voice their authors opinions. They speak because it is what people do. They speak because they are trying to live their lives.

The final section is almost an essay. Like her non-fiction (Changing my mind: Occasional essays (2009)) it takes on complex issues with wit and fights hard to address them with the rigour they deserve.  It is in this section where Smith drops any of the ‘rules’ and goes into freeform; her voice mingles with Natalie’s and the concept of character itself becomes an idea to be interrogated. Numbered paragraphs lay out random episodes in Natalie’s life like riddles and the reader must do what they will with them. Critics have found this section cold or unnecessarily stylized, but surely this is a more realistic shape for  back-story than a  string of cause and effect? This said, the section has its flaws: ‘The listings’ Natalie keeps checking are left unexplained for too long- it is one of the few visible plot devices in a book reassuringly free of such annoyances- and her related actions also seem slightly forced.

We live in a society built entirely on contradictions and it is this very real reality that Smith is pinning to the page. This tension is coiled into every half lie, every laugh at an unfunny joke, every alteration in an anecdote that used to contain meaning. As we read, we wait for something, anything, to dramatise it away, but we are given nothing to release the pressure. It continues, exhaustingly real; people burst out with truths, they say exactly what they are thinking- but it makes no difference. Moments are forced to carry unbearable weight and then two pages later dismissed as completely substanceless. It turns out that this dramatic event we await, is also what the characters are waiting for; they too are searching for something to give the relief of a conclusion.

Like pate on toast, NW is a spread of digested, distilled, regurgitated insides. You are what you eat and the liver cannot lie. What is happening is clear for the reader to see from page one; this story is about whether the characters can admit it to themselves or each other. The tragic denouement happens on the final page. Dry as bone, it offers not release, but the evaporation of everything that preceded it. The cost of being able to see, and of being able to admit you are able to see, is suddenly far too high and can simply no longer be afforded. Self -preservation arrives like the reaper, swinging his scythe at the level of thought. Being alive will kill you; then you will have to live on.

 

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One Comment on “Zadie Smith: NW”

  1. Thomas Ross says:

    Carmel,

    This is fascinating reading. You are a brilliant writer. Lighting up my Monday morning here.

    Tom


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