Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Experience of Reading Zadie Smith

Today's column for the Sunday Guardian


Here it is, at last. A Zadie Smith novel after seven years.  I’m sure NW isn’t going to be inspired by E.M. Forster the way her earlier On Beauty was – at least not given the evidence of her 2008 essay, ‘Two Paths for the Novel’. There, she contrasted Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, coming down in favour of the latter. “To read [Netherland] is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition”, she wrote, referring to a “breed of lyrical realism [which] has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked." So, is NW is going to be her riposte to such realism, pointing a way ahead? Let’s start. Okay, the first bit is fascinating. We’re in the mind of Leah, married, in her mid-30s, living in a run-down council estate in north-west London. But it isn’t in the first person: rather, as Smith’s written of a David Foster Wallace story, it’s third person as first person, a little bit Joyce and a little bit Woolf. Leah’s life unfurls: her marriage, her work, and her circumambulations around London where Smith reveals a great ear for mimicking the speech of those on the street. So far, so splendid .

Hold on, what’s this? We’ve segued into another section, and this one deals with the life of another Londoner, Felix, from the same area as Leah. This character is a recovering alcoholic trying to make good. The style is more familiar here, more realistic (whatever that means). But why are we following Felix around as he tries to profit from buying used cars, hangs around with his father and visits an old lover? What happened to Leah? What happened to Leah’s childhood friend, Natalie? Though the Felix section is great in its rendering of the section of London that the book deals with. People flicker brightly across the pages: higher-ups falling on hard times, street thugs, those trying to escape the noose of class. Still. Is Felix Smith’s version of Septimus Smith? Not sure. And has she left behind that stream-of-consciousness style she started off with?

The next section. Again, this one is completely different from what’s come earlier. These are short vignettes about Natalie, also known as Keisha (and her one-time crush, Nathan). There’s some doggerel, there’s a menu, there’s chatroom-speak, there’s aphorisms, there’s Natalie’s dealings with her husband, with the Internet, with her profession (she’s a lawyer with a chequered career, but doing way better than Leah). Confusing. Also fascinating. Maybe I’m reading too fast – these short passages lend themselves to such haste. Slow down. Accept this on its own terms, she’s trying something different. It’s like entering a fictional machine with different parts working in different ways; the occasional self-consciousness of the narrative means that the joints and gears sometimes stand exposed. It’s very clear, though, that Smith is more than living up to the implicit promise of her 2008 essay. Note to Ian McEwan: You can take what you called the “dead hand of Modernism” and suck its thumb.

Yes, it’s too cleverly self-reflexive. Yes, some of the satire is clunky (“Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates”.) Yes, there are too many styles crammed together. But at a time when other novelists are churning out works in the same tried and tested mode, Smith’s gone ahead and tried to show other ways of representation. She takes a patch of London and gives us its characters, their voices, their dreams and their downfall, and in a way that’s new. (Of course, the “new” part is relative; given that there’s much channeling of Woolf and Joyce.) So how do these parts mesh, now that I’ve completed it? There’s only one way to find out. Read it again.

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