1. How did you respond to the novel? To what extent does it correspond to your own preconceptions or preferences in terms of genre, plot, and characterisation? On what levels did you ‘connect’ with the novel? If you ‘struggled’ with NW, think about why this might be.
This book is semi-experimental contemporary fiction, combining elements of social realism, dark comedy and stylistic strangeness. It isn’t shallow as chick-lit often is but nor does it fit into thriller, psycho drama or any easy to define category. That, in theory, should make it interesting, but I didn’t connect with ‘NW’ at all either on first or on second reading, only getting to grips with its peculiarities when re-analysing in order to answer these questions. I felt the experimental structure led to a bewildering lack of clarity (who is talking, what are all those disjointed chapters about, etc?) and that’s not what I’m after when I’m looking for fiction. I generally look for a read that goes somewhere and gives me challenges of plot, not style.
I have tried to consider how and why I didn’t connect with the novel, and I initially felt it was entirely down to lack of similarity. I don’t live in London, I don’t take drugs, don’t live in an area anything like any of the characters live in, I don’t speak like them, don’t look like them, and my concerns don’t seem to reflect many of their concerns. However, it can’t be that simple – I have the same lack of terms of reference with many of the other books on this course but haven’t felt as coldly towards them as I did towards ‘NW’. I wonder if perhaps the fact that the style overcame the substance of the novel made the disconnect more powerful than the lack of familiarity.
2. Make a list of what you perceive to be the novel’s strengths and weaknesses. Do you feel that there is anything you might learn from NW’s strengths in relation to your own writing practice? As a novelist, how would you resolve any deficiencies which you detect in the novel?
Strengths: A great positivity, some rich characterisation especially the lifestyle and attitude differences between Lean and Natalie.
Weaknesses: Style over substance (tree shape and mouth shape didn’t work for me, for example), and a bare-bones plot where I cared little for anything that happened. The section of 185 chapters had a feel of confusing photographs where few give clear and whole pictures, and all are abstractions. I was completely unconvinced by Natalie’s sexual stuff – I actually thought I’d fallen asleep while reading and missed a huge swathe of explanation and preamble as it came out of the blue and didn’t make sense to me as Natalie’s character up to that point doesn’t seem to naturally lead there. The npr.org website says “Natalie struggles with holding on to her authentic self, even as more and more she goes through her life feeling as though she’s in drag, mother drag, wife drag, court drag, rich drag, poor drag, British drag, Jamaican drag. It’s Natalie’s bizarre remedy for her own alienation, however, that causes this novel to crumble in its final 70 pages or so, endangering its credibility and the wealth of its accumulated, smart observations about contemporary London.”
2. In a Guardian article, Smith writes that ‘My books don’t seem to me to be about anything other than the people in them and the sentences used to construct them’.
The novel is primarily constructed around the lives of three characters – Leah, Felix, and Natalie/Keisha – yet Smith has adopted a different narrative style to explore each. How do the styles associated with these characters help us to 1) respond to them? 2) interpret their experiences? 3) infer their perception of time and place? How closely, do you feel, the formal qualities associated with each character might related to, for example, constructions of class, race, or gender? Which literary style (Leah, Felix, Natalie/Keisha) do you think is the most/least successful, and why?
I agree that the book is less about plot and about concepts and more about characters. The complicatered WordPress site says “There is no defining story or plot with a twist. It is what it is. It is more of a character study type of book. This is NW. This is what happens in NW on a day-to-day basis. This is how we have lived and are living now. So if you find yourself “trying to follow through” then don’t because the point is, nothing really happens in NW. Ennui. And despite this, Zadie Smith has this gift to make something out of nothing. She is a mastery of language and character that a lack of plot was fitting. Her words spoke loud, her characters vivid.”
I felt little about Felix who was definitely a subsidiary character for me. As I finished the book and looked on the back page I was shocked that he was listed as a major character as I remembered almost nothing of his story other than his relationship with Annie. I had forgotten everything to do with the car and his character. I remembered Natalie and Leah more strongly – perhaps because this seems to be a female-led plot?
The narrative style used for Leah is choppy, rough, introspective, almost laconic at times, then frantic at others. Leah is of Irish descent and is one of the few non-black characters in her world. The Felix passages are more traditionally written, but seem more intense, violent and, surprisingly (as mentioned above) were far more forgettable. I think this is because the character is of less interest, rather than because of the style employed (which was my favoured of the styles). The Natalie passages are at times annoying, and other times shocking, but they are boring too, and don’t connect at all with the preceding chapters. I guess that’s why I forgot all about Felix.
I prefer the style of Felix’s passages as they are basically less confusing to read, but I prefer the content of Leah’s passages as she was the more complex and interesting character. Felix appears to be a little of a wide boy but is genuinely disturbed when he is pulled up for having his feet on the seat on the train, Natalie a “posh slapper” and Leah a malcontent underachiever – all stereotypes of youth. However, the girls are less constrained by their beginnings as the others might be. They have grown up, moved up the social strata and moved away, while the boys have not.
Zadie Smith has not particularly embraced the minority stereotypes and has not particularly done anything else either. The complicatered WordPress site says ” If you are new to Zadie Smith’s work and just like myself start with NW, the writing style will (initially) throw you off. It is disembodied. It is fragmented. In the reader world, I found it to be a rather controversial case between being post-modern/creative/poetic vs. being confusing/in-concise/inconclusive”.
3. What challenges might NW’s approach present to the reader?
The approach taken – the smoking, the drug taking etc, could potentially alienate those who feel these things are unpleasant, and for whom these aren’t part of their own everyday experiences. But the biggest challenge to me was actually to just understand what was going on, who was speaking, why things were being said. I found the whole disjointed approach confusing and irritating and from reading reviews I know I am not the only one.
Not everyone can connect with stream of consciousness, though I am usually able to enjoy such writing. However, not using a traditional third person narrative with consistency of theme and style throughout has definitely stopped my enjoying “NW” as much as I might have done had the style been more consistent throughout or had the POV been from one single character.
4. In your opinion, how different might the novel have been had Smith adopted a single style for all three characters? What might have been gained by adopting this approach? What might have been lost?
I do wonder if there would have been more gains than losses for ‘lazy’ readers like me! I don’t think I would have been able to read the book had the approach been consistently Leah-like or Natalie-like, but think I would have enjoyed the book if the entire style had been in the fluid sentences of Felix’s passages. I don’t care about the styles being controversial, challenging or interesting – I just care about whether the writer gets the story across and whether the reader can even tell if there is a story underneath all the confusion!
Felix is the happiest and most positive of the characters and he’s the one whose company I would prefer, but even he is flushed with discontent. Both women are too intense in their different ways, and both seem too introspective. I would have been interested to see how using a different style for the different sections might have changed the perceptions of the reader. Leah seems to have allowed life to have defeated her, so perhaps to use the style of Natalie for such a character would be overly disjointed.
5. Each section of the book seems to follow its own narrative arc and, though connected to the others, can be read as self-contained. How important is it that the novel runs in the order Leah – Felix – Natalie/Keisha? Do you feel that this structure is integral to the novel? How might the novel differ had this order been rearranged?
Yes agreed. I think Leah and Felix’s sections could have been self contained micro novels but not the rest of the book. I’m not sure if it would matter if Leah and Felix’s sections were transposed, but if the book had begun with disjointed mini chapters, I suspect many readers would have zoned out being completely lost as to plot etc. The Leah and Felix sessions gave the book as sense of time, place and character, and the Natalie section developed all these in its own way, so it needed to be the final one of the three.
However, when the strong facade of Natalie collapses and she morphs into a very different character, the chaos of the structure seems to link in with the chaos of the character herself.
Adam Mars-Jones’ Guardian’s article ends with the following – “The trailing plot threads aren’t exactly tied off, more tucked back in. The real mystery of NW is that it falls so far short of being a successful novel, though it contains the makings of three or four” and I have to agree with this analysis.
6. How successful is the novel’s negotiation of class, race, gender, and modernity? Do you feel that these categories constitute the novel’s ‘themes’? Or is the novel ‘about’ other things?
An article on http://www.londonfiction.com says of ‘NW’ that it is “…weighed down by the tensions of class, of race and of casual violence. The in-your-face realities of curses and coarseness ” and later that “The novel revolves around the fictional Caldwell estate, but its setting is real. She gives us both Kilburn’s skyline, ‘ungentrified, ungentrifiable’, and the pretensions of the posher bits of Willesden, ‘little terraces, faux-Tudor piles’. There’s some space for maneouvre but not much. Like her characters, we rarely get out of this two-mile square of the city for long “.
So, does it work? And is this what it’s all about? It is hard to know. Perhaps the book is about city living. Perhaps it is about life. Perhaps it is about the differences in social class in which the most casual life change can make an enormous difference.
The book is meandering and indulgent but at the same time it doesn’t feel as if issues of race, class, gender and modernity are overt in this novel, though it is likely that they are slightly understated themes. In some ways it appears the themes of underachievement, frustration etc are far more pertinent than the more sociologically obvious themes mentioned in the question. Also, the differences between the characters and their classes somehow give it a societal inconsistency rather than some form of togetherness.
For example, although Leah is a red haired Irish woman, it feels as if her race is of far less importance than is the estate that created her. In many ways I didn’t want to know that she wasn’t of the same racial descent as most of the other characters. It almost didn’t matter. It was the Caldwell estate that was the key to them all, and the frustrations it created.
7. How successful do you feel Smith’s handling of dialogue is? Can you find an example which supports your case?
Smith is noted for being a queen of dialogue, but the styles of dialogue, the dashes and the lack of speech marks really did put me off. I suspect I’m too much of a dyed in the wool traditionalist to enjoy this, especially the lack of consistency throughout.
I didn’t always know who was speaking and how they were feeling and that affected my perception of the dialogue. Of course the technique of using dashes rather than speech marks does add to the modernity of the piece, but for me none of the unconventional styles worked. Even on page 124 of my copy when Tom and Felix go for a drink and the speech marks are used (‘What’ll you have?’ ‘Ginger beer, thanks’ ‘Ginger beer and?’ ‘Nah. that’s it’ etc) it goes too far and gets me confused. If the reader knew who had uttered the first words then could possibly work the rest out.
But, style apart, the dialogue really does work and I could imagine it all working even better as a piece of film (it was apparently made into a film in 2016). For similar reasons the sentence fragments of the 185 chapter section could work better when read aloud as gaps and changes in the voice of the reader would make for a lot more clarity.
8. How did you respond to be the novel’s evocation/construction of place?
The novel evokes a sense of place brilliantly and it is one of the elements of the novel that works the best for me. Shallow middle class dinner parties are well described, though the seediness is a little less well done.
There are a large number of contemporary references within the test – the mention of the Icelandic ash crisis preventing flights etc, do root this book in a time and place to some extent, though it could be considered that these references may have been sneaked in for this very purpose.
Smith evokes some of her strongest references with minutiae – the ‘sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock’, and even in her talks about the tip, about Poundland, about boundaries between London districts and of being able to see the seedy place you grew up in from the window of your much posher home. Yet, in all those places, including the estate and even the expansive house where Natalie lives, there is still claustrophobia. Everyone seems somewhat or a victim, and a person who wants to escape from their surroundings in some way, even if their place is desirable.