I finished NW last night and loved it. Loved that there was no finality and that Smith didn’t feel she had to ‘tie things up’ or even ‘tuck things in’, as one reviewer had it. Loved that risk. Because it is one. To write something and allow within it the acknowledgment (the frustration) that the world offers us very little in the way of tying-up or tucking-in. That there is really no ‘ending’ afforded to most of us. I suppose some would say that is why we have novels, for the sense of an ending (ha!). But this is also why we have novels: to teach us about the horrendous difficulty and the occasional beauty of being a human being in a world which is generally without redemption, especially in the form of a ‘happily ever after’ following great life events. NW‘s form is open. Openness, lots of space for things to blow through the novel.
Some of the reviewers I read link NW to Modernism. I wonder if that is in part or in the main because they have read about Zadie Smith, or read her essays, and know she is interested in Modernist writers. Because of course you can read echoes of Joyce or of Woolf here, in the over-running sentences and in the dailyness and in the lack of speech marks in places. Sure. But the novel is not a Modernist novel. How could it be? Here we are—here Zadie Smith is—somewhere else, some other time. Or, insofar as it might be Modernist, how could it be held to some ‘standard’ of ‘pure Modernism’ as one review seemed to? There is no pure Modernism, probably never was. I was glad not to have read any reviews of the book before I read it itself, other than a few people I know saying they’d enjoyed it. It is a novel that owes as much to hypertext, to distraction, to fragmentation of attention (and thus maybe to later schools of writing, like the ones into which Barthes’ and Derrida’s and Cixous’ work is shuffled, as much as to Modernism) as anything else. It is a newspaper of a book, all the pieces in there together.
I was completely along for the ride: not only because (as in most interesting novels) I wanted to find out what would happen to characters I was interested in, but because the forms themselves held me. There’s a section in 184 short pieces (numbered). Yes, I thought, as soon as I hit it. We are given no direct lines. Instead, it’s a sort of textual braiding, where individual hairs slip out of place and hang there, refusing to rejoin—and others we lose, only to see much later how they incorporated themselves into the braid pattern. I found much to learn from as a writer here, and much confirmation about my own ideas as to the direction of new novels (away from singular/linear movements).
What is NW about? The inconsequentiality of most things and the immense consequence of things we overlook most of the time. It’s about London. Is that easier? No, I think they are the same thing. Immensity, minority, value. It is about being lost. About being no longer young.The sad and hollow space of her characters’ thirties. The echoes of each bad decision. About the points in one’s life at which one feels, very sadly, that there can be no more great change (rightly or wrongly). About being stuck where you are despite the myths of movement. In some ways it is a tragic, tragic novel. The second section, ‘Guest’, took the wind out of me. Real life, also in some novels, is when you think despite everything that you will survive, only to be confronted with the inescapable fact of your mortality.
Beautiful speech in Zadie Smith’s characters’ mouths. Said many of their pronunciations aloud to hear them as they’re written. Variety of speakers and of ways of using the language. I loved that I could see/hear the variety of people I saw/heard in my times in London. Complex people, her characters, with lots of desire and very little communication between them. No one is able to really say what they want or to admit their errors. Even if they did—even when they are found out—there is no particular possibility of a grand redemption. Despite this, I never felt oppressed by the novel. Part of what it seems to insist on by its openness is that more is out there. While we have only a few stories (Leah, Natalie/Keisha, Felix—though that’s also different) we are always being told that these aren’t the only stories (Rodney, Nathan, Shar, the couples Natalie contacts, Michel [a main but not central character?], Annie, Tom, Grace, Phil, Lloyd, the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers of Leah and Natalie…). That’s also the injustice of the city, the metropolis where the individual is buried in the swarm: the story is lost. There are two edges to it.
I really found NW a wonderful novel, and in terms of form, a hopeful one—pointing to something beyond the novel as we have had it til now. I didn’t think it succeeded at each point on each page but as a whole, yes.