Twelve years ago, in what remains one of the most remarkable literary debuts of our time, Zadie Smith strode into the new millennium and stole the show. Her first book, White Teeth, was funny, smart, and stunningly self-assured, and it announced the arrival not just of a novel but of a novelist: someone who could really do this fiction thing, who took its possibilities both seriously and gleefully.
Not that everyone was sold. The literary critic James Wood famously accused Smith and her stylistic peers (DeLillo, Pynchon, Rushdie) of “hysterical realism.” Rather than challenging realism, as modernism had done, they took it over like kids in a condemned building, overcrowding it, stringing the party lights of plot across the roof, hanging a story or six out of every window. What they sacrificed along the way, Wood argued, was psychological development and moral seriousness.
Me, I loved Smith’s narrative exuberance, and I don’t think any literary desiderata were harmed in the making of her tales. However antic her storytelling got, the story itself—about how we negotiate the legacy of colonialism, and the small mutual colonization that is marriage—did not strike me as lacking in emotional or ethical heft.
Interestingly, though, after her 2005 book, On Beauty—another brilliant update to the traditional novel—Smith herself started looking askance at the form. In her own most famous piece of literary criticism, she proposed “Two Paths for the Novel”: the long, worn road of realism, or the fresh earth flung up by the deconstruction workers who came along and bulldozed it—exposing its foundations in white liberal thought, demolishing its bedrock assumptions about meaning, language, and selfhood.
Smith championed the second path, and her new book seems to be an attempt to travel it. NW is about the divergent adulthoods forged by four people who grew up in Caldwell, a council estate (or housing project) in the eponymous northwest quadrant of London. It is also about a terrible crime, the nature of trust, the reach of the past, and whether any of us controls our own life story.
This is promising literary terrain, thematically sprawling and emotionally dense, well suited to Smith’s eagle eye and formidable wingspan. So it pains me to say that much of it just doesn’t work. The book’s main characters, Leah Hanwell and her best friend, Natalie Blake, feel engineered rather than imagined, remote-controlled into position on the complicated grid of race and class. Leah, who is white and married to a Frenchman of West African descent, still lives at a low-rent address intermittently doubling, for her, as moral high ground. The book opens when a stranger rings her doorbell: a crackhead, scamming Leah for money. Leah’s gullibility, and her ongoing, sexually charged attraction to this woman, seem improbable at best. Meanwhile, Natalie, née Keisha, has devoted her entire life to getting out: She studies law, marries up, and moves away, shedding, en route, virtually everything about her past. Her defining characteristic is her inability to summon a sense of identity. That’s both too easy a riposte to the heroic self of the traditional novel and a dangerous trait with which to saddle a protagonist. The self might be a convenient fiction, but it’s awfully difficult to care about a character who lacks one.
Anti-realist as it is, NW can hardly be accused of hysterical realism. Instead, Smith swings in the other direction, succumbing to a kind of hysterical formalism. Short of a PowerPoint presentation, which was already spoken for, there’s almost no stylistic tactic she doesn’t try here: lists, Gchats, menus, Mapquest-style directions, stream of consciousness. Wary of giving her characters a coherent inner life, she instead assigns them each a style: Thus, Natalie’s story is told in 185 separate snippets, some no longer than a sentence. I presume this is meant to reflect her ostensibly fragmented self, but that fragmenting is merely an allegation; we are never made to feel it. We do feel the stylistic effect, though: a long ride in a lurching cab.
I don’t mean to suggest that reading should never be uncomfortable, and I’m sympathetic to Smith’s formal experimentation. Yet none of what she tries here is new (80 years ago, John Dos Passos used newspapers, song lyrics, stream of consciousness, and four distinct narrative styles to shape his U.S.A. trilogy), and literature, unlike science, doesn’t necessarily benefit from mere replication of its experiments. Smith, I believe, made that same point in her piece on the future of the novel. I don’t think either of us means that a form, once familiar, should be retired; just that it no longer has the intrinsic merit of innovation, of expanding the possibilities of literature. If that’s your goal—and I think it is Smith’s goal—you must do something more: do something no one’s done before, or do the often-done but do it better. We know Smith can pull off the latter. Conventional storytelling is about as familiar a form as it gets, but her genius, in earlier books, was to make it feel new. By a curious inversion, here she makes younger forms seem hackneyed and unfruitful.
But wait a moment. Just when the disappointment is beginning to solidify, something wonderful happens. For 85 pages—nearly a novella—Smith settles down and tells the story of another former Caldwell kid, Felix, whom we know, before we meet him, to be a marked man. The effect is one of excruciating anticipation: We know what will happen to him, but we don’t know when or why, and every time Smith deals him another card, we hold our breath. Yet it’s not just suspense that makes this section work. It’s that Felix has plausible emotional wiring, disturbing flaws, palpable stakes. He’s the only character in the book we care about, and—despite our terrible foreknowledge—the only one we root for.
This is what’s so maddening about NW: No amount of badness can obscure Smith’s greatness. She can still spin a story so good it steps out of the book whole, like a man sitting up grinning in his grave. She can still pack a sentence with the shrapnel of class anger and the nitrate of humor and light the fuse. Here’s Leah, recalling a humiliating moment in a college philosophy class: “Out of her mouth: a two-syllable packing company Socrates, a three-syllable cleaning fluid Antigone.”
It’s frustrating, watching such a giant talent seek out new options, only to settle on ones that too often diminish her work. There’s a tantalizing moment early in NW when Smith invokes the Woman in White, that mysterious figure who, in the 1860 Wilkie Collins novel of the same name, also stalked the neighborhoods of northwest London. The Woman in White is formally innovative—it keeps passing its spooky tale from hand to hand, like a hot potato—and thematically radical; it dragged the Gothic novel out of the graveyard, insisting that scarier specters lurked at home, and it challenged the categories of sanity and madness. But it’s also wildly readable, one of the greatest suspense stories ever told. Like NW, it opens with a mysterious woman of dubious motives seeking help from a stranger. Like NW, it conceals a violent enigma, parcels out its story among protagonists, obsesses over questions of trust and class and free will. White Teeth gave a brilliant, postcolonial nod to Dickens, On Beauty tipped its hat to E. M. Forster, and reading NW, I felt a pang of what might have been: of how close Smith came to winking at Collins, and how very much I would’ve loved to read that book.
Of course, it’s not my business to chastise Smith for what she didn’t write, and still less to tell her which imaginary novel of hers I’d like to read. If I’m tempted toward such thoughts, it’s because NW feels like a meta quest narrative, the story of an author on a journey. It’s clear that, stylistically, Smith has left behind the sheltering haven of her earlier work and set off in search of something new. I’m glad to see her trying, even at the expense of failing—partly because I believe her experiments will eventually pan out, partly because so many of us are wondering what happens next for fiction. I never quite cared about the fate of the Caldwell crew, but as for the fate of the modern novel, and the future doings of Zadie Smith—I’m right there, ready to turn the page.
By Zadie Smith.
The Penguin Press.
September 4. $26.95
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 10, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.