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24. NW by Zadie Smith

-So the thing about NW is that it is probably Smith's most personal novel since White Teeth. You really feel it in your gut, that this is Smith's life that she is bleeding onto the page. This is her agonies of childhood, her collegiate doubts, her romantic questionings, her maternal worries, distilled and represented as tightly as she can manage.

It is an uncomfortable experience. I will tell you that up front. It is a story about a London that is as multifariously multicultural as that shown in White Teeth or The Autograph Man, but it is not as joyously multicultural. For 22 year old Zadie Smith, intersections of cultures were sites of tension, but also opportunities for growth, causes for celebration. For 36 year old Zadie Smith, they are traps one is not sure they ought to try to wriggle out of. And that's not even the half of it. The true discomfort of NW is the intensity of the emotional connections that Smith forges between the reader and her four protagonists. There is no remove, no irony, no separation between these characters' deepest thoughts and the text that appears on the page.

Smith pulls out every trick she knows to achieve this effect. Modernist techniques like Woolfian or Joycian Stream of Consciousness share pages with scene descriptions that reminded me of Hardy's lush Post-Romanticism, while Post-Modern perspective shifts and documentary storytelling a la Pynchon or DeLillo sits next to conventionalized novel of manners narrations. I think in addition to being her most personal novel and her most uncomfortable novel, it is also her most baffling novel. I wrote of On Beauty that Smith was demanding your engagement, your participation. Smith demands something more of her readers here: She demands that you stay on your toes, keep your wits about you. This is her most suspenseful novel, the one with the most surprising plot twists. In a weird way, though it probably has the smallest amount of visible PLOT of any of her books, it might be the novel most dependent on plot.

-It's a story about Northwest London, the poor and working class and middle class districts full of immigrants and yearners, as seen through the eyes of four (well, three and a half. Smith goes as close as she can to the internal thoughts of three of the protags, then keeps a cautious distance from the fourth.) people who grew up in the Caldwell council estate (which I gather is British for 'housing project'). Leah is a white girl whose best friend from childhood is the black Keisha, who changes her name to Natalie at university to help pursue a career as a barrister. In addition to telling the stories of their sometimes intertwined lives in exacting detail, Smith tells the stories of their former classmate Nathan who has become homeless, a desperate wannabe 'player', and Felix, a working mechanic on a trajectory out of Caldwell when tragedy alters the course of his life.

Each story is told differently. Leah's narrative unfolds over weeks, Felix's over a couple of days, Natalie's over decades, Nathan's in an evening. I think Natalie's is probably the most successful, and others I've spoken to have agreed, but its success lies in an alignment between the empathy of the reader and the emotional state of the character- for a person whose empathy is aligned differently, I would expect a very different sensation. I know people who would like Leah's story best, and I know people who would like Felix's best. [If I compared the four protags to the four children from the Passover seder, Nathan would be the child who doesn't know how to ask. I know people whose empathy would be aligned with him, but they wouldn't read the book. This is one of the things Smith wrestles with in NW, as the overall metanarrative confronts the inequality of outcomes for these four strivers who came from the same beginning, more or less. Some people approach the world in different ways, and communicating those gaps is one of the tasks of the great novelist. But some people aren't even in the conversation, and the question becomes what responsibility, what moral obligation, the author has toward the child who doesn't even know how to ask.]

In sum, if you have admired or enjoyed Smith's other novels, you ought to give this one a try, but be aware that it is a more complicated and dangerous treat.
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