Penguin Press HC, 2012. Review by Zinzi Clemmons
Readers of Zadie Smith’s nonfiction will recognize the subject matter of her fourth novel as very close to what she’s portrayed as her personal life and philosophical preoccupations. Smith has written several essays about her upbringing in Northwest London, the setting and subject of NW. The author has also written on the topics handled most contentiously in the novel — its style and its ruminations on class and race. When reading NW against Smith’s essays, it’s clear that the novel poses strong questions on each topic, and boldly chooses to leave them unanswered, leaving us curious about the nature of these themes, and about the writer herself.
NW’s stylistic departure from her current body of work may have been presaged in her 2008 essay “Two Paths For the Novel.” There, she unexpectedly praised the experimental style of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder over the traditional realist narrative of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a writer whose style is quite similar to her own. NW stands somewhere between the style of those two novels — her vibrant rendering of characters and community are still present from her old work, but the form is more fractured and postmodernist than she has ever attempted before. It is divided into three sections, the first and last of which are composed of short numbered sections. Words meander and shape-shift across the page; characters come and go.
The novel’s best moments aren’t its fractured bits — in fact, it slows when it comes to these onomatopoeic sections that read like the city speaking. The smaller print of some of these sections entices the reader to gloss them over with little loss to the pleasure or coherence of reading the novel. The strongest sections are, in order, the final section and the second, for their characters and the dramatic way in which the writer unfolds their stories (the final one chronologically illustrates the character’s life from grade school to mid-thirties). In short, the novel’s strengths spring mostly from the writer’s use of traditional elements, and from continuity — not on its attractive, yet unmastered use of narrative fissures.
The effect of this style is a searching, indecisive quality. Stylistically, the book seems to be trying on different modes of narrative, as if to ask, which one suits me?
Natalie is the book’s most engrossing character, and her section (the book’s final third) comprises the text’s most compelling narrative. We get a sweeping view of Natalie’s — nee Keisha Blake — life, from the dramatic beginning of her friendship with NW’s other protagonist, Leah (then-Keisha rescued her from drowning in a swimming pool), to the narrative’s unresolved present. Natalie is the successful one, who ascends from modest Caribbean-immigrant beginnings to a powerful lawyer job, beautiful family, and expensive home. Whereas Leah has been content to glide through life, Keisha has been the product of self-invention, the most direct manifestation is her dropping “Keisha” for the ethnically non-suggestive “Natalie” in college. Leah’s husband, Michel, forgivingly describes the transition: “It’s like: ‘Dress for the job you want not the one you have.’ And it’s the same with names, I feel.”
Smith philosophized such transversals of class and race as they apply to speech in her 2009 essay, “Speaking in Tongues.” She wrote:
Whoever changes their voice takes on, in Britain, a queerly tragic dimension. They have betrayed that puzzling dictum “To thine own self be true,” so often quoted approvingly as if it represented the wisdom of Shakespeare rather than the hot air of Polonius.” What’s to become of me? What’s to become of me?” wails Eliza Doolittle, realizing her middling dilemma.
Keisha’s transformation to Natalie embodies the same struggle to elevate oneself from humbler beginnings. It’s one recognizable to American Blacks, where headlines speak of the undesirability of our names and our hair — the most politicized, yet mutable symbols of our racial difference — to potential employers. It’s also one familiar to the author herself, as she says:
This voice I speak with these days, this English voice with its rounded vowels and consonants in more or less the right place—this is not the voice of my childhood. I picked it up in college, along with the unabridged Clarissa and a taste for port.
Ultimately, Natalie’s story suggests a certain type of domestic tragedy, as her internal struggles propel her toward wayward behavior—in this case, comic internet-arranged sex romps. Her husband finds out her secret, and the book ends as he begins to pull away from her emotionally.
But the end of NW returns to a different tragedy. After her husband confronts her, Natalie embarks on an all-night bender with Nathan Bogle, a shadow character who attended school with Leah and Natalie, and now is a neighborhood addict. Through their night together, she becomes convinced that he had a part in the death of Felix, the subject of the book’s second section. The discovery distracts us from Natalie’s home drama, and we never learn to what extend her carefully constructed life crumbles around her.
We are left wondering about the fate of this character, and considering the philosophical implications that Smith has placed around her, it feels as if the novel is unresolved on this issue as well. It’s as if the novel (or Smith) never decides to what extent — or how exactly — a striver like Natalie should be rewarded for her sin of ascendancy. Here, the question the novel seems to be posing is, what should become of a Natalie, or — if we return to Smith’s essay — a Zadie (who herself started out, in Northwest London, as Sadie)?
The questions posed by NW are relatively large to Smith’s larger body of work. Imperfect though NW may be, it has the potential to mark a significant point of transition in her career. Perhaps it is the beginning of a new direction for the author. Perhaps it’s just a dalliance. Regardless, who isn’t excited to see where she goes?
Zinzi Clemmons is an MFA candidate in Fiction in Columbia’s Writing Program. She served as Fiction Editor for the the journal’s 50th issue.