Zadie Smith’s swing­ing Lon­don

With ‘NW,’ the British whiz kid re­turns, zest­ful and zany

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - FORUM - By San­jena Sathian San­jena Sathian, a se­nior ma­jor­ing in English lit­er­a­ture at Yale Univer­sity, was a sum­mer in­tern at the Post-Gazette (san­[email protected]).

If our ev­ery­day world sud­denly turns dark, zany and lyri­cally weird one day, it’s prob­a­bly be­cause Zadie Smith has learned how to con­trol us all. With “NW,” her fourth novel, Ms. Smith is back with the force and odd­i­ties she’s been fa­mous for since the 2000 re­lease of her best­seller “White Teeth” and through her 2005 novel “On Beauty,” short­listed for the Man Booker Prize.

The new novel pro­files a neigh­bor­hood in the north­west cor­ner of Lon­don, where Ms. Smith was born. Her cast of char­ac­ters may seem pre­dictable to al­ready de­voted fans; a crew of racially di­verse, ex­is­ten­tially trou­bled Lon­don­ers speckle the pages. And, as usual, her best tal­ent — col­or­ing the quo­tid­ian ab­surd hues but main­tain­ing emo­tional re­lata­bil­ity — isn’t hard to see. But in this novel, one of Ms. Smith’s other great tal­ents — the craft of com­pelling nar­ra­tive story-build­ing — is hid­den be­neath a more com­plex ap­proach to telling the story.

The story fol­lows the lives of sev­eral north­west Lon­don­ers, with brief for­ays into their child­hood to set the scene and longer lin­ger­ings in their world of adult­hood, as they grow into new peo­ple out­side their once-homes. At age 37, Ms. Smith’s per­spec­tive on the for­eign­ness that ac­com­pa­nies things such as din­ner par­ties and of­fice en­vi­ron­ments for young adults has not faded, and this is per­haps why she is so able to find the hi­lar­ity and edge in a world so strik­ingly fa­mil­iar.

Much of the com­men­tary em­bed­ded in this adult world is sim­i­lar to the si­mul­ta­ne­ously grungy and in­tel­lec­tual land­scapes of “White Teeth” and “On Beauty.” Ms. Smith’s prose has al­ways been both ver­nac­u­lar and philo­soph­i­cal, har­ried but also artful. In “NW,” though, it’s al­most as though she’s grown bored of mere prose. She’s re­placed her al­ready lessthan-lin­ear nar­ra­tive style with a bold­ness of form.

Through each sec­tion, the largest over­all con­sis­tency is the un­der­stand­ing that all of these char­ac­ters hail from a sim­i­lar back­ground. Their adult lives are pur­pose­fully stranded away from one an­other, and the in­ter­re­la­tions are ini­tially hard to trace. The im­pres­sive feat of the book is that they are, of course, wo­ven to­gether with care and bril­liance, though it takes pa­tience through a few sec­tions of the novel to fully see that. Though some of the novel gets the stan­dard chap­ter-by-chap­ter treat­ment, its largest and most im­pres­sive sec­tion is writ­ten in num­bered vi­gnettes. Some of these vi­gnettes read nar­ra­tively; oth­ers, like one char­ac­ter’s hon­ey­moon, en­ti­tled “Miele di Luna (two weeks),” tells of the trip like this:

Sun. Pros­ecco. Sky, bleached. Swal­lows. Arc. Dip … Wish you were here? Empty. Ex­clu­sive. ‘This is re­ally like paradise!’

An­other sim­ply lists the menu, in full foodie-lingo, that two char­ac­ters eat for lunch. And one par­tic­u­larly mas­ter­fully done sec­tion is a con­ver­sa­tion en­ti­tled “bye noe,” con­ducted pre­sum­ably via an on­line in­stant-mes­sen­ger, and which con­veys in­for­ma­tion, builds char­ac­ters and masters be­liev­abil­ity.

Ms. Smith is do­ing much more than try­ing to write an epis­to­lary novel for the 21st cen­tury, how­ever. While it’s not quite new to see doc­u­ments, po­ems and frag­ments from fic­tional char­ac­ters’ lives sub­mit­ted to a novel’s pages like ex­hib­ited ev­i­dence, what is new is how im­pres­sively Ms. Smith wields a post­mod­ern ar­se­nal of fic­tion tools to build gen­uine char­ac­ters — char­ac­ters who tran­scend a cer­tain time or ex­is­ten­tial zeit­geist.

In “NW,” Ms. Smith takes her coura­geous for­ays into the ver­nac­u­lar to new heights, us­ing per­spec­tives that are per­haps more na­tive to her but in a form that feels brand new. It cul­mi­nates es­pe­cially in this vi­gnetted sec­tion of the novel, the long­est, the most heart­felt and one of the most strik­ing pieces of writ­ing Ms. Smith has yet pro­duced.

An un­for­tu­nate side-ef­fect of this play­ful at­ten­tion to form is that the nar­ra­tive story of “NW” may seem less cap­ti­vat­ing than her sto­ries usu­ally are. To read Zadie Smith is usu­ally to be pulled into her swirling, danc­ing world un­stop­pably; to read “NW” is a slower, more halt­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. But Ms. Smith’s first-time read­ers may notice no such prob­lem. They are meet­ing an au­thor dis­tinct from the one who penned her ear­lier work, and are sure to fall into lyri­cal lust with her along with so many oth­ers.

Do­minique Nabokov

“NW” By Zadie Smith. Pen­guin ($26.95) Zadie Smith — Her fourth novel fol­lows racially di­verse, trou­bled Lon­don­ers.

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