Half sentences, fragments, broken syntax and line, dialect, sometimes no punctuation. The linear narrative under reconstruction, jackhammer to the fourth wall of fiction, the suspension bridge of disbelief like the London Bridge of the nursery rhyme, falling down. Busting the glass ceilings.
Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, set mostly in Caldwell, a working-class estate in London, is full of voices from everywhere, or from everywhere a generation or two ago, now from a very particular down-at-the-heels contemporary Britain: Ghanaians, Jamaicans, Rastas, ginger-haired Irish so pink they burn when exposed to the sun, litigators, junkies, students, film types, car mechanics, parents and grown children. Old lefties and the moneyed, and in between, all the calibrations of class the Brits are so very good at noticing.
Also full of things: gold teeth, dogs, the dense stink of pot, ecstasy, buses with tattooed old ladies getting out the wrong door backside first, dragging their shopping trolleys. There’s even a concrete poem, early on, a mouth, the lips a string of words, a capitalized “tongue” in the middle, maybe a nod to the Rolling Stones.
NW, the novel named after the North West part of London, starts off with a stream-of-consciousness the reader must give into wholly. But Smith is also sucker for old-fashioned narrative drama. These broken bits and shards morph quickly into brief, numbered scenes that unfurl with great humour and sometimes with pathos, concerning break-ups, hard living, drug additions, wayward mothers and a horrifying stabbing.
There is sexual longing, the most ballsy, female-centred sex I’ve read in a long while, startling, hot, full of foreplay and foreshadow – as well as sex that, ahem, isn’t so great, but is hilarious – and the need for money, the fear of violence, the search for identity.
Smith has bionic hearing, or a miniature tuning fork in her ear where everyone else has that little bone hammer; every nuance of dialect and cadence captured convincingly. There are all the things you aren’t allowed to talk about at the dinner table – politics, class, religion, sex – though there are great dinner-table conversations where the chatter reams out like this: “Pass the heirloom tomato salad. The thing about Islam. Let me tell you about Islam. Everyone is suddenly an expert on Islam. But what do you think, Samhita, yeah what do you think, Samhita, what’s your take on this? Samhita, the copyright lawyer. Pass the tuna.”
Smith’s democratizing omniscient narrator slips from one consciousness to the next, giving everyone his or her say, and homing in on the three main characters: Leah Hanwell, of Irish descent and an administrator of a lottery whose proceeds go to charity; Felix Cooper, a former addict, trying to extricate himself from a dying affair with an older woman; and Natalie Blake (formerly named Keisha), whose mother is Jamaican, who becomes a high-powered lawyer, driven in equal parts by ambition and anxiety, suffering from a kind of hole in her identity, a self she cannot find or properly name.
The idea of self is at the centre of this novel: how to contain the self, know it or create it.
In Smith’s last book, a collection of essays titled Changing My Mind, she wrote that modernist lyrical fiction since Balzac and Flaubert is based on the notion of “the essential continuity and fullness of the self,” or the self as a bottomless well that the modernist novel mines for meaning, instead of looking to the stars.
With NW, Smith puts her money where her mouth is. There is a ragged-edged exuberance here; nothing strives to look polished. Smith disrupts flow, employs her signature sauciness, her Cambridge smarts and satirical darts. She goes after everything, no target too wide or too pointed: political correctness, “excellent” coffee instead of just regular coffee, and “branding” as a radical advertising concept.
Nobody is going to accuse Smith of being straitlaced or staid, of pandering to her huge audience or of writing a “perfect” novel. Instead, Smith seems to be out to undo the conventional novel. Do the narrative hijinks pay off? Smith derails the reader from the worn ruts of what to expect, provokes surprise. She tests the support beams of plot, knocking them down when she can.
But there is plot. There are delicate connections throughout, the sort of invisible connections that happen in an urban neighbourhood that is racially “diverse” (one character scoffs at the ridiculous word). Smith’s characters brush up against each other, sometimes fatally, all cause-and-effecting each other in ineluctable ways.
The result of this delicate, almost non-existent plotting is character. Smith has strong characters in Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell and the ex-addict Felix Cooper. They have inner lives, and friendships, inconsistencies and desires that swing out of control in the carnival atmosphere of the novel.
In another essay, “Fail Better,” Smith says this about style: “You don't think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. Rather, you see style as a personal necessity, as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. Style is a writer’s way of telling the truth.”
The result of Smith’s experiments with style here is an authenticity of voice, the political and the personal, mixed like an M.I.A. song. The result is tangential storytelling, with some narrative threads left to fly in the wind, others clipped off hurriedly at the end. Smith offers an experiment in form that refuses to tidy itself up before it heads out onto the streets.
Lisa Moore’s stage adaptation of her novel, February, premieres at the Alumnae Theatre in Toronto from Sept. 21 to Oct. 6.