Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

"NW" by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2012)

The book has all the carnival polyphony of the archetypal novel, with 5 sections - "Visitation", "Guest", "Host", "Crossing", and "Visitation" - and many thirtysomethings. The main theme is "finding yourself" I suppose, by meeting people from the past, using drugs, going back to one's roots, going to university, and deciding what to do with your life. The characters grew up in an estate where the 5 blocks were called Smith, Hobbes, Bentham, Locke, and Russell. Leah (white) got a philosophy degree (a course teaching how to "deal with death") and is now a charity worker. Her friend Natalie (black) got a law degree and has chances of being a judge. They both follow ethical career paths, returning to where they grew up.

In "Guest" Leah is childless, stealing contraception pills and having secret abortions to keep it that way. Her husband Michel (black/North-african) wants kids. They have a dog, Olive ("O Live"?), who gets lots of love. In this section the style varies. There's this for example

We are the village green preservation society. God save little shops, china cups and virginity! Saturday morning. ALL KINKS ALL DAY. Girl. You really got me going. You got me so I don't know what I'm doing. On Saturday mornings Michel helps the ladies and gentlemen of NW look right for their Saturday nights, look fresh and correct and there, in the salon, he is free to blast his treacly R&B, his oh baby oh shorty till six in the mawnin till the break a' dawn (p.23)

p.24 is free format, Leah freely associating about the happenings so far. p.25 is Michel's prose reflections, in parallel. Chapters hit the ground running. Here's an example

Elsewhere in London, offices are open plan/floor to ceiling glass/ sites of synergy/ wireless/ gleaming. There persists a belief in the importance of a ping-pong table. Here is not there. Here offices are boxy cramped Victorian damp. Five people share them, the carpet is threadbare, the hole-punch will never be found. (p.27)

p.27 includes an ideogram. p.31 is multi-voice, free format. p.33 is like sat-nav output. p.34 is a sensory description of the same journey. Section 11 begins on p.36. p.37 is headed "37" and is about the number 37. On p.50, p.64, and p.83 there are section 37s too. Shar (a character who swindles Leah out of a few quid) lives at number 37. Shar remembers Natalie at school - "Up herself. Coconut. Thought she was all that" (p.8). Leah tells Shar (but nobody else) she's pregnant.

The landscape shapes the characters

A great hill straddles NW, rising in Hampstead, West Hampstead, Kilburn, Willesden, Brondesbury, Cricklewood. It is no stranger to the world of letters. The Woman in White walks up one side to meet the highwayman Jack Sheppard on the other. Sometimes Dickens himself comes this far west and north for a pint or to bury someone. Look, there, on the library carpet between Science Fiction and Local history: a knotted condom filled with sperm. Once this was all farm and field, with country villas nodding at each other along the ridge of this hill. Train stations have replaced them, at half-mile intervals, (p.47)

We also briefly meet Leah's school-friend, Nathalie/Keisha, and her husband Frank. They're rich and have children.

Frank's default mode with Leah is a sort of self-parody. Lean thwarts him by faking innocence, forcing him to spell out whatever he is trying to a say obliquely (p.56)

In a tense street confrontation, Michel confronts someone in a cap, hooded top and low jeans, thinking that he was troubling Leah. Leah breaks them up (mistaken identity), but the hoodie kicks Olive. Next day, Olive dies. They read that someone called Felix Cooper was murdered nearby, the night before.

The "guest" section is more conventional, following a few hours in the life of Felix. He visits his father, Lloyd, and meets his father's neighbour, Phil, a auto-didact postman

'Course it is, course it is. My brain's failing me. How's your dad? Not seen him out and about much, recently.'
'Lloyd's all right. Lloyd's Lloyd.'
It touched Felix that Phil Barnes was kind enough to pretend, to Felix, that he, Barnes, and his neighbour of thirty years were on speaking terms. 'That's eloquence, Felix! "A word can paint a thousand pictures!"

There's a long dialog with Annie who's good with words - "She crossed one leg over the other like a teacher reaching the substance of her lecture" (p.129)

' ... Instead they have to bring up each piece of individually miso-stained balsamic glaze cod fillet up on a tray, so they can eat them on the sodding terrace, all the time no doubt saying to themselves: how lucky we are to be eating on the terrace! Why, we could be in Tuscany! Have you tried these, darling? They're tempura zucchini flowers. Japanese-Italian fusion! My own invention. Shall I photograph it? We can put it on our blog.' (p.131)

At the end Felix is mugged. Characters in this novel have a hard time escaping destiny.

The 3rd section, "host", is 184 numbered, titled sections, some only a line long, some 3 pages. It recounts the earlier days of Natalie, with some mentions of Leah. Natalie makes her way in the law profession, though her roots and principles sometimes makes integration with her peers awkward. It's a format allowing great flexibility. We're told at one point "Reader: keep up!" (p.169). Here's one section

Such a moment has a peculiar character. It is brief and temporal indeed, like every moment; it is transient, as all moments are; it is past, like every moment in the next moment.And yet it is decisive, and filled with the eternal. Such a moment ought to have a distinctive name; let us call it the Fullness of Time.

At the end Natalie, who's had identity problems in the past (none of professional success, going back to her roots, changing her name, marrying into money, or having children has helped. I wonder if the name "Natalie" is supposed to hint at "born a lie"?), springs a surprise.

In "crossing" Natalie's wandering the streets alone, self-disgraced. She comes across Nathan, a heart-throb from school who went off the tracks. Further personality ambiguities emerge - Leah's accused of being a lesbian, of marrying a man who looks like Natalie (we already knew that Natalie's brother is gay). In the final section, "Visitation", she returns home hoping to continue life as before. Some plot loose-ends are resolved. She's called to Leah by Michel because Leah's been in a hammock for hours, not talking. Natalie says " This is one of the things you learn in a courtroom: people generally get what they deserve.", (p.293). Right at the end, Keiska phones the police - "'I got something to tell you,' said Keisha Blake, disguising her voice with her voice. ".

I presume she's saying who she thinks committed the murder (denouncing her past? Selling out?), but that's not all that the sentence does.

Other reviews

It's a must-review book. Reviewers usually refer to her pronouncements about Novels, and that she's a superb writer, especially of dialogue. Most think that the book's flawed.

  • Rachel Cooke (Observer) (flawed, fragmentary and undeniably brilliant)
  • Adam Mars-Jones (Guardian) (The real mystery of NW is that it falls so far short of being a successful novel, though it contains the makings of three or four)
  • Philip Hensher (Telegraph) (a joyous, optimistic, angry masterpiece)
  • Boyd Bonkin (Independent) (Somehow, the supremely confident straddler of two 20th-century traditions – the empathetic realism of EM Forster, showcased in On Beauty, and the immersive stream-of-consciousness flow and jump-cut montage of Virginia Woolf, more prominent here – felt herself cowed by a bleak theoretical diktat)
  • Anne Enright (New York Times) (“NW” represents a deliberate undoing; an unpacking of Smith’s abundant narrative gifts to find a deeper truth, audacious and painful as that truth may be)
  • Michiko Kakutani (New York Times) (“NW” and its paper-doll-like characters do a disservice to this hugely talented author and her copious gifts ... Despite her often magical prose Ms. Smith does not manage to orchestrate such elements into a satisfying or original story, largely because her depictions of Leah and Natalie remain so slapdash and judgmental. As she did in “White Teeth,” she takes a pair of best friends and uses them as representatives of two views or approaches to the world.)
  • Kathryn Schulz (Vulture) (NW feels like a meta quest narrative ... it pains me to say that much of it just doesn’t work. ... Anti-realist as it is, NW can hardly be accused of hysterical realism. Instead, Smith swings in the other direction, succumbing to a kind of hysterical formalism. Short of a PowerPoint presentation, which was already spoken for, there’s almost no stylistic tactic she doesn’t try here ... it’s frustrating, watching such a giant talent seek out new options, only to settle on ones that too often diminish her work. )
  • Alexandra Schwartz (The Nation) (For all her roiling styles, Smith’s own voice has always floated to the top. It comes through in the quality of her observations, her magpie’s eye for detail, and her ear for dialects and speech patterns of all kinds. It has something to do, too, with her curiosity about her characters, her ability to let them speak for themselves even as she guides them from the wings.)
  • K. Thomas Kahn (The Millions) (Several critics have already pointed out NW’s debt to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. ...Although her prose owes much to the modernist school and her structure to the postmodernist dissection of time and identity, Smith continually returns to “the modern” as a continuum)
  • Literary Exploration

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