White Teeth, it was that musical ear that was emphasized in its sprawling story and rococo diction. In On Beauty, a leaner story of racial politics in academia, it was her formalistic prowess that shone in a brilliant appropriation of E.M. Forster's plot of Howard's End. In her new novel NW (The Penguin Press, 2012), Zadie Smith synthesizes her two sides to fashion a work that feels equal parts her gifts and her technique.
If NW is a musical composition, The Ragazzo called it a sonata, but I would say it was a symphony (NW is the next book for our book club). The classical forms are probably not quite right, it's a bit later than that. Think Mahler more than Haydn, but it does have four movements, and a coda. Each is driven by the point of view of a single character, although they are observed by an omniscient narrator (another classical touch). These points of view give the sections a distinctive tempo. Leah is the subject of the first section, entitled 'Visitation.' The chapters are blocks of narrative of traditional length. This might be the 'Allegro ma non troppo' tempo. Leah is visited by a stranger who tells her a sob story and, in the end, Leah 'lends' her money. Call it Leah's kindness or her liberal guilt as a white woman from the working class but up-and-coming, NW section of London, but the action of this section centers around Leah's guilt, her friends' disbelief, her husband's anger, and the unfortunate consequences that unfold following this chance encounter.
The second section - 'Guest' - has no chapter divisions. It is one run-on narrative about Felix,
whose desultory existence is always full of near-possibilities, but never quite fulfilled. It's the Adagio movement of this symphony. A chance encounter of this well-meaning aimless fellow also does not end well. The third section - 'Host' - concerns Natalie, known in her childhood, when she was best friends with Leah, by a different name: Keisha. Natalie is a lawyer and marries a wealthy man. Her section is retrospective, taking us from Keisha's childhood roots to Natalie's successful present. The short bursts of narrative in this section, some just a few lines long, qualify it for a Presto tempo. Natalie's story spills over into the Fourth movement: 'Crossing' and the Coda - a second 'Visitation,' as is true of more modern symphonies, that allow the form some plasticity.
This is all to say that the centerpiece of this novel is not plot or even character driven - it is place: Northwest London. Zadie Smith's birthplace, by-the-by. Specifically, it is the Caldwell council estates (read public housing if you're American), that was the birthplace of the central characters. If Smith is bringing together the yin and the yang of her artistry in this novel, we see similar polarities played out in the character of Natalie in the attempting melding of her NW roots and her professional life of privilege. But a synthesis of this kind is not easy. So stark a change is the life Natalie starts with from the life she ends up in, she adopts a different identity, outwardly symbolized in her changing her name. Natalie's story is one of great internal tension: ambition alternating with remorse. Her success as a barrister, brilliant marriage, accomplished parenting, alternating with desperate bursts of impulse. Grabs at... what? Danger? Raw experience? Oblivion? The formal synthesis is not always easy for Smith either. While she is a master craftsman of language, can never resist showing us her stuff: the quippy one-line chapters, alternating themes of John Donne with the form of a text message, the symmetrical chapters: one that opens with a man naked and a woman dressed, and a later chapter that opens with the woman naked and the man dressed. It's a bravura performance - although I personally could have lived without URLs for chapter headings.
There is a wonderful scene in which Smith exemplifies Natalie's delicate treading of the line she walks between identities in. In it, a black man, about 18 years of age, sits with his girlfriend in a playground smoking. An older white woman objects to his smoking and scolds him, he retaliates with rudeness. Natalie, accompanied by a middle aged woman whom Smith described as Rasta, attempts to address the conflict as someone allied to the young man in terms of her race. Soon they are joined by an Indian man. A moment later, Natalie is shaming the young man as if she were prosecuting him in a court of law.
Identity both racial and social in the context of economic politics. Local geographic niches. This is about as topical as a novel can get. Smith too comes from NW London, changed her name, and has attained a high level of professional ability through much education and, no doubt, hard work. Unless Smith is an uncannily brilliant character actress, the themes of this novel would seem to be the product of her own social, geographical, economic tensions. It is the character of Natalie who is the most reflective of her circumstances. I don't think it is a coincidence that she is the one with the luxury of time and money. I have heard it said that neurosis is a disorder of privilege. I wonder if Smith was only able to successfully imagine Natalie's circumstances, or if affording her the most backstory was the literary equivalent - backstory as a narrative luxury. Everyone is a product of their past, but think of how a newspaper might treat the death of Felix versus Natalie. Felix would be the unfortunate local kid who became a victim. Natalie would be a successful lawyer who went to such-and-such a school, had children, a husband, sat on a local committee. Natalie would have a biography. Felix would be a statistic.
Despite the differences in their circumstances, these characters all came out of NW. That is their story. It felt at times that Smith implied that NW sewed a seed into her characters' DNA that subjects them to a certain kind of risk. Natalie's remorse seems to lead her to court accident, to almost turn herself into Felix, as though she really did not deserve to end up where she is. But her resources avail her of all sorts of solutions that Felix never has.
NW is not a neatly summed-up. It is a rangy, variegated map of a place. It is a worthwhile work of art that is sociopolitically aware, personally searching, and consciously, almost classically, constructed. A work for our time.