Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 17, 2013

Zadie Smith, _NW_

GOOD GRIEF, ZADIE Smith, not another WTF ending. Did Nathan really murder Felix? How did Keisha/Natalie figure that out so suddenly? How did she and Leah so quickly come to the decision to tell the police their suspicion? And what happened after they did?

Four novels in, I should expect the last several pages of any Smith novel to be a curveball (or googly) at which I lunge and miss, throwing myself so completely off balance that I tumble red-faced in the dust. Only months or years later will I think, "Oh...right.  Of course."

But I will keep coming back...because NW, like the previous three, hooked me early and held me fast until the last buck of the bronco sent me crashing against the corral fence (to alter the metaphor).

For page-by-page texture--the grain of the prose, the weave of the dialogue, the density of the observed detail, characters with the singularity of a fingerprint--no one alive does it better than Smith. Well, maybe Philip Roth, but he's retired. So, effectively, no one does it better than Smith.

Here, she even has a new narrative format for each chapter, from interior monologue to close-third-person to flash-fiction-montage, and she makes each of them dance.

The title refers to a section of London, the one in which Smith and the book's characters (and the younger characters of White Teeth) grew up and went to school. It was also home to the Kinks, whom I was delighted to see get a shout-out here (29-30).

By an odd coincidence, I bought Nick Hasted's book on the Kinks about the same time I bought NW, and they sat side by side on the to-be-read shelf with their matching red, white, and black cover schemes for several months before I noticed I had unwittingly placed my two Willesden Green/Muswell Hill acquisitions in each other's company.

The Kinks' Ray Davies holds the gold metal for British pop music commentary on class (silver: Mark Smith, bronze: Jarvis Cocker), and Smith sails over that high bar (third sports metaphor of the blog entry--don't know what's gotten into me) as well.

She's been convincing on the topic before, certainly--the Chalfens and Irie and Millat, Howard Belsey--but I knew NW was going to be a great novel before it even began when I encountered the epigraph from John Ball, the radical priest who helped inspire the Peasants' Uprising the 14th century England. Like Bleak House, NW is about how the English social classes are impossibly distant from each other and right in each others' laps at one and the same time.

Which leads us back to the ending.  What does it mean that the striving-&-arriving Keisha/Natalie and the probably-stuck-where-she-is-for-life Leah turn in the never-figured-it-out Nathan for the murder of might-have-managed-to-turn-it-around Felix? What do we do with Leah's envy of Queen-of-Having-It-All Natalie, given Natalie's sordid secret life?  Or of Felix's affair with the déclassé junkie Annie?

Well, perhaps I'll have it all sorted by the time the next novel. with its own curveball, rides in.

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