Lost in London Without a Compass: With NW, Zadie Smith Takes a Wrong Turn

You really can't go home again.

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Ms. Smith.

At the recent Edinburgh Literary Festival, Zadie Smith announced that her 2005 novel On Beauty would be her last to be set in America. Henceforth, she was returning in her books to her native England. A surprising thought, at least at first. Wouldn’t it seem natural that Ms. Smith, a Greenwich Village familiar over the past several years who holds tenure at NYU and has become a mainstay in the pages of The New York Review of Books, might have adopted New York as her literary home as well? Nevertheless, in her gangly, formally ambitious new novel, NW, she has opted to make her return not just to London, but to the working-class hodgepodge of Northwest London, the subject of her 2000 novel White Teeth, as well as her childhood home.

Thirteen years on, it is still relatively familiar territory. While NW evinces the author’s restlessness over how to get the tangled bustle of gritty urban life down on the page, the chunk of the city where a good bit of the novel takes place has remained buffeted from the real-estate juggernaut that has transfigured much of London and New York over the past two decades. As her character Leah Hanwell—at 35 years old a denizen of the ’hood who never moved up and out—pictures it from the window of a bus:

Ungentrified, ungentrifable. Boom and bust never come here. Here bust is permanent. Empty State Empire, empty Odeon, graffiti-streaked sidings rising and falling like a rickety rollercoaster. Higgledy piggledy rooftops and chimneys, some high, some low, packed tightly, shaken fags in a box. Behind the opposite window, retreating Willesden … In the 1880s or thereabouts the whole thing went up at once—houses, churches, schools, cemeteries—an optimistic vision of Metroland. Little terraces, faux-Tudor piles. All the mod cons! Indoor toilet, hot water. Well-appointed country living for those tired of the city. Fast forward. Disappointed city living for those tired of their countries.

Though they share the same vintage, Willesden’s faux-Tudors are a far cry from the real-estate lottery tickets that line the street of John Lancaster’s Capital, the other much anticipated and mostly disappointing way-we-live-now novel of London to arrive on our shores this year. Nor has the precipitous bust of 2008–2009, a centerpiece of Mr. Lancaster’s book, left nearly the same mark on the main players of NW, although one of the three strivers around whom the book revolves, the desperately successful corporate lawyer Natalie, couldn’t imagine the buff prosperity of her life—a well-to-do banker husband, a modest manor on the park, dinner parties with the sorts of insufferably self-regarding friends who chatter about farm-to-table spinach and underwater birthing, two children who seem destined never to know their mother’s dismally impoverished upbringing—without the tidal surge of the decade’s slosh of wealth.

Natalie and her childhood friend Leah are the focal points of NW. The novel traces their respective varieties of disappointed city living, from their unpromising origins in council housing to their present-day unhappiness on either side of the have-and-have-not divide. A former philosophy student whose life has rutted out in a dead-end administrative job for the council, Leah is married to Michel, a French hairdresser of African descent who spends his spare time day-trading the meager savings they possess. Childless despite increasing pressure from Michel and her eager mother, Leah is resigned to indulge her affections on her dog; outside of sharing joints with an upstairs neighbor, that seems like her greatest ambition in an already-burned-out life.

At the beginning of NW, in a section called “Visitation,” Leah is lying in a hammock penciling a line she has overheard on the radio—“I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me.” I should probably write, “Significantly, at the beginning of NW, Leah etc.,” but it would be redundant. Part of what makes NW an exasperating read is less its formal and stylistic “difficulty” than Ms. Smith’s determination to hammer home at every turn just how significant each detail is to her story. This is a novel larded from its first page with portentous signs and dangling leitmotifs (apple trees with bitter fruits, blurry photographs, an epidemic of gravid foxes), all served up in restive, jarring sub-Woolfian prose—more on which later. At any rate, her radio silence is interrupted, sure enough, by a trickster visitor at the door, a con-artist crackhead named Shar who, it turns out, is a former schoolmate of Leah and Natalie. Their impromptu high-school reunion inaugurates the devilish presence of Shar and her pimpish cohort Nathan Bogie—a druggy street hustler who had been the apple of Leah’s eye as a kid—who literally and thematically haunt Leah’s slow descent toward breakdown.

We’re given a foreboding of Leah’s decline from the very start. Natalie’s is more surprising. She is a second-generation Caribbean who externally is a marvel of self-made success (“the girl done good from their thousand-kid madhouse; done too good, maybe, to recall where she came from”). Natalie, who—significantly!—once went by the name Keisha, is the hard-working, single-minded go-getter whose journey through college and on to a budding career in the law is all about shedding every stitch of her penniless Pentecostal upbringing. At school, “Natalie Blake was crazy busy with self-invention. She lost God so smoothly and painlessly she had to wonder what she’d ever meant by the word. She found politics and literature, music, cinema.” There is a kind of connect-the-dots trajectory to Natalie’s post-collegiate success: conscience still intact, she opts at first for a paralegal job at “a tiny legal aid firm in Harlesden with half its stenciled letters peeled off” but abandons it as easily as she did the name Keisha for the corporate position, the pair of kids, the perfect husband. But there’s a final new identity that Natalie adopts—the Casual Encounters-trolling “Wild in Wembley”—that marks the limits of her gift for reinvention and the place where self-creation and self-destruction dovetail.

This is surprising, not least because it’s seemingly unfathomable in the character Ms. Smith spent the previous 150 pages developing. I say seemingly unfathomable because the style in which Ms. Smith has chosen to tell Natalie’s story—one of three main sections in NW, each dedicated to a particular character—hacks apart her narrative into 150 numbered sections, most of them only a paragraph or two long. These have subtitles (e.g., “Vivre sa vie”; “Surplus Value, Schizophrenia, Adolescence”; “Time Slows Down”; “Capitalist Pigs”) that function like the intertitles in Godard’s Weekend, though the more apt comparison might be Two or Three Things I Know About Her. We see bits and pieces of both Natalie and Leah revealed through all sorts of raking angles—interior dialogue, fragmentary conversation, quick sketches, little asides that Ms. Smith cleverly drops into her text—but we ironically enough never really get a solid sense of just who they are or what motivates their actions. They never quite know who they are, and neither do we.

Ms. Smith’s formal experiment in NW demonstrates a certain level of trust in her readers, making her return to a novelistic terrain she first explored 13 years ago feel like a new arrival. And it is. The blueprint of NW is unlike that of any of Ms. Smith’s other novels: she employs changes in tense, unorthodox typography, wild swings in perspective, passages of free-floating dialogue. She samples a gamut of styles: subchapters written as a set of Google directions, another given in the form of stage directions. One short interlude is arranged as a Robert Herrick-ish pattern-poem shaped like an apple tree. It’s hard to think of a novel that sets as many of its scenes on subways and buses, and the unsettling motion of Ms. Smith’s shape-shifting text does at least mirror the whirl of a city whizzing by, but this stylish slew sacrifices those qualities that were the best aspects of her earlier writing—capacious urbanity, plump sentences, generosity. NW is a much darker novel than anything Ms. Smith has written previously, and the tunnel vision of its characters is clearly part of what she wants us to think about. But you never can shake the awareness that Ms. Smith is both the conductor of this peculiar trip and the engineer who rigged the tracks, which is not quite what you expect from a writer who thought hard about the tricky business of authorial authenticity in her celebrated New York Review of Books assault on lyrical realism, “Two Paths for the Novel.” For a novel that aspires to take its characters’ own forays with authenticity so seriously, the self-conscious artifice of NW is a major roadblock.

Oddly, the most successful passage in NW is the one that is most tangential to the sagas of Leah and Natalie. It tells in a backward glance the story of the final day in the life of Felix, who is unknown to the protagonists and whose murder Leah just happens to catch on a newscast. A former addict trying to stay clean, he too is a product of a council upbringing and is striving for direction, having already tried out the bottom rungs of careers in film and cooking and an ill-fated T-shirt business. In three marvelously drawn set pieces—with his father, still in the “dreaded Garvey House” where Felix was raised; with his ex-girlfriend, who tempts him with coke and cynicism; and with the bloke he visits to buy a rusted-out MG—Ms. Smith gives us all of what is missing elsewhere in NW: a real character, birthed from the fabric of her novel, whom we witness as he drinks ginger beer in a pub, haggles over a car, has sex, criss-crosses the city, and declares joyously that he is in love. It all unfolds as if a camera were trailing him. We know how his story will end, yet even with death hanging over him, Ms. Smith finds a way to zap him into sweet, cocky, imperfect life. And there’s nothing lyrical about it.

editorial@observer.com