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An Exercise in Style
on 3 September 2012
NW is a brave departure for Zadie Smith and one that could potentially alienate a large proportion of her readership. It is an odd and fragmentary novel, humourless and bland. The melodious prose and multiple plots have given way to a modish Modernism; Dickens's influence has been erased, the 'hysterical realism' utterly subdued. But that is to be expected. Novelists do not have to keep rehashing a working formula, and it says something of Smith's integrity that she has decided to move on. The new style, then, is encapsulated in the narrative's stuttering and spare composition, a complete reversal of the seamless unity of her last three novels.
The novel follows a group of thirtysomethings from the same Caldwell council estate - Leah, Natalie, Felix, and Nathan. Each character carries the burden of urban ennui: Leah is in the midst of an existential crisis, while her closest friend Natalie (formerly Keisha) is a class-conscious barrister seeking some excitement; Felix, however, is a wide boy recovering alcoholic similar to Nathan, who simply shuffles through the pages as a homeless junky. All the usual themes are accounted for (identity, class, race, drugs, love, work, death, guilt, redemption), but as Smith's interest in each character is asymmetrical, it makes the book unbalanced. It flows best as a procession of snapshots replicating the random movements of a city. But, to follow Smith down this structural and experimental route, the characters must be interesting, and sadly they are not.
The depth just isn't there, each one barely knowable. Instead of total characterisation, there are only pointed and evocative shards, the broken bottle approach leaving the process of reassembly in the reader's hands. Such, though, is the way with Modernism. But if the protagonists offer no interest (except for Felix), then we must take London itself as the main focus, for it is London (and Smith perfectly transcribes the city's cacophonous rhythms in short poetic passages) that infuses the novel with life. It is the aloof and indifferent backdrop to the action, a riot of multicultural beauty; what a shame it is, then, that the characters flitting through Smith's pulsating and carefully assembled capital seem so stale.
Overall, though, NW is an interesting novel, a valid exercise in style. It may have its failings, but this is a transitional work in Smith's oeuvre. She is adjusting her voice and modifying her delivery. The better novels will surely follow.