Hamish Hamilton, 2012
ISBN ISBN: 9780241144145
In a 2008 essay for The New York Review of Books, ‘Two Paths for the Novel’, Zadie Smith aired her discontent with what has become the dominant yet pat contemporary literary mode: lyrical realism. Her case study was Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, but she could also have cited John Lanchester’s more recent Capital, her own 2005 effort On Beauty, or a plethora of novels published in the past 30 years, as exemplary of a form that aims to recast Balzac and Flaubert for the modern day. Each adheres to Realism’s credos: “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self”. That is, cultivated prose style, verisimilitude, and, most importantly, affective characters within archetypal narratives. Smith appends some pertinent questions: “Is [lyrical realism] really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?”
In the second half of her article Smith lauds the “avant-garde” knowingness of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, its disavowal of lyricism and narrative chicanery. For Smith, “[Remainder] clears away a little of the dead wood”. Approaching NW it is evident Smith does not want to add any more “dead wood”. She rejects the bedtime comforts of cogent narrative and stylistic transparency within the novel’s opening pages. Prismatic stream of consciousness narration introduces Leah Hanwell—”Fag in hand. Fleshy, lobster-red. / I am the sole / I am the sole author”—recumbent upon the hammock in her Willesden residence in late August. Leah’s afternoon doze is interrupted by “A woman”, later Shar, requesting a taxi fare to visit her hospitalised husband. An ethical conundrum imposes itself on the everyday: give hospitality and charity to this woman in distress—”I’ve been to every fuckin door”—or act like the rest of Leah’s street and ignore?
Smith introduces Shar to challenge Leah’s bourgeois status quo, to unsettle its banalities. This is to be a State of the Nation novel, or, to be more precise, a State of Willesden, NW(mainly)10, novel. The problem is, rather than “clear away a little of the dead wood”, Smith constructs her novel around a series of characters flummoxed by their middle-class aboulia. NW is not a new venture for the novel but a recasting of plots all already stock-in-trade for the State of the Nation novelist.
NW’s plot-lines in brief suffice to show this. The Leah/Shar plot sounds like a lefty-liberal poser at a dinner party. Should a lower-middle class Londoner be altruistic to a local in distress? If it turns out she’s a drug-addicted prostitute does this veto her claim? There is Felix Cooper, the likeable black man trying to go clean. Felix, somewhat inevitably, sleeps with his white coked-up trust-funded ballerina ex (yes, this character is at once everything and nothing). During the Felix narration, Smith inserts the obligatory older white character to gloss his youth slang “bare” and “long”. If Smith is intending to make a point as to lexical class or race markers she is mistaken: such slang is now in common use by people of many ethnic and social backgrounds. Glossing the slang merely panders to older readers requiring comparison to their own generations’ senses of “normalcy”. There is Natalie Blake/Keisha, the local Willesden girl gone good overcoming poverty, racial prejudice, and sexism to become a (relatively) successful lawyer. Despite the upward trend of her narrative, marital issues ensue: Natalie’s story steadily declines into that of the middle-aged middle classes and their discontents. And there is the stipulated chance meeting in a corner shop (owned by a Sikh, staffed by his son).
Smith perhaps pays for her allegiance to realism’s purported verisimilitude. A State of the Nation novel requires, if not demands, the inclusion of the drab day-to-day realities of multicultural London to fulfil its genre conventions. Smith’s synthesis of the minutiae of London life into novel form ticks boxes. Smith’s attempts at experimentation could not be said to be particularly original. Adam Mars-Jones, in his Guardian review, is correct when he critiques the stream of consciousness Leah section: “The touches of dilute Joycean play are less like new ways of looking at the world than mildly adventurous ways of organising a narrative.” The same applies to the other parts. Felix Cooper’s peregrinations are shown via the conventional third person and chaptered prose of lyrical realism. That he is the most likeable character perhaps intimates that “bedtime” stories are hard to beat for affect. Keisha/Natalie Blake’s Bildungsroman is comprised of 185 individually titled essayistic shorts (e.g. ‘Beehive’, ‘Ambition’, ‘Parklife’). They would best be described as Lydia Davis-lite: surreal, cryptic, and brief. But the pseudo-philosophical vignettes—”There had been an event. To speak of it required the pluperfect”; “They thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalization”—are mired by their coercion into an ever more conventional narrative structure.
At a base language level Smith often comes across as too try-hard. The Hanwell section especially suffers from a desire for every line to cut multiple ways. Leah’s description of Shar is symptomatic: “Woman begging the public for witnesses. Woman in a war zone standing in the rubble of her home.” Metaphor compounds metaphor, neither of them original. The latter, in the comparison it intends to draw—between Welfare State poverty and (Middle Eastern?) war zone—is melodramatic. Her imagery does not much improve. Of London transport, for example, she writes: “Next stop Kilburn Station. The doors fold inwards, urban insect closing its wings”; or of a Sony Walkman, “Oh, this outdoor soundtrack! Oh, this orchestral existence!” A proclivity for typographical play in the text, whether in the recurrent CAPS LOCK, or concrete poems, whether a tree or a gold-dentured mouth, seems ornamental rather than necessary. A hint of metatext that intrudes upon the otherwise conventional Felix section manages to be too obvious: “He had the sense that someone was watching and taking it all down (‘Felix was a solid bloke, with his heart in the right place, who liked to watch the world go by’)”. That Smith scares herself off from further exploring this avenue in her text suggests even she knows to persevere would worsen matters.
Perhaps the most cringeworthy excrescence occurs in the Leah narrative, where two adjacent chapters rewrite the same subject matter: a trip from “A. Yates Lane, London NW8, UK”, to “B. Bartlett Avenue, London NW6, UK.” First, the journey is cast in Transport for London speak, staged directions and legalese caveats: “These directions are for planning purposes only. […] You must obey all signs or notices regarding your route.” The subsequent chapter—”From A to B redux”—transposes these “signs or notices” into Leah’s experience of this journey through busy London streets. Angst-ridden, irate, Smith conveys the sensory overload an attentive mind may be flummoxed by:
Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only – quicker to walk! Escapees from St Mary’s, Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding a urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves fags. Everybody.
Such “redux” is tricksy, the juxtaposition again feels like Smith is overreaching as she tries to assimilate the disparate apparatus of modern life, in this case technology and consumer culture. If Smith wants to convey how bewildering the State of London is something less brazen, in the understated manner of W.G. Sebald, or Teju Cole’s city peregrinations, may have worked better.
Larger problems are apparent, but despite its flaws this book is still likely to find a readership willing to justify it as a bold move for the novel. Take Anne Enright’s review for The New York Times: “”NW” represents a deliberate undoing; an unpacking of Smith’s abundant narrative gifts to find a deeper truth, audacious and painful as that truth may be.” Smith has found the answer to her distaste for lyrical realism in “unpacking” the corollary truth-claims that form works upon. Her three central characters all struggle to affix any definite meaning to the narratives their lives form. Unfortunately, what is left appears an evasion of intent. The three narratives are disparate; the two addenda too belaboured in their attempt to tie up these half-finished narratives neatly. Like her characters, Smith seems incapable of providing resolute answers. NW may be a bold “deliberate” move, but it certainly is not anything new, nor anything to write home (or to Willesden) about.
Sam Caleb  read English at Oxford and UCL. He lives and works in Berlin.