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The Two Paths of the Novel Zadie Smith’s NW

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The Two Paths of the Novel: Zadie Smith’s NW

It only makes sense that NW, the fourth novel by Zadie Smith, was anticipated more for its statements than its story. Rarely has an author’s work been so paradigmed so soon, read and discussed less for its characters or memorable scenes than for what certain others had to say about it. Partially this school of career criticism was imposed on her at a very young age by the landslide of press over her debut novel, White Teeth, notably by the reviewer James Wood, who for New Republic made up a stupid name to encompass all of the books in the world he disliked most and declared the author its scion. Partially, however, it’s the author’s own doing, with the clear and many statements of her subsequent efforts: more than one response to the Wood fiasco; a second novel about the effects of fame on the integrity of works of art; a third novel that addressed any and all concerns once voiced about the thing called “hysterical realism”; and the series of high-profile missives on the values and shortcomings of contemporary fiction.

NW arrives in the wake of these ponderous and often pretty essays on Franz Kafka and David Foster Wallace and George Eliot, of a period between novels during which the author grew and grew as a writer of nonfiction and even followed Wood in hijacking one of her reviews for the New York Review of Books into a consideration of the “two paths for the novel,” creating her own name for the problem (“lyrical realism”) and hoping very elegantly for the possibility of “[shaking] the novel out of its complacency.” So it only makes sense that much was expected of NW—at least a glance toward that better path, if not a few actual steps.

And it is, if nothing else, a significant departure in many ways from her previous works, a story whose momentum relies on physical propulsion from setting to setting without narrative intrusion and whose scenes derive naturally from dialogue with no visible introductions or disclaimers. It’s a fluid and less declarative style with Leah, Natalie, and Felix, the main characters, as the true engine, one that wears its shifting devotion to these characters on its sleeve—almost stream of consciousness (more like a trickle), pages formatted into typographic shapes, a whole chapter broken up into fragmented sections that manifest its character’s broken and fragmented self, also a set of Mapquest directions.

Having done away with some of the formalities of her previous works, the author here focuses on her ear for regional dialect and her eye for the tiniest physical descriptions of the title neighborhood’s vibrant scenery, both of which are remarkable, but without a mouth they just don’t make up a whole face, and that’s maybe the problem. Because it’s the warmth of the narrative voice in White Teeth and On Beauty that holds together their looser threads, the nearly offhanded manner in which their characters’ conflicts are introduced and unfolded and resolved. The stories operate on an inwardization of the narrative eye, by which major plot points are glossed over and then later detailed through scenes and histories and peripheral contexts. And the author’s facility with inward-moving narratives does still slip through in NW, in a chapter about Felix, written from start to finish with almost unbearable dramatic irony as his fate looms and looms. Unlike Leah and Natalie, he’s introduced to us formally, as a news item into which his story then grows. Felix may not end up mattering to the other main characters, but his hundred pages are the most compelling in NW.

The rest of NW seems at times almost like a project against that familiar inward movement, building on smaller interactions and expanding. And it’s maybe the author’s slightly less adept treatment of that outward-facing narrative movement that’s to blame for the recurring feeling of contrivance throughout NW. There’s no reason to doubt that writing this novel may have shaken the author out of any complacency she may have felt about her previous works; it’s well into the story, for instance, that Leah’s social class is juxtaposed against Natalie’s, a striking contrast and exercise in restraint that in any of the author’s earlier works would have been mentioned outright up front. But doing so would have afforded the opportunity to gradually dispel with archetypal notions; leading up, instead, to the later scenes of the two girls reunited as grown contrasted women holds a perverse effect that only reinforces the sneaking suspicion that what they stand for is the only reason they’re here at all. And when the dogs and Craigslist encounters and other major plot points do arrive, they don’t so much address the preceding storylines, but just follow, as if down a long and difficult path.

Zadie Smith’s NW will be released on September 4 by the Penguin Press. To purchase it, click here.