NW: A Novel
Penguin Press, 2012
416 pp., 26.95
Zadie Smith's first novel, White Teeth, seals four Englishmen and a Bengali in a tank just after World War I's end, and it seals a genetically altered mouse in a transparent diorama on the eve of this millennium. It crumbles the Berlin Wall in slow-motion for a TV audience, and it crumbles 1907 Kingston by dint of enough earthquake to awe a Jehovah's Witness. White Teeth, then, zigzags across 20th-century history by way of Willesden—a corner of London where marriage and school and pubs yoke stodgy veterans to Jamaican evangelists, smug white biologists to estranged brown twins, and so on.
As for Smith's latest novel, NW, it simply zigzags across Willesden. Or the quadrant of London, anyway, that contains Willesden: the northwest one. True, as in White Teeth, schooling ties the characters (now each thirtysomething) together; social-worker Leah Hanwell, lawyer Natalie (née Keisha) Blake, mechanic Felix Cooper, and addict Nathan Bogle all attended, as kids, a school named Brayton. And public housing unites them, too. Give or take a wheeled tea cart, all four have grown up with little in the way of privilege.
Other connections between these characters, though, prove inconsistent. Leah and Keisha, for example, become best friends in girlhood, in a wading pool, prior to any consciousness of ethnic difference (Leah is white, Keisha black) and remain close friends, although not without lulls and tiffs. Conversely, both know Nathan Bogle, during school, mostly by his enticingly bad reputation, which petty crime and drug abuse downgrade, afterwards, to the occasional unhappy sighting. And Felix Cooper they know only in adulthood and only for his newsworthy obituary.
Thus, when the second section of NW, "Guest," trails Felix for a day between its renditions of Leah's story (Part 1, "Visitation") and Keisha/Natalie's (Part 3, "Host"), the interruption seems unwarranted. At the same time, keeping company with Felix is a relief because it is only his death—not his sweetness or guile or blunders—that fails to make sense. Indeed, because Felix has quit drugs and a miserable relationship and because he has awakened beside his girlfriend, the formidable Grace, it is only his death that makes his story seem directionless.
Such is not the case with Leah. With a naïveté that can wax cynical, she dithers over her relationships: doting on and blushing at her Algerian husband, Michel; pitying and slighting her gauche mother, Paulette; needing and resenting her oldest friend, Natalie. She can adore her dog and neglect it. She can gift a junkie with thirty pounds and a secret, then badger her. She can script affectionate words for her father's ghost to parrot back to her, then scorn herself for it. She cannot, however, imagine raising a child—or say so. Or, quite, say why.
Natalie, on the other hand, nags her beautiful toddlers almost absentmindedly, as if their existence imposes a script on her but occasions no questions. Her husband, Frank, meanwhile, who leaves the impression of having "been born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren," she regards coolly across manicured lawns and smart parties, having given up, apparently, on "help[ing] him become a real person." Although she has not quite given up on becoming a real person herself. Still, Natalie describes herself as constantly "in drag," and her wardrobe changes—from "court drag" (as a barrister, she proves joylessly competent) to "Jamaican drag," from "mother drag" to "wife drag"—leave her uncertain which costume is "the least inauthentic." Thus, she invents a secret identity for herself by way of the internet, registering as KeishaNW@gmail.com and flirting with perversion, which she mistakes for authenticity, as if it were impossible that anyone would ever make up the most awful things about herself.
Other scenes in the book disprove her hypothesis that what is ugliest in a person cannot be contrived. For instance, near the novel's loose end, Nathan Bogle recognizes Keisha, whose troubles have launched her on an aimless nighttime pilgrimage across northwest London, and he troubles her further by chatting her up with the lucid but fickle patter of an addict. His leering and menace are ugly, but they are snake oil. This tiny moral, however—that we cannot rely on the authenticity either of polish or of meanness—does not justify a fable as difficult as NW.
What, then, if anything, does? Well, we know what we usually rely upon when justifying a book: its themes or thesis, its crafted plot or shrewd art, its likely characters or likable ones. NW, though, refuses to accommodate that orthodox a rubric.
As its "mixed reviews" attest. Take Ruth Franklin's essay about NW in The New Republic. Early on, Franklin quips, "It is a novel about identity crisis, and it is a novel with an identity crisis," and later she returns to this complaint with greater exasperation. "We get it!" she writes. "The content reflects the form." She continues, however, with a caveat, claiming that the book's fragmentation is, at times, "too pat …, too literal, too tidy in its untidiness." She objects, in particular, to the way in which NW's omniscient third-person point-of-view hopscotches between free indirect discourse, where a character's thoughts seep over into the narrator's voice, and the intrusive authorial voice (e.g., "That was the year people began to say 'literally' " or "Everyone believes in destiny").
It is not true, though, that these interruptions undermine the novel's fragmentation; rather, they extend it. Indeed, the pronouncements that break into the collage of Natalie's story or Leah's sensitivity mimic experience. Don't we, too, find faddish platitudes and urbane one-liners cutting in on our self-consciousness, sentencing us or summing us up? And, as in NW, don't they (the memes, the mantras) flatten profuse truths, reducing them to self-justification or self-help or self-loathing? I think so. What's more, I think we read serious novels partly because they, unlike an unmediated life, sieve or single out truisms.
The trouble, then, with this novel's thematic content and its formal vehicle—Smith's jagged, sometimes lyric, sometimes despotic prose—is this: we don't know how to accommodate its fanatic realism.
Modernism's pensive ribbons and distractions: now, those we can handle. Consequently, many reviewers, noting that NW cribs from Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, wish Smith had stopped at that, sticking only to the fussy daydreams and impressionistic sympathies of the sort that Mrs. Dalloway and Leopold Bloom carry around. Others, mostly notably Michiko Kakutani, pine for Smith to return to the more postmodern swagger of White Teeth. The exuberance of that first novel, these critics suggest, generates characters who bumble lovably. Their bluster is transparent, their hearts barely calloused.
Not so the cast of NW: Leah and Natalie, Felix and Nathan take turns at being unlovable. As well as, according to Kakutani, untenable; she numbers among the characters "more ham-handed cartoons than emotionally detailed human beings." Then again, on this point, too, the reviews are mixed: Joyce Carol Oates argues (with apparent relief) that NW contains "no farcical interludes … and no paper-thin cartoon characters to enact them."
Oddly, NW supplies evidence for either claim. Its characters do, after all, sometimes render themselves as caricatures, as when Leah, the only white social worker in a "boxy cramped Victorian damp," writes, "I AM SO FULL OF EMPATHY" and "doodles passionately around it." But they also have dimension. Enough dimension, in fact, that none of them can quite plumb his or her self, so Smith traces their layered hypothesizing. The lies they tell themselves edge, unflagged, into the narrative—which spends none of its omniscience on judging the individuals fumbling about under it. Instead, Smith's narrator apportions and labels her characters' stories, deploying irony but never announcing its target. The inhabitants of NW, therefore, cannot rightly be called cartoons; they are far too ambiguous for that.
Yet this ambiguity results in Natalie and Leah, especially, coming across as unlikely characters. They do implausible things for reasons they cannot name. They strike themselves as unlikely. Still, in that, they resemble most human beings in moments of crisis. What's more, they further NW's pitiless fealty to reality.
Which brings me to what I object to in NW: its pitilessness. I don't mind what The Guardian's Adam Mars-Jones calls the book's "resistance to genre," its resemblance to "an oddly shaped inner-city park." Nor does the uneven pressure that Smith applies in drawing the outlines of her characters trouble me; it is, no doubt, how I would draw myself. As for the writer's brilliance for detail—which puts "Mickey, Donald, Bart, a nameless bear, [and] an elephant with its trunk ripped off" in a "front bay window, … fabric faces against dirty glass"; which puts a "mammoth baby in swaddling clothes" in the arms of Our Lady of Willesden and beside a sign which reads "his hands big with blessing [though] to Leah there seems no blessing in it"—no one doubts that. Nonetheless, NW's narrative voice is, at last, that of a god without ruth.
Put otherwise: the novel's omniscience stints on tenderness. It countenances everything, but never forgives, never winces, never grieves. Its hands are not big with blessing. Thus, its realism actually falters only in this—for the world is not unblessed, and the world's squalor not unalloyed with light.
Jane Zwart teaches literature and writing at Calvin College.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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