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NW - Zadie Smith

Posted on: Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Oh, Zadie. I bow to your impossible coolness.

1) You use street language in your writing and don't sound like a dick (I, on the other hand, said that something was a bit of a 'saucy read' in front of some students recently and one of them urged me to never say anything like it again).

Exhibit A:

"Annie man. You give me jokes, for real."

"But is it your business, though?"

"Is it." (no question mark. Very important.)

2) You are married to a beautiful, beautiful Irishman. A beautiful Irishman who writes poetry.

He's probably doing it right now, probably in the middle of writing something really beautiful, something about families who "speak in code of what we love." Swoon.

3) You live in Brooklyn (I think. Or you used to). You teach the brightest of the bright. You wrote for the New Yorker. You are impossibly beautiful. You have a string of freckles across your nose. You can wear a Fashion Turban and get away with it. 

Must I go on?

I should like your writing. I really should. Or, more specifically and honestly, I should enjoy your books, but be intensely envious of you at the same time.

Let's do the hype first. So it's her latest novel since On Beauty in 2005 (2005! How did that happen?) and was published to rave reviews. The Observer called it 'Undeniably brilliant.' Spectator went a step further by calling it 'a lyrical fiction for our times.' A N Wilson got very excited and forgot how to use complete sentences: 'Amazing, dazzling. Really - without exaggeration - not since Dickens has there been a better observer of London scenes. Zadie Smith is a genius.'

Dickens? Crikey. Them's big boots to fill.

Rewind further. This is the woman who got a £250,000 advance on, publishing legend has it, the basis of the pretty sketchy outline of White Teeth. Who was catapulted to the status of Literary Celebrity before she was in her mid-20s. Who wrote a refreshing collection of essays (Changing My Mind - heck, even the title was refreshing: a writer who doesn't claim to be irrefutable) in which she honestly summed up her 'art' or, rather, the lack thereof. Turns out that once she gets past the intro of a new novel - which can take her a number of painstaking, drafting-riddled years - she's onto it. She doesn't plan the whole narrative (hence why that White Teeth legend rings true, I suppose), but rather lets the novel take her on its journey. Then she bashes the rest of it out and, once published, seems to try her hardest to forget about it, hating to re-read, dwell or discuss it further. Her recent Q&A with PenguinBooksUK on Twitter would seem to support this: the 140 character limit couldn't disguise her reluctance to elaborate on her 'favourite' or 'least favourite' aspects of her writing, the challenges she faces or what she considers her successes. Like Kate Moss (minus the 'e'), she seems to have cracked the interview thing, realising that the less you say the more impressive your few, carefully-chosen words become.

And so the story. Four friends, or rather two friends - Leah and Natalie (formerly Keisha, but she reinvents herself Madonna-style with a name more appropriate to her middle-class barrister adulthood) - and two associates, Felix and Nathan - grow up on an estate in NW London JUST LIKE ZADIE (formerly Sadie) did. They reach their late teens and, on a superficial level at least, branch off in wildly different directions. After a promising start Leah becomes an idle drifter, reluctant to fall pregnant on account that would mean the glorious 90s and all their thrills, pills and hangovers are very definitely in the past. Nathan becomes a nocturnal junkie depressingly familiar with the closures and relocation of North West police cells. Felix has managed to right himself after a piss poor upbringing and years of addiction only to become a depressing murder statistic. Natalie seems to fare best, making it to Uni, marrying 'well' and procreating but, despite her comfortable semi-detached existence, she can't leave NW and her sense of what she could or should have been behind. She finds straddling her old and new lives impossible and ends up no happier than the others, exploring dark avenues of drugs and anonymous sex websites. The ending is abrupt, inconclusive, unsatisfying - I'll expand on that in a second.  

But hang on: in some ways I enjoyed NW - like, really enjoyed it. Smith's fantastic at capturing speech and details of character; it's an unquestionable strength of her writing. She makes ordinary vernacular sound tragic and a touch poetic without tipping the scales into mawkish ("I was, man! I was good! You remember. Most people don't know me from then. You remember. Got them gold stars all day long," says Nathan Bogle in full-on mournful junkie mode). She chances upon occasional nail-on-the-head truths: 'At ten she would have done anything, anything! Now she sees ten-year-olds and cannot believe they have inside them what she had inside her at the same age.' That's just perfectly expressed. And what about conversations with people you used to go to school with? 'Shar is impatient with chronology. She wants to know if Leah remembers when the science wing flooded, the time Jake Fowler had his head placed in a vice. In relation to these coordinates, like moon landings and the death of presidents, they position their own times.' I guarantee that anyone who went to a UK state school in the 80s or 90s knows exactly where Smith's coming from with that one. There's also a fantastic leap of imagination in her description of what it must feel like to be stabbed: 'Warm liquid reversed up his throat. Over his lips. Yet it couldn't be oblivion as long as he could name it, and with this in mind he said aloud what had been done to him, what was being done to him, he tried to say it, he said nothing. Grace!' It's almost cinematically beautiful, that scene. But why wouldn't it be? This is Smith writing about what she knows, and all good advice about writing centres on that simple principle: write what you know. From that comes the impossible-to-imitate self-assuredness on the minutiae of NW life: the characters, the phrases, those aforementioned stunning cinematic-quality images. The difference between Camden and Kilburn? Not much, to an outsider. But give Smith the topic and she's all over it. Camden is more North than North West, and that's what matters. 'Camden things' include Baudelaire, Bukowski, Nick Drake, Sonic Youth, Joy Division, boys who look like girls....the list goes on. My grandma lived in Camden and this made me smile. She's keeping it real. 

But here's the rub. Of all the reviews I've read, a couple of words come up pretty persistently. 'Vignette' is one. 'Sketch' is another. 'Portrait' appears here and there. All shorthand for saying that we shouldn't expect a coherent plot. This is how Smith does things - experimentally, pushing boundaries, while keeping her subject matter things that she knows intimately: her beloved (?) NW London. Think Mrs Dalloway - there are numerous similarities in the content (women! marriage! control!) but the disjointed, acutely modern construction is another area where Smith's debt to Woolf is apparent. Just take a look at some of the kerrrrazy modern storytelling tools she employs. Messenger conversations. A website's bland directions from point A to point B, then the same directions rewritten in a Joycean stream-of-consciousness babble of the senses. Complete abandonment of cohesion when she starts to number individual, sometimes only vaguely connected scenes or exchanges. Scene upon scene upon scene, and the links - there are links - aren't necessarily immediately apparent (I have to admit - SPOILER KLAXON - I had to Google whether Nathan was responsible for Felix's death, and whether Shar was somehow involved. They were. Phew.) Now this is the thing: I can appreciate all of this as someone who teaches students how to deconstruct texts on a daily basis, but as a grassroots reader I generally look for more structural signposts in my 'stories'. And Smith doesn't provide. She's too keen, I think, on a) painting her sketch of London and b) pushing the limitations of the contemporary novel format than telling us what happens to the characters and why these events are important, significant. Plot becomes secondary to her Mad Scientist structural experimentation. What is this book ultimately about? Speech? Language? Technology? Relationships? Class? Don't expect to fathom it. It ain't there, man (as someone like Nathan might say). 

And this leads me to a sad conclusion: perhaps I'm just not edgy enough. In fact, I'd say that's my ultimate problem with Zadie Smith: she makes me feel deeply uncool. She's like one of those girls at school who claimed to be geeky and an outcast but was actually the most amazing social all-rounder ever - someone who could sit upstairs and smoke with the bad girls on the bus and still score straight As. While all the genuine geeks looked on wistfully wishing that they were more like Zadie/Sadie but knowing they'd be worrying about cancer and what their mums would say.

Damn you, Zadie. 


I've started reviewing more books on Goodreads; I intend to write at least a couple of sentences about everything I read and perhaps expand on a few of them in more detail here. Do you use Goodreads? If so, let me know in the comments and I'll follow you. I'm always interested in what people are reading. 

Anyone else read NW? What were your thoughts?


  1. ooooo love this review and love goodreads, always helps when I'm in a slump.
    Although I fear you are to cool for me!

    1. Pfffft, I ain't too cool for noone. I'm going to track you down...

  2. I loved White Teeth, found On Beauty too pretentious, can't quite remember if it was just the characters or the story or both & so was undecided on whether to read this one but from your review I think yes.

    1. I haven't read White Teeth - I went straight to The Autograph Man (was very much in the frame of mind that I SHOULD like it but I don't think I really did) and I thought On Beauty was intriguing but too much gratuitous sex and edginess (again). And unrealistic characters, whereas I couldn't say that about NW.


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