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Pickle Me This

September 14, 2012

NW by Zadie Smith

I don’t remember exactly where or when I purchased White Teeth by Zadie Smith, but I know that it was sometime during that wonderful summer of 2001, when I worked on King Street East and spent my lunch hours in Little York Books and Nicholas Hoare. When I spent the money I was supposed to be saving for my tuition on books instead, stacks and stacks. I bought White Teeth in paperback, and I don’t remember how I heard about it, but I know that it changed my life, my relationship to literature. For the first time, I realized that literature existed beyond survey course syllabi, that great books were being written in the here and now, and by people not much older than I was.

Ever after, a new Zadie Smith book has been an event, except perhaps The Autograph Man, which I don’t remember. A Zadie Smith book is one that I have to get in hardback, and so it was with great pleasure that I handed over 30 plus dollars last week at Book City for a copy of her latest, NW. Her first novel since On Beauty from 2005, her first book since the essay collection Changing My Mind in 2010.

From that book, the essay “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov”: “The house rules of a novel, the laying down of the author’s particular terms–all of this is what interests me. This is where my pleasure is.”

The house rules of NW are difficult to discern upon first encounter. This author’s terms are particularly demanding. And yet, when I had to reread the novel’s rather Woolfish first section “Visitation” in an effort to orient myself to Smith’s geography, it was with pleasure, to immerse myself in the text again to understand how Smith has “record[ed] the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall” (so said Woolf herself). A deep, tangled, engaging book, NW has a surface accessibility, streets smooth enough to glide along, but then think too hard and you’re tripped up, pulled down into the Underground. So much going on here (most of it, actually) underneath the surface.

The first section of the book is structured conventionally, a first chapter followed by a second. The narrative itself is loose and elastic, unstuck, unhinged, words played with and pushed into shapes (both literal and figurative). It’s the story of Leah Hanwell who is lying in a hammock in her back garden in North-West London, a nice garden with an apple tree, but it’s still a council flat and not far from the troubled housing estate where Leah had been raised. She hears a phrase on the radio, “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me,” and thinks about writing it on the back of her magazine. Her reverie is interrupted by a knock at the door, a manic young woman in a headscarf who’s clutching a utility bill; “I live here,” the girl says, around the corner. She says her mother has been taken to the hospital and she needs money for a cab to get there. She and Leah share a cup of tea in the kitchen, not such a collision of worlds after all. The girl remembers Leah from high school, came through a few years later. Leah gives her 30 pounds and sees her off.

The girl reappears throughout the rest of the section, by chance (because they’re neighbours after all), but Leah becomes obsessed with her. The girl who never paid back the money, who ripped off Leah just as her husband had predicted. Leah, the ginger-haired girl of Irish origin is married to Michel, French by way of Africa, who is determined to progress in his new country, to make his way trading stocks on the internet in the evening. He wants a better life for his children, the children Leah doesn’t want to have. When she discovers she is pregnant, she has an abortion, and Michel has no idea. “Why must love ‘move forward’? Which way is forward?”

The way forward is clear for Felix Cooper in the novel’s second section, its chapters labelled by postcode. Geography is central to Felix’s experience (on the Tube, “Felix established a private space of his own, opening his legs wide and slouching”), the world is not his for the taking and so he has to define his territory. As he moves through the city, his identity is fluid, based on the perceptions of others. Things are looking good for Felix– he has moved away from the estate where he grew up, he’s got work apprenticing with a mechanics, and he’s got a girl who convinces him that anything is possible. He wants a hot car to impress her. He wants to cut ties his past, his mother, his brother, his struggles with addiction, and bad relationships, including one with a creepy Miss Havisham type he just can’t seem to quit. It becomes apparent, however, that however much Felix desires to change his life, he’s forever turning in circles, living out the same scenes and postcodes over and over again.

Next, we meet Natalie Blake, whom we’ve encountered already in the book’s first section, Leah’s friend since childhood. Natalie’s section comprises 185 short paragraphs, numbered. The way forward for Natalie is focussed, fast, propelling her out of the community she came from to academic success in university, a law degree, a successful career, lots of money and marriage and motherhood. We’ve seen Natalie and her husband Frank in their back garden through the eyes of Leah, a world away, barely human in all their polish. And here we are shown beneath the sheen, that Natalie is even more dissatisfied with her own life than Leah is, that her social mobility has left her foundationless, with a life built on aspirations. There is a cost to being the sole author of the dictionary that defines one, or maybe the point is that for some authorship is only an illusory purpose, and how much is missed by years spent becoming rather than simply being.

The pieces of this novel do not fit together neatly, and its characters’ lives are similarly chaotic, sordid, their emotions messy and complex. While I have outlined various pieces of the novel’s plot, to focus on plot too much is to miss the point. NW is a story about city life, about people in proximity and lives rubbing up against one another, roughly and otherwise. It is a novel of impressions, falling atoms and all that, rather than plot. It will also most likely be an entirely different novel each time you read it, as frustrating and challenging as it is illuminating and rich. Noise and melody. And yes, a novel that’s tearing down the house and remaking all the rules.

The pleasure was all mine.

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