Volunteer Nathan reads and learns from Zadie Smith’s NW.
Ever since I read Zadie Smith’s first novel White Teeth, I have daydreamed of being a student in her fiction class at New York University. Her whimsical sentences and idiosyncratic syntax are lessons in style and voice as well as in dialogue, character and setting. On Tuesday, September 4th, Penguin Press released Smith’s new novel, NW, in the United States.
NW is about four people growing up and entering their 30s in Northwest London. They are connected by friendship, loose acquaintance and neighborhood roots. The novel follows them through different paths, some leading out of the gritty NW zip and others intertwining the subsidized neighborhood’s identity with their own. The book is divided into four sections of various narrative styles including stream-of-consciousness and a list of 185 sketches. Each section focuses on one of the four main characters: Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan.
Smith tries a new style, and right off the bat it tastes different than her earlier work. Instead of the style that critic James Wood called “hysterical realism,” she opts for a fragmented kaleidoscope of clipped sentences. The narrative comes in bursts of description cut short by characters’ abrupt thoughts. Lyrics from The Kinks and Bob Dylan are woven through contemplations.
I learned five writing lessons from reading NW:
Lesson 1 – Trying new things is fun. I had genuine and unironic fun reading Smith’s new style. She tests repetitive sounds for their effect and lists sensory information in conjunction with characters’ fragmented thoughts. NW delivers brief and insightful sublime observations throughout
At times, this new style feels forced, and I wish she would suspend the gag to develop her characters more and produce more insight into their motivations. But that’s where her dialogue shines – revealing character.
Smith has a reputation for deft dialogue. In NW, each character is equipped with a unique voice that identifies their upbringing, education, desires and temperament. Their slang and colloquialisms never distract, but reveal setting, which in NW is a gritty clash of class and multiculturalism known as Northwest London. Her characters bring the setting to life with their language and with what they choose to observe around them.
Lessons 2 and 3 – Appreciate sharp dialogue that reveals character and setting, and let that setting come to life through the characters’ speech and considerations.
The characters and the setting have a symbiotic relationship in which each helps define the other. However, these techniques only go so far. To round out the characters, Smith usually gives us more insight into their psyche. In NW, the characters feel more like shaky adumbrations instead of the fully formed individuals of Smith’s earlier work.
One of the novel’s main characters is Natalie, the focus of the 185 snippets. Natalie sulks in dissatisfaction with her life. I am never convinced of these arbitrary and forced feelings. Natalie’s dissatisfaction leads her to behave in ways that are frustratingly unnecessary and unjustified. No emotional foundation exists to support her dispositions and actions, and thus her sections read like a struggling attempt to drive plot.
Lesson 4 – If characters’ actions are not rooted in clearly defined desires, they will feel capricious and the lack of emotional causation will weaken the overall narrative. Characters must adhere to cause and effect like everything else.
Natalie is not the only helter-skelter character who fails to come to life. Leah and Michel, the main focus in the first section of the book, have unanswered moral dilemmas. Again, their characterizations are not formed enough. As the characters evaporated, I became less patient with Smith’s experiment with style. By the time I finished Natalie’s 185 sketches, the storytelling felt flippant and lazy.
Lesson 5 – Readers have less fun with style experiments when the characters have deflated. Characters matters more than style.
The second section is devoted to a character named Felix, and it contains the novel’s strongest writing. Felix is a dynamic and round character with clearly defined desires, flaws and justifiable actions. His moral ambivalence is expressed through concrete assertions and actions. No surprise, this section contains the least stylistic experimentation.
Felix’s section feels like a self-contained autonomous narrative. The characters have specific desires that drive a plot. Smith fleshes out the pages with her signature dialogue and fun sentences. Felix is so alive that I notice Natalie’s and Leah’s deficiencies even more. If the other sections shared this full characterization and tight plotting, they would struggle less to come to life.
The brilliant dialogue and moments of insight seem to battle the poor plotting and weak characters. The flaws aren’t severe enough to sink the ship, but they’re also impossible to ignore. I enjoyed reading NW. If I could ignore its shortcomings, I would have enjoyed it even more; but I also would have learned much less.
Still, I’d love to be in Zadie Smith’s class.