The Book Club has been going long enough for us to be revisiting an earlier “real-life” book club for our discussion of Zadie Smith’s NW, the one that read Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies for us. So, if you want all their specs, just click here.
We have one addition to the club this time: Cathy Jackson, 45 (favourite books: The Stand, by Stephen King; The Magician, by Raymond Feist; The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger; plus anything by PD James and Ian Rankin).
The Book Club has also been going long enough for you to know by now the drill for what follows – the discussion took place over several weeks via Facebook etc etc.
So, without further ado …
Cat Major began the discussion, saying (oh dear): “I’m not really sure that I enjoyed it. I thought I was going to when I started it. I was very struck by the initial image of Shah pulling at her clothes and wailing in Leah’s house, it seemed like a description of the universal condition of ‘womanhood in sorrow’, and had echoes of big meaningful world events like those in the Middle East, translated into NW London. So I was excited by the thought that the book would use the story it was telling to say something meaningful about the human condition. And to be fair, I guess it did eventually do that. Sort of. But the more the book went through the less I identified with any of the characters. My overall reaction was that I felt like I was standing back coolly observing a group whose life and experiences were completely alien to me. There were the odd observations here and there that resonated – I really liked and could picture the ladies enjoying the ‘sexiness of the early summer’, and busty Tonya with her gift for living; and the phrase towards the end about how you can’t force other people to take off their clothes and gift you freedom was delicious! And it was definitely a book that occupied the mind. I liked the use of different tenses and tracing some of the key themes that go through it (freedom; happiness; ‘self’; mother; social caste/class). But by and large it just wasn’t me. I’d write an essay about it, but not go back and read it again once the essay was done.”
Tiffany Thomas: “I think your comments about NW being essay material pretty well sum up my feelings about it too, Cat. Nicely put. I admired the book, it was very clever, but I didn’t overly enjoy it. Totally agree that if you were studying it in English Lit there would be ample material for an essay critiquing the style, but for me that doesn’t usually make for an enjoyable read.”
Cathy Jackson: “I agree. There are some very clever and quirky observations. I did like the section headings in Natalie’s part of the book although I found some of the brief observations unnecessary and in some cases overly clever (if that makes sense). I liked how she used the sections to move time along, sometimes quickly and sometimes not – it was effective. Although I agree with Cat that their lives and experiences are completely differenct to ours, there are some aspects that are universal, like the struggle to work out who you are as person and where you fit.”
Tiffany: ”There were lots of funny clever bits, weren’t there? I read somewhere that NW is a tragi-comedy. I read that and thought no way. But then I remembered all the funny little bits, like the section headings in Natalie’s part of the book, and had to rethink my initial rejection of the tragi-comedy description.”
Tina Joel: ”Perhaps ‘wry’ or ‘snide’ would be more accurate than ‘comic’.”
Tiffany: “Yes, definitely. Snide is a great adjective. That’s especially so with the dinner party scene. I found it amusing but yes, in a smirky way.”
Tina: ”So far (chapter 6), so enjoyable. One element of Smith’s writing that I like is her ability to illustrate characters in a few sentences of sparse descriptors. When it doesn’t resolve into cliche, it’s a very visual way to endow characters with personality and to set a scene, and in these beginning chapters Smith ‘does’ NW London well. I just read and enjoyed this sentence related to a bored young corner-shop assistant: ‘He looked down at his father’s counter, where a pocket full of change was trying to resolve itself into ten Rothmans.’ No description of the sad soul buying the ciggies, but your mind can easily conjure up the image of someone in the scene. Looking forward to the rest of the story, and hoping it doesn’t end with a whimper.”
Cat: “Yes, I’d forgotten about that. Totally agree with you. Later on, there’s a nice description of how Natalie and Frank add ‘vibrancy’ to their local neighbourhood – Smith doesn’t need to make any comment about the (presumably white middle-class) people living around them, but it resonates unspoken nevertheless.”
Tina: ”Ooh, another ‘Aha!’ of recognition for me here in Natalie’s advice from the female judge: that a passionate argument from a man is seen as ‘aggressive hysteria’ when expressed by a woman. Too true too often!”
Tiffany: “She really is able to conjure up an image or a feeling with very few words, isn’t she? Very clever writing. One that I jotted down from the first chapter was when Leah was going to the front door: ‘In the textured glass, a body, blurred. Wrong collection of pixels to be Michel.’ I liked the pixels reference. I could imagine exactly what she was referring to, with looking through that bubbly textured glass that my grandparents used to have in their front door.”
Tina: “Okay, I’m now finished. (Childless person indulging in a whole day in bed, reading – yes, you can hate me now!) I’m with Cat, in that I thought the book would be building up to An Important Statement about the human condition, but beyond the drawn-out ‘identity and alienation’ themes it didn’t satisfy me as a reader in the end. It had lots of great and evocative slivers of writing, including some interesting structural ideas, but not enough ‘story’ to carry me through. What did you think Smith was trying to link in the segment titles? ‘Visitation’, ‘Guest’, ‘Host’, ‘Crossing’. They imply transience, but despite the continual emphasis on the ethnic heritage of the main characters Smith is simultaneously insistent upon how ‘local’ they are.”
Cat: “All those titles said ‘Old Testament’ to me. The story when someone (Abraham? I should know this) acts as unwitting host to a travelling pair who turn out to be angels. But actually I think I’m reading too much meaning in. ‘Visitation’ also had echoes of Gabriel coming to Mary to announce her pregnancy; of course in this case it’s the reverse (Leah already knows she’s pregnant, and far from being the hoped-for Saviour she doesn’t intend to go to term). But I don’t think Smith meant that image either.”
Tiffany: ”I thought ‘parasite’ about the guest/host titles, which made me think about pregnancy (seen in a negative light obviously).”
Cathy: ”I am making my way through the book and nearly there – am definitely enjoying it more the more I read it. I did find it a little hard to begin with to see Leah and Keisha/Natalie staying friends from a young age through to adulthood as they develop into quite different people. I’m also still waiting to see why Keisha decided to change her name. Keisha/Natalie seemed to struggle with her personal identity while she was growing up and even while at university but I’m hoping there’s more depth to the reason behind her change of name than what has been implied so far. I also have to fess up to the fact that after reading the first few chapters I skipped to the end to read the last few pages of the book. I was pleased to see the ending clearly suggested the storyline was heading somewhere that was not immediately obvious from the start.”
Tiffany: “I quite liked the relationship between Leah and Natalie. It felt quite ‘real’. They’ve stayed friends due to a shared history rather than any common interests in the present. I can understand friendships like that. I kept thinking of that Morrissey song: ’We hate it when our friends become successful.’ It’s more than just jealousy or envy. I am sure the Germans have a handy one-word noun to sum up that emotion. I don’t think Leah begrudges Natalie her success.”
Amelia Jones: ”I skipped the last part of the middle section out of sheer annoyance, which I now regret after one of the reviews was so enthusiastic about that bit. I left the book with my sister is Christchurch, though, so I’m not going to rectify this omission any time soon.”
Cathy: ”I’m making good progress – I have to say at the beginning I found it a bit disjointed (shades of The Forrests) but the more I read the more I am enjoying it. I’m not sure that I find it wonderfully funny (Evening Standard comments) but there are definitely some funny/quirky moments.”
Helen Donnelly: ”I am enjoying being in NW London, because 13 years ago I lived very close to where it’s set. I am finding it difficult to get into the book, but am putting that down to tiredness…”
Tiffany: “I found the disjointed style very difficult to read at the beginning. You will be pleased to know that it doesn’t last. The book swaps viewpoints, and style, dramatically a couple more times as it follows different characters. Some are much easier to read than others.”
Cat: ”I got very distracted by what she was trying to say or achieve through the different styles, and also the meaning behind the titles of the different sections. Too much lit crit at university, methinks.”
Amelia: “Done. I wonder if the fact I don’t know London and that her world was foreign to me and so familiar to the author and presumably her audience for the book made a difference? One thing the reviews comment favourably on is how she captures the place, but that’s partly wasted on me. I can see she’s painted something well, but it doesn’t give me any additional insight. You know how a painting of somewhere you know can make you see something different in the familiar or just appreciate it in a new way because it’s someone else’s eye?”
Tina: ”I don’t know if there was any need or benefit to the novel for Smith to include that tired old concept of ‘woman as time-keeper’ thanks to menstruation and fertility.”
Amelia: ”I was particularly annoyed by Natalie and the random shagging. It could be made sense of, but it did not make sense of itself.”
Tiffany: “I thought Natalie’s quest for anonymous sex was odd, too. It seemed bizarrely out of character – or maybe it was in character but the character hadn’t been developed enough for it to make any sense. Maybe Smith was just trying to pick up a few 50 Shades of Grey readers on her way…”
Cat: ”Natalie’s quest for anonymous sex was one of the bits that made the most sense to me (compared with the rest of the fairly random happenings). Her whole life, we hear that she’s struggled to have any sense of her own reality. (Sounds like undiagnosed depression to me.) Even giving birth, which she hoped would FINALLY make her feel real, doesn’t. So the sex is her quest to find something that makes her feel, something completely outside what a woman like her might be expected to do, and therefore maybe for the first time something that forces her to feel. It’d be significant that it’s threesomes that she goes for – one would assume that the girl in the threesome is the major centre of attention, the whole point of the exercise for the two blokes who almost become accessories. (I AM ASSUMING HERE!) But even that doesn’t work for her, hence ending up on the bridge contemplating suicide.”
Deborah Mayo: ”Finally finished! I feel like I struggled my way to the end without much reward. I am not sure the multiple styles she employed added anything to the book – if anything they distract you from the story. I finished it wondering if I missed the point she was trying to make but on reflection I am not sure there was much of one to miss.”
Cathy: “I have finished now too and I’m disappointed. It seemed like the story just fizzled away to nothing. I struggled with the disjointedness of the start, started to get into it through the middle stages and then felt let down by the finish.”
[At this point, Book Club co-host Megan Dunn interjected to ask: "Do you think NW is a book for writers more than readers? There is a lot of attention to the texture of writing here. Or is the idea of the writer's writer just a terrible cliche?"]
Tiffany: “NW certainly felt like an experiment in styles at times. I agree with Deb that it did get distracting. Yes, perhaps it is the sort of thing that other writers would find clever and interesting. I don’t know if writers write for other writers – it’s certainly not a very commercially savvy decision if they do, unless maybe they are sufficiently well established not to alienate their readers.”
Tina: ”I agree with Tiff about ‘writers’ writers’ - it’s very gutsy to write something with significant literary value then ‘publish and be damned’, but I suspect it’s a doomed position to take in New Zealand if you’re trying to make a living from writing. Are we all missing something awfully clever, as in Smith was trying to echo another, more famous author’s style, theme or format? More than the ‘texture’ of the writing, I was disappointed that the novel’s small and elegant vignettes were not part of a more robust story arc.”
Deborah: “I have discussed this with my husband (who has done far more creative writing than me) and he made a couple of good points – experimenting with styles is something many writers will try but unless they are very skilled it will often backfire, and for it to be successful you need a really strong story holding it together, which I am not sure was the case here. He also reminded me it’s a technique that works much better across a collection of short stories.”
Tiffany: “That’s so true. It almost is like a lot of short (well, short-ish) stories cobbled together but with some common characters.”
Cathy: ”I agree with Deb – if the story itself had been stronger then the use of the different styles would have worked better. The story would have been the focus and not the styles. Instead the use of the different styles distracted from the story.”
Amelia: “I didn’t find the styles distracting, but I did breeze through it. If anything, it felt a bit like a fashion I don’t hate, think can be perfectly fine on someone else, but wouldn’t choose to spend my own money on. I agree with your comments in that I don’t think it was necessary.”
Helen: ”I have struggled hugely with this book and am not yet finished. I found Leah unlikeable and distanced from herself and her life. Is this why Smith experiments so much with style on her? I am not normally someone who has to like the characters to enjoy a book, but in this case the combination is not great. I’d been choosing to read other things instead. However, the more traditional Felix section has drawn me back in and I will persevere. Am quite enjoying being in NW London, I think Smith portrays it well… And yes, it does feel a bit like short stories…”
Cat: “Tina’s right about writers’ writers. You’d have to be pretty gutsy – and damned sure you’ve written an awesome book, too (which I don’t think this one is, even for writers or critics).”
And that was that. Ending on a parenthesis – Smith would surely approve.
On Friday, we kick off October’s Book Club choice, Man Booker Prize-shortlisted The LIghthouse, with an interview with its author, Alison Moore.
For a change, this month we will be doing our bookseller discussion via Facebook and our “real-life” book club discussion as a podcast.
Smith isn’t the only one who can experiment.