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Difficult Pleasures

NW is an impressive formal experiment for Zadie Smith,but less fun than you might expect from her

Book: NW

Author: Zadie Smith

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton / Penguin

Price: Rs 499

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Pages: 304

In her notes on craft,Zadie Smith has rued her impulse to spoon-feed her readers,rather than trusting their patience and intelligence. And yet,the first few pages of her new novel NW seem designed to throw off anyone but the most committed reader. They are tedious in the way anyone’s internal monologue is,but especially if that person happens to be the shiftless,self-absorbed Leah Hanwell.

A stranger visits,touches her up for thirty pounds,and the encounter pulls at Leah in a powerful way. Some facts about her are offered up — Leah is thirtysomething,married to Michel,an ambitious immigrant from Marseilles,stalling on motherhood. She is both fascinated and resentful of her best friend Keisha Blake,who has made herself over into Natalie De Angelis,a yuppie lawyer with a picturesque family. The telling of these facts is anything but straightforward — em dashes indicate dialogue,sometimes bleeding into the narrative. The stream of Leah’s consciousness is a sluggish,muddy thing.

If you can get past that first section,the book gets much better. Essentially,it is the story of Natalie and Leah,and two other stories that weave in and out of these lives,Felix Cooper and Nathan Bogle. It is about the variety of destinies that one pod,one council estate of Caldwell,Willesden,Northwest London,can throw up. Natalie’s life is the motor of this narrative,and is told through 185 numbered episodes. She powers through school,university and the bar,furiously self-inventing,looking straight ahead,marrying a rich,entitled Italian-Triniadian called Franceso De Angelis (Frank). The piece-by-piece storytelling works beautifully to convey the way we grow up,the significant instants,the quiet clearings.

The mediated world mingles with the Caldwell world,with utter naturalness. There are references to Mrs Doubtfire,the day Kurt Cobain died,Friends playing on TV,the year everyone started saying “literally” or “living the dream”. Nobody,but nobody can transmute urban reality into words like Zadie Smith can — sounds of the street,playground squabble,sibling shorthand. She hones in on little details,like baby announcements that deluge inboxes at a certain age,“mother and baby doing well,exhausted”. She is remarkably acute on the mutual appraisals of a long friendship. Leah watches Natalie,her dinner parties,her husband,her kitchen,she “puts on the bland smile of child appreciation”.

While NW is about the linked lives of these two women,it is also a novel about inequality and mobility,race and class. It questions assumptions about hard work and success,like a moment in a subway where Natalie and her husband simply mean different things when they say “life choices”. Or when she thinks,sitting in an upscale cafe,that her multiracial crew didn’t have to bother their heads with politics,their very persons being political facts. At a third level,NW is the story of a corner of a city,where strangers meet,where random encounters can ramify in unexpected ways.

With each of her books,Zadie Smith has made it new,bettered herself. After Autograph Man,critics accused her writing of being about hectic surfaces rather than women and men with emotional outlines,with interiority,who are shaped by the events in the novel. Then she produced On Beauty,a poised novel about family,an homage to E.M. Forster. With NW,she goes further,she’s trying to pack in the texture of life,the sensorium of a street in lines like this — “sweet scent of the hookah,couscous,kebab,exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98,16,32,standing room only — quicker to walk!”

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Given its preoccupations,maybe it is inevitable that NW skimps on storytelling. It has characters,event,accumulation,but none of the characters invite emotional response. Even Natalie’s big tumult feels ho-hum,like exactly the kind of surprise you would throw into her neat life. There is no click,no sense of novelistic closure. It trails off,leaving Leah and Natalie back in their lives and you,the reader,in yours. Ultimately,what happens in this novel is not as important as what is told and how it is told. NW is the kind of book you re-read to appreciate.

First published on: 03-11-2012 at 02:48:57 am
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