This is the second blog in a longer thread of my summer favorite fiction re-reads. You can read the first post here.
July: Zadie Smith – NW
It’s safe to say that NW is one of Zadie’s oddest novels. Not odd in the way that one wouldn’t want to read it, of course. Let me just say that it took me three tries to understand what was happening on the first page. The writing is fragmented, jumpy, one of the characters changes her name as she becomes an adult (has any writer ever done this to a character, ever?), and one really never knows where the story is leading. It is, as all of Smith’s novels, deeply rooted in discussion of race and class, but this novel comes across as a much more mature read than say, White Teeth, Smith’s first novel that she wrote at the ripe bold age of twenty-two. Smith’s writing takes on a sense of ease in NW, despite its disjointed manner of story telling. It’s subtle, and it packs a punch.
The second time around was even better for me, because I picked up on these subtleties much more upon re-read. There’s a brilliance in the staccato sentences, the shifting narrative style, the deliberate confusion of dialogue. Smith doesn’t seem to care that one character, though not necessarily the protagonist, takes over the story in the latter third, with about 200 pages of focus. That said, the characters with less face-time do not sing any less – in fact, I found myself wondering about Leah, the character in the manner of Leah, the person, long after I finished the novel. This is what good fiction does.
And Smith captures it all: there’s both an element of “coming of age” as well a commiseration to the ennui of adulthood. There’s a dissection of female friendship at the same time as an analysis on the complication of adult relationships. There’s the urgency of needing to untie oneself from a place, with the frustration that one can never really separate from it. The setting, in this case, becomes a character unto itself. There’s the sense that Smith calls us on our bluff: that it’s true we’re all just bopping along, trying to make it work, without a clue as to what we’re doing.
But then there’s the writing, which is vivacious and gorgeous and makes you think unhhhh why didn’t I write that? Smith pushes novel writing into new territory, and reminds us that one need not tell a story in any one particular way, and that experimentation can be fun and worthwhile.
In an interview with Interview Magazine following the release of NW, Smith had this to say about the people who took issue with the experimental narrative style: “It makes me sad sometimes when I read in reviews, critics saying, ‘Oh, these editors, they just let Zadie write whatever she likes.’ And it’s so untrue. Twenty people edited this book, over and over again, and if it remains crap, it’s my fault. I don’t want the editors to be blamed. All I can say is that it was much worse before. I edit and edit and edit and edit and edit . . . The last section I rewrote entirely. Because after everybody read it, there was this horrible radio silence. I had to get it out of them, mostly from friends, because friends don’t want to be mean. But nobody liked it. It wasn’t good. I knew it wasn’t, but I just had a little hope that maybe I could make it work. Because I had been working for so long, I wanted to go on holiday. And I just thought maybe everyone would say, ‘It’s great! Print!’ And when they didn’t, and I had a very childish, throwing-the-toys-out-of-the-pram reaction, I thought, ‘You know what? Fuck it. I have a job at NYU. I don’t need to write this book. Forget about it.’ Really it was Nick who said, ‘Don’t do that.'”
To Ms. Smith, I extend a sincere thank you for sticking with it, as you have brought a delight into the literary world, which was (and perhaps, still is) in desperate need of a shakeup. May you continue to push the boundaries, ask the right questions, and just plain not give a shit to the critics who hate. You, darling, are brilliant.
This too will pass. Four forty-five. Zig, zag. Tick, tock, Sometimes bitterness makes a grab for Leah. Pulls her down, holds her. What was the point of it all? Three years of useless study. Out of pocket, out of her depth. It was only philosophy in the first place because she was scared of dying and thought it might help and because she could not add or draw or remember lists of facts or speak a language other than her own. In the university prospectus, an italic script over a picture of the Firth of Forth: Philosophy is learning how to die. Philosophy is listening to warbling posh boys, it is being more bored than you have ever been in your life, more bored than you thought it possible to be. It is wishing yourself anywhere else, in a different spot somewhere in the multiverse, which is a concept you will never truly understand. In the end, only one idea reliably retained: time as a relative experience, different for the jogger, the lover, the tortured, the leisured. Like right now, when a minute seems to stretch itself into an hour. Otherwise useless. An unpaid, growing debt. Along with a feeling of resentment: what was the purpose of preparing for a life never intended for her? Years too disconnected from everything else to feel real. Edinburgh’s dour hill-climb and unexpected-alley, castle-shadow and fifty-pence whisky chaser, WalterScottStone and student loan shopping. Out of her mouth: a two-syllable packing company Socrates, a three-syllable cleaning fluid Antigone. Never, never forgotten: the bastard in that first class, sniggering. I AM SO FULL OF EMPATHY, Leah writes, and doodles passionately around it. Great fiery arcs, long pointed shadows.
We <3 you, Zadie!