This is shaping up to be the year of the London novel. First there was John Lanchester’s Capital, then Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo, and now comes Zadie Smith’s NW – the only one of the three that truly gets under the skin of the city and does it justice.
Not that Smith is in a position to comment on the other two. “I’m afraid I haven’t read them,” she says, disappointingly, scotching hopes of a takedown of Amis’s working-class comic caricatures.
“The truth is with my own work and a kid and teaching, I get very little time to read contemporary fiction unless I’m reading it for work. I’ll get to it, but it’ll be later. It’s that way for most writers. And I love the late emails you get from writer friends, five years after the novel has come out, saying, ‘I finally got to this, and it’s actually pretty good!’ That’s the most satisfying response because you know they’ve picked it up out of choice rather than duty or embarrassment.”
Out of neither duty nor embarrassment, NW is the September choice of the Listener Book Club. It’s the fourth novel from the 36-year-old Smith, who was catapulted to fame with her precocious 2000 debut, White Teeth, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize with 2005’s On Beauty. Along the way, she was one of Granta magazine’s Best of Young
British Novelists in 2003.
It has been seven years since On Beauty – the longest gap between any of Smith’s novels. Was NW a difficult novel to write? Was there another novel started and abandoned along the way? Or was it a case of other things – life – getting in the way?
“It was by far the most difficult, but there were no other books abandoned on the way, no. I imagine the gaps between my novels are about to get even longer – I have a young, expanding family and I can’t produce work like your average single male novelist. I don’t think of it as life getting in the way. My experience is that the novels get in the way of the life. All writing for me is difficult because I’m somewhat hard on myself and because I don’t believe in this romantic idea of sacrificing one’s friends, partners, children and health for the sake of Art. My writing has never brought me the happiness that life brings me, and I don’t expect my books to sit watching over me at my deathbed, or provide any comfort at that end of things. When I’m writing novels, I suppose I suffer, but in-between I want to enjoy myself. The life is not to be sacrificed on the altar of fiction. That’s a man’s conception of literary martyrdom, and I’m not interested in it.”
When I email my questions through to Smith (her requested form of interview), it is a few days after the end of the Olympics. A momentous event for London – did this writer so alert to the city get caught up in it herself?
“I find the Olympics not a very enlivening subject – what else is there to say about them apart from they were wonderful! That’s the great thing about sport as opposed to art; it’s not in need of much supplementary critique. It is its own wonderful thing. Like everyone else, I loved every minute of it and cried when Mo [Farah] won for the second time. But that’s the other thing about sport – our experiences of it are basically uniform, which is another reason it’s almost impossible to write about. I kept being asked and kept wondering why I was saying no, and the day after the Olympics I opened the papers and saw 50 writers all basically writing the same article. Then I remembered why.”
All Smith’s previous novels have been set in part or in whole in northwest London – now the area provides the title for her latest. For those other novels, her author description remained essentially the same: “Zadie Smith was born in northwest London in 1975 and still lives in the area.” For NW, the second part of the sentence is gone. Nowadays, “half the time I’m in New York [where she is a professor of creative writing at New York University] – more than half the time really, so NW is a place that for me is simply where I go to see my brothers, my mother, my nieces”.
In NW, as ever, Smith captures with great precision the topography of the area – social as well as geographical; the contours and fault lines of race and class. Her old author description always seemed so imprecise; one wonders to what extent she has moved around the area – socially, geographically – and where she fits in now. Geographically, she’s moved hardly at all, she says. “Socially, a great deal, I’m sure – I’m not working class any more. I don’t know that I do fit in. I don’t think writers should fit in too much – part of the job is to be the awkward square peg in the round hole.”
Smith didn’t set out to write a “London novel”, she says. “I really dread ending up ‘the bard of Willesden’, or whatever, and I hope I won’t write another novel set in these streets for a long time, if ever again. But this time it was unavoidable; everything that happens in the novel could only happen in London, given the way we live here in London, and the way people come across each other here.”
At the centre of NW are three thirtysomethings, all living in the area after growing up on a council estate there: Leah; her lifelong friend Keisha – upwardly mobile and now calling herself Natalie; and Felix. Each has one of the main sections of the novel devoted to them, with each section written in its own distinctive style: Leah’s in spare shards of consciousness, often disjointed; Felix’s a more traditional close-up of a day in his life; Keisha/Natalie’s consisting of 185 numbered vignettes spanning her life to date.
The novel plays to many of the strengths that have marked out Smith’s writing in the past and established her as one of the smartest and most adept authors of her generation: the originality and evocativeness of her descriptions; her depiction of family dynamics; her acute appreciation of interracial and indeed intra-racial relationships (even if she sometimes comes perilously close to the pitfalls she satirises); the multidimensionality of her characterisation (one thinks of the line from the film The Philadelphia Story she cites in her Katherine Hepburn essay in 2009’s Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays: “The time to make your mind up about people is never!”); and her ability to burrow so deeply and convincingly inside the heads of men.
The novel is less driven than before by “her ability to animate ideas”, as Smith wrote of George Eliot in her essay “Middlemarch and Everybody” in Changing My Mind. An ability so evident in White Teeth and On Beauty, and so failing her in her tediously drawn-out 2002 second novel, The Autograph Man.
The biggest departure, though, relates to another comment in “Middlemarch and Everybody”, that “Forms, styles, structures – whatever word you prefer – should change like skirt lengths”, and to “Two Directions for the Novel”, in which she compared and contrasted Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Thomas McCarthy’s Remainder, challenging the former’s lyrical realism, while admiring the latter’s avant-garde experimentation.
Smith has changed her skirt lengths before, of course, from the broad sweep and no-less-broad humour of White Teeth, through 2002’s more narrowly focused and technically playful The Autograph Man, to the refined campus comedy and homage to EM Forster of On Beauty.
But NW seems more radical – closer in direction to McCarthy than O’Neill. How conscious was this progression towards the experimental?
“It’s not as if I wrote the essay then wrote the novel; I’d already started the novel when I wrote the essay, and so I guess it’s a reflection of things that were in my mind as I was writing. I have to say I don’t think NW is much like Tom or Joseph, and ‘experimental’ is not a flavouring you take down from a cupboard and sprinkle all over your pages. Or it shouldn’t be.
“I don’t think there’s anything terribly experimental about NW. It’s just a different palette from On Beauty, a different set of tones and colours. ‘Experimental’ in any novel is never that experimental anyway, because unlike in music and the visual arts we’re tied, as writers, to this thing called linguistic grammar, these little units of sense. At the ‘extreme’ end, we supposedly have Finnegan’s Wake, but it’s really not a very extreme book, once you’ve reconciled yourself to the flow of sound over sense. It’s not that these novels are more or less experimental, really, but that they are more or less particular, less general, less reliant on the dominant cultural mode of accepted communications. This book is very particular in the sense that I wanted to find my own way to say almost everything in it, with the least reliance on tropes and pre-packaged forms of language. It’s not at all a difficult book to read, it’s just a very particular book to read.”
Smith “really went with my gut” when it came to the styles of each section. “The first pages of ‘Visitation’ [featuring Leah] I just wrote one day in a sort of dreamy mood, and then I thought, ‘Can I sustain this?’ And I found I could. But then I knew the Felix character would not think of his own life in such a narrative – his would be a dynamic piece of self-mythology – so I wrote his piece like that. Then Natalie, with her somewhat psychotic focus on the future … it made sense to render her life in the numbered forward march. It took a lot of trial and error to get the tones right each time but I felt they were organic and essential, and that to flatten them all out into – what? – ‘standard modern novel’ voice, I thought that would ruin the story. I’m always trying to insist on the inviolability of people, their separation and points of connection – so the narrative had to echo that in some form.”
In a recent interview with the New Yorker’s Page Turner literary blog, Smith also said that when it came to the Natalie section “there is the simple time restraint of having a kid. Four hours a day is as much as I had. I didn’t have the time or inclination for sixty-page chapters. The idea of writing at any great length became absurd.”
NW is described as “tragi-comic” – and there is less of the latter and more of the former than in previous Smith novels. The northwest London she describes, with its air of menace and random acts of violence, seems a pretty scary place.
“I don’t find it scary at all. I find life scary, and I think there is no place you can move which will lessen that fear. You can hole yourself up in some shining gated community, but you’re still going to have to find a reason to live, and to work, despite your own imminent death and the death of everybody you know and love. That’s the deal with life – it’s beautiful and amazing and it’s also short and tragic. I live in an area where if I turn right out of my house I’m surrounded by almost exclusively rich white people aged between 20 and 40, with their children, three coffee shops and a dress shop selling T-shirts for £100. And if I turn left, I’m on a street with hundreds of people speaking hundreds of languages, shops that sell everything you could possibly need in life, and trouble and fun in about equal measure. I guess it depends what you’re scared of.”
NW, by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, $37).