Ugh... if you like this type of books, we are not going to get along as readers. NW, by the extremely talented Zadie Smith, is what happens when your inspiration has died and you have nothing else to do but overthink your work.
NW follows four Londoners -
Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan - after they've left their childhood
council estate, grown up and moved on to different lives. They are unhappy in a variety of ways. That's pretty much it. Beginning and end.
This is the triumph of structure over content. And not in a good, "just
on the right line" way. Content is absolutely smashed to a pulp and
disintegrated, by Alexander the Great the Emperor of All Worlds: The
Structure. In fact, I'd venture to say that the book is a beautiful
The author spent so much time working on the box and the
wrapping (language, sentences, even typography), that she forgot she actually had a flipping novel to write! A
story worth telling! Content, juice, meat, anyfing.... there's
just none of that here, innit?
Yes, I do have a certain
admiration for the structural acrobatics that Zadie Smith used in NW. It
reminded me of some musicians who at a certain point go balls out and
dare to try a completely different thing, with the hope that they will
either be recognized as geniuses - because they actually invented
something new - or at least they will inspire some change. A daring feat,
experimental, almost like watching a new circus number.
But all this
formal sophistication does not go anywhere, and it might very well distract readers, like a magic
trick, from the reality in front of them, from the fact that this is a very pointless, very cold and very dark book. What
matters to me, especially with fiction books, is that pulsating core
that exists at the center of each novel. In NW, we are given dark
characters with despair in their hearts, cold people with cold
personalities and thoughts. And how accurately Smith portrays the
absolute faithless, godless approach to life of Londoners. All this,
with no plot whatsoever. Like a graphic novel that consists only of
disjointed black and white sketches of miserable people. To use some
teen language: I know, right? Ugh!
No wonder many readers were left almost doubting their own intellectual skills. I
heard a few "I don't know if I'm not sophisticated enough to understand
this novel, but...", and "I'm not sure what I just read". You see what
you did, Zadie?
Not only, as I mentioned above, there is no
plot at all, but also what IS actually there, in between the ink
somersaults, I found boring and unpleasant. I thought Jonathan Franzen
was the undisputed master at generating the most annoying fictional
charachters, but no, Zadie Smith was able to defeat him. The incomplete,
envious and frustrated Leah. The cold, arrogant, cheating Natalie.
Personal taste, maybe, but I wouldn't like to spend 30 seconds with any
of these two.
And what happens to Shar, the girl who shows up
at the beginning, promising intriguing developments? Like many other
elements in this novel, she is lingering at the sides of the destroyed
railway that is this story, with nothing to do, no traction to provide.
In conclusion, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with this bit from a review on "The Guardian":
whole of the first section is defined by its resistance to genre, by
what it doesn't want to be. It's like an oddly shaped inner-city park,
bounded not only by chick-lit and thriller but by the modernism it
aspires to. The touches of dilute Joycean play are less like new ways of
looking at the world than mildly adventurous ways of organising a
narrative. [ ] The whole book is oddly queasy about the value of getting
on in the world."
real mistery of NW is that it falls so far short of being a successful
novel, though it contains the makings of three or four".