04 September 2012

NW (Zadie Smith)

The terse title of Zadie Smith's sad, funny, knowing new novel NW refers to a set of postcodes in northwest London, where it takes place. (The preceding sentence brought to you by a Wikipedian rabbit hole of British administrative nomenclature, capped off by the hilariously named article "NUTS of the United Kingdom.") The book's four parts, "Visitation," "Guest," "Host," and "Crossing," correspond roughly to four characters--Leah, Felix, Keisha-cum-Natalie, and Nathan--who are linked by their time as children in the Caldwell council estate (Americans would call it a housing project). Their storylines collide, intersect, keep pace, and diverge throughout; while the parallel-lives construction, and the mostly working-class milieu, are familiar from other modern novels, I can hardly think of enough positive adjectives for Smith's prose. (Or un-cliched ones: lapidary! scintillating! trenchant! Like an obsidian knife?)

Each protagonist's part of NW is written in a distinct style, connecting diction with disposition. All are beautiful. Felix's section, "Guest," is the most straightforward, as is his story, that of a tragic striver. Its chapters are called after the postcodes where they take place, and while the sentences don't take structural chances, they remain full of precise, packed imagery: "His belly stayed concave, a curtain sucked in through an open window."

"Host" follows Keisha's journey from her Caldwell upbringing to her adulthood as Natalie, high-powered and emotionally empty lawyer. Her obsessive need to order her life results in a numbered series of mini-chapters, some only a sentence long--largely chronological, but in the way that memory is chronological, jumping sometimes forward, sometimes back. In "Crossing," her settled existence shattered, she takes a walk with Nathan Bogle, once the cutest boy in the class, now a homeless addict--together, they literally pace out the path of their shared youth, their steps ringing hollowly through the present.

My favorite, though, is "Visitation." Told from Leah's perspective, the section is fragmented like her consciousness, the sentences often literally so. Dialogue sometimes, but not always, is set off with what another Wikipedia digression informs me is called a "quotation dash," a definite break with her internal monologue. Every now and then, the narrative cascades into chaotic, scattered lines on the page, voices and thoughts crowding over each other. I was mesmerized by the very first sentence: "The fat sun stalls by the phone masts." Listen (I want to use the Old English hwæt): it's a heavy, even stride like climbing stairs contrasted with the quick hiss and spit of the fricatives--an almost synesthetic pleasure to speak, the sounds on the tongue like cherry tomatoes, discrete, smooth, bursting.

Impossible for me to write about without trying to emulate it.

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