A Texture of the Present: NW by Zadie Smith
by Zadie Smith
A Texture of the Present: NW by Zadie Smith
It’s my feeling that the process of being edited by American journals improved my sentences. It was like going back to school. And with a tighter sentence I was able to writer a tighter book.
Again, in Interview, speaking of what makes a novel worthwhile reading:
It had to be in sentences. The sentences were necessary. That's all people want from fiction, right? […] A lot of what I was trying to do with NW is just reduce the waste and make the thing a literary artifact, by which I mean, a thing that's made of language.
NW’s release has occasioned so many articles and interviews that to an unusual degree one has had to choose between the book itself, unmediated, and the event of it: discussion of it and fiction more generally. Smith does superb interviews, largely avoiding spoilers, seemingly always with a fresh reflection on methods and philosophy of writing. In her answers on NW, I hear, intriguingly sampled and remixed, strains familiar from American fiction in recent years, that have led to shapes and textures demanding and rewarding a very different kind of reading than does the “lyrical Realism” Smith traces through Jane Austen, George Eliot, and F. Scott Fitzgerald in her 2008 New York Review of Books essay, “Two Paths for the Novel,” in which she suggests its present practice has run its useful course:
Do the things of the world really come to us […] embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past?
That essay, as much as the years since On Beauty, and Smith’s previous prominence, presaged in NW a book to be considered not only as itself, but as a suggestion of the path for the novel, or as the memes of 2012 might have it, a path for a novel.
“Everything must be made literary,” Smith complains in “Two Paths,” of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland; if in certain flavors of novel, people are so much more likely to experience life as a series of transfiguring yet incomplete aesthetic experiences than real people seem to be, in language no one outside such novels has used in a century, isn’t it inauthentic, irrelevant, or at best self-satirizing to so relentlessly seek authenticity? “I AM SO FULL OF EMPATHY,” doodles Leah Hanwell, one of NW’s protagonists, at her desk at a job she believes in and loathes. The moment seems at once placed by Smith to satirize would-be flâneurs, and true to Leah as no lyrical flight of fancy could be. She might transcendently sigh, after a spliff, but if she works that empathy into elaborate diction—if Leah had a Live Journal—would she be discovering how she “really” feels, deciding on language for it, or creating something quite distinct from the original, passing impulse? Maybe better a Tweet, #feelings, or a quick comment on The Hairpin, “ALL THE FEELS.” Which leaves novelists to answer what 400 pages need to do to be “necessary,” or more necessary than a Tumblr. How to adequately convey something necessary with characters uninterested in language capable of conveying it?
One answer, which Smith seems to have embraced, is by forgoing transcendence—as the short story writer Amy Hempel said in an interview with The Paris Review, “I assemble stories—me and a hundred million other people—at the sentence level. Not by coming up with a sweeping story line.” Medium is message.
In American fiction, for fifty and more years now, talk of sentence-making—even the notion of sentence-making, perhaps, as the primary thing that writers do—has resulted in diverse fiction, stark and baroque, interior and opaque, fluid and staccato, but in broad sympathy with the impatience in Smith’s 2008 essay, from James Salter, William Gass, Don DeLillo, down through Gordon Lish-edited, instructed, and inspired writers including Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Christine Schutt, and Gary Lutz, who perhaps most fully and succinctly discoursed on this particular kind of micro-focus in “The Sentence Is A Lonely Place,” exploring, syllable by syllable, how sound leads to an experience inextricable from a sentence’s significance for what he refers to as “page-hugging” (versus more usual “page-turning”) readers.
Expressionistic, one might call such sentences. Hempel’s, “My heart—I thought it stopped,” from “In a Tub,” stops the reader at the em dash. Kim Chinquee’s “My husband sat next to me and I sat rocking,” from “The Waves Are Low,” separates the husband and speaker in verbs, yet keeps them parallel, which gains resonance from context. Such prose invites, maybe needs, to be read slowly; if not aloud, than as if so. It is often, even usually, in first person. It reacts against scene-making that overly-dutifully adheres to Chekhov’s injunctions about objectivity, but enacts phrase-by-phrase his admonition to speak and think in characters’ tone and feel in their spirit. Sentences land so inevitably, entwined in meaning and syntax and with such an electric sense of a consciousness shaping them seemingly as they’re read, that they seem to grow out of the piece experienced through them rather than to force its significance upon the reader.
NW’s staccato opening promises such a space, its syntax immediately insisting on unease and, remarkably, in its elisions, eluding the clock usually started simply by one sentence following another:
She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.
First a factual sentence, with a hint of wariness in the “keeps to,” whether a one-time or repeated action is not yet apparent. “Redheaded”— basic description snuck in if read as explanation of the first sentence, explanation if read as basic description. “On the radio” still concerns scene but yields no particular sensory details. Its rhythm gets nicely picked up a sentence later by “[a] good line,” the first words clearly from a character (here, Leah Hanwell) and not from the narrator. Then the prepositional phrases track out, quick cuts, placing us, and halt. The different registers fracture time and space as much as convey it.
Smith returns to this rat-a-tat diction and enforced pausing elsewhere throughout the first section, but more often, though her sentences can be rewardingly plumbed with syllable-level attention to detail, they yield their bounty to a speed impossible with many of the American “sentence school” practitioners:
Leah, a state-school wild card, with no Latin, no Greek, no Maths, no foreign language, did badly—by the standards of the day—and now sits on a replacement chair borrowed six years ago from the break room, just flooded with empathy.
It’s an expository sentence, dipping back in time from pending things into “back story,” explanation, the bête noir of fiction; yet can the motion here, through time, through tone from neutral to bone-dry sarcasm, be described as anything but thrilling? Who needs transcendent imagery when a borrowed chair contains years?
The seemingly a priori urgency of NW’s first chapter is in the second chapter supplied with an inciting incident: Shar, a scam artist at Leah’s door, playing on her guilt and goodness to wheedle £30. Shar is only the first mote to trouble Leah’s mind’s eye, and subsequently that of Natalie (formerly Keisha) Blake, Leah’s childhood friend and NW’s other (and main) protagonist. Shar is palpably, in TV terms, an A-plot: the reason and means to enter Leah’s story at the point when NW does, providing a single immediate catalyst exacerbating all Leah’s external stresses, and, along with, later, two unfortunate and cursorily characterized men, drawing reactions from Natalie, Leah, and their relations that throw their anxieties into high relief and let Smith draw them to the brink of emotional precipices, and just perhaps walk them back, to Leah’s backyard, Natalie’s mobile phone. One wants intrusions in city fiction; the shady underworld figure is to the comfortable (barely comfortable in Leah’s case) bourgeoisie what the knock on the midnight door is to the farmer, the hitchhiker is to the driver on a lonely road. But while none of the responses of NW’s characters felt inauthentic, the crises do accumulate a bit neatly for what are essentially coincidences.
Partly that sense is enforced at the sentence level. The first section puts direct dialogue in smaller text, inset from the larger paragraphs of narration that are mostly in Leah’s point of view, but often with the intercession of a narrator. When Leah is in her break room-borrowed chair, who is describing it? The gratuitous “and now sits,” versus “sits” could be her, but the combination of present tense and thorough awareness of time-positioning suggest a consciousness not in the present but regarding it from outside. Sometimes this feels simply distancing, even glossing, as at a party, exiting from a quick bit of dialogue into a paragraph that begins, “Natalie’s version of Leah’s and Michel’s anecdote is over”—case-study narrative intrusion that adds little readers couldn’t figure out, and enforces a sense of the book’s made-ness.
NWembraces made-ness, often with a wink, in the chapter titles of Natalie’s section and at one point in an admonition, “Reader, keep up!” In a novel interested in reducing waste, Smith offers openly that ancient, oft roguish, lately disreputable figure, the narrator, to say in all seriousness, these things happened. The narrator, or narrative voice, provides insights NW’s characters wouldn’t be capable of in novelistic terms, and in the quotidian scenes—parties, meals, backyard idylls—that struck me as the novel’s boisterous heart, it funnels previous pages into sentences that might otherwise feel overly summative:
Today’s brunch seemed, to Natalie, a more lively occasion than usual, and more comfortable, as if by rejoining a commercial set and acting, at least in part, for the interests of corporations, she had lost the final remnants of a troubling aura that had bothered her friends and made them cautious around her.
A wonderfully rich summary, moving from external to internal, drawing in past decisions and events to suggest Natalie’s priorities and anxieties and hint, finally, at the habitual discomfort she must still feel, right then. Smith lets these scenes play out with no direct cause or effect except tragic, ironic coincidence. Leah and Michel’s dog dies, either while they’re at a party or after they’ve come home too drunk to check on it; but any party would have sufficed. This is where we’ve gotten to, the novel says. “I just don’t understand why I have this life,” as Leah says near the end.
With its often epigrammatic narrator, typographic conventions, and the short segments of Natalie’s section, NW can seem to have exchanged the verbal fancy Smith abjures for formality, as in the description of how Leah and Michel met:
When they met, the man and the woman, the physical attraction was immediate and overwhelming. This is still the case.
The blunt finality of such declarations, the inescapable awareness, reading them, that the novel is being told, may turn off readers accustomed to the most important things coming in scenes, and everything else coming either from characters or as if from the story itself. Elsewhere, Smith’s summarizing covers ground no scene could. Natalie and her high school boyfriend think that “life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalization.” Who would say that? Into what scene could such authority be injected without overpowering the characters? More commonly in contemporary novels, summary connects scenes; in NW it feels essential, and Smith slips adeptly from reported speech or thought—“Natalie Blake was in many ways an exceptional candidate”—to the narrator’s knock-out punch, “[s]omething about Natalie inspired patronage, as if by helping her you helped unseen multitudes,” spotlighting the miserly “in many ways” for the condescension that it is.
This pace goes awry when it comes to Natalie’s self-destructive behavior. The scenes are tautly wrought, even nail-biting, but her fateful moment of first decision receives only a single line, and is neither clearly a scene nor an observation after the fact. NW needs Natalie to self-destruct, to set up its marvelous final scene, but as with Leah’s stumbling reactions to Shar, the logistics seem strikingly arranged compared with the fluidity with which Natalie changes jobs, years pass, and people arrive at parties and stay late enough that breakfast runs into brunch, thought runs into dialogue. Fiction may be made on the sentence level, but the resultant, Pointillist shapes need to read as things of this world, at least in a novel as concerned with it as NW is.
While a departure for Zadie Smith in syntax and structure, NW is less a radical feat of engineering impossible with traditional methods than an initially disjunctive Modernist façade applied to what remains, structurally, and recognizably, what its characters might call a pokey London terrace house. Life goes on there. The mobiles and Gmail and financial instruments may be new, the accents different than a hundred years ago or where you are, but problems and perplexity; you understand those.
Sarah Malone has published work in Five Chapters, PANK, The Collagist, The Awl, Open City, and elsewhere.