Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Zadie Smith is a great champion of the novel. She has written several thoughtful essays on its future and is admirably willing to change her mind and try new things: each of her four novels, White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty and the new NW, presents distinct ideas and methods, a rare thing for a successful novelist. But in recent years she has, I think, undertaken a wrongheaded attack on realism.
In a 2008 New York Review of Books essay entitled “Two Paths for the Novel,” she wrote that “a breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.” Realism used to be challenged by writers who were termed “postmodern,” but, she argued, that school of thought “has been relegated to a safe corner of literary history, to be studied in postmodernity modules, and dismissed, by our most famous public critics, as a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart.” She went on to compare two novels, one realist, one not, with the apparent goal of making a case for the non-realist novel as a genre, and though she never outright rejects realism, an undercurrent of skepticism flows through the essay: “Is [realism] really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?”
Smith might see the fascinating and frustrating NW as a correction to the “lyrical realism” trend, as more realistic, more true to life, than conventional realism. Its narrative is fragmented, it refuses most conventions of plot and character—all in order to accurately depict the northwest (NW) neighborhood of London where Smith grew up; in a Guardian interview she said of it: “You can imagine the same book written in a really smooth tone, but the city I grew up in isn’t like that … Life is not smooth and seamless, and I wanted to replicate that.” Like all of Smith’s work, NW is very well written, and there is much to like about it, but ultimately it feels drastically limited by this self-conscious insistence on refusing conventionality.
So it’s important to understand Smith’s arguments. She’s right to criticize a certain sort of high-minded, thoroughly phony novel, the sort that quietly smooth over the rough parts of the world with faux-lyricism and tell us only what we want to hear: “But is that what having a self really feels like?… Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries?… Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past?” Smith’s questions are hardly new; this attack this has been a major theme for the literature of the past century, and for good reason. But then things get dicey. Smith’s distrust of “verbal fancy” leads her to question the “credos upon which realism is built: the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Questioning is fine, I suppose, but in NW that questioning seems to turn into nihilistic all-out rejecting, a big mistake. Because at least the first two of these are not just the credos upon which realism is built—they are, as the critic James Wood has argued, the credos upon which the entire enterprise of fiction is built.
NW centers on the friendship between two longtime NW residents, Keisha (later renamed Natalie) Blake and Leah Hanwell. First we meet Leah, whose whiteness marks her as different at the charity where she works and who, despite having gotten a college degree—rare in NW—and found a husband, still feels the press of near-poverty and is envious of Natalie’s success. In Leah’s section Smith employs a jumpy stream-of-consciousness style (“They can never move into our houses. Pass the heirloom tomato salad. The thing about Islam.”) to show us a few weeks in her life, beginning with her helping a woman named Shar who claims her mother’s just died but who Leah soon realizes is a junkie desperate for money.
For the most part Leah’s section is well done. Leah keeps seeing Shar around NW—it is as if Shar were haunting her, and something difficult to describe about the anxiety of pressurized city life is conveyed beautifully. There are also some wonderful descriptions, e.g. in a bakery, “a cheap fan whirs pointlessly.” But frequently it’s difficult to know what’s going on and there are a few too many literary gimmicks, e.g. at one point instead of describing a character’s mouth, Smith writes:
Tooth gold tooth tooth gap tooth tooth tooth
Tooth tooth tooth tooth chipped tooth filling.
Get it? But for all its cleverness, it doesn’t really give us an image of a mouth; rather, it draws attention to itself. It proclaims, “Look how clever I am!”
Then Smith switches us to a new character, Felix, a car mechanic who wishes he could be a filmmaker, and who we already know from Leah’s section will soon he shot and killed. He goes about his life normally for 85 pages, and though Smith gives us some excellent writing—
He gripped the tube [subway] map. It did not express his reality. The center was not “Oxford Circus” but the bright lights of Kilburn High Road. “Wimbledon” was the countryside, “Pimlico” pure science fiction. He put his right index finger over Pimlico’s blue bar. It was nowhere. Who lived there? Who even passed through it?
—the section is supremely boring: Felix is something of a character, but Smith doesn’t make any meaning out of the events in his life.
Once Felix is killed, we switch, again, this time to Natalie: in 185 numbered and named sections we learn the history of Leah and Natalie’s friendship, how they grew up together, grew apart and closer together as friends do, and then about the real quality of Natalie’s adult life: not so good. Her drive for success has left her unhappy and disconnected from the world she grew up in (embodied by the Keisha-to-Natalie switch); and her black skin makes her uncomfortable in the posh world of London’s elite lawyers. Natalie envies what she sees as Leah’s happy relationship. Soon she turns to the internet to arrange threesomes with strangers (!). Then there’s a contrived climax that draws together Felix’s death with Shar and Leah and Natalie, all around the Caldwell housing project where most of the characters grew up.
Bits and pieces of all this succeed beautifully—particularly the history of Leah and Natalie’s friendship—but the book keeps intentionally stalling. It does not let us become attached to characters (for example by telling us Felix will be killed before his section begins); it emphasizes the random and inconsequential; its ending is unsatisfying. It lacks emotional payoff.
Almost all the problems with the novel come back to the problems with Smith’s essay. In it she wrote of the “fundamental division between those who want to extinguish matter and elevate it to form…and those who want to let matter matter.” She seems to see herself in the latter category; this is why she insists on defying convention and treating us to experiment after experiment (funny mouth diagram! a poem in the shape of a tree! jumpy sections with clever titles!): she is trying to “replicate” the real experience of living in NW. But again, she goes so far in rejecting conventionality that she ends up rejecting what’s at the heart of fiction—“the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth.” Yes, fiction must replicate, and of course there is room for experimentation in trying to do so (though not for experimentation for its own sake), but it must do more than just replicate. That’s what form is for: form allows us to condense a potentially limitless world into a book with a beginning and an end from which we can glean deeper meaning than we do in our direct dealings with the world. Fiction that attempts to reject elevating matter to form relegates itself to shallow replication (Felix’s section is a good example of this), and ultimately is pointless and frequently boring: the world in all its complexity and tedium already exists and will surely do better at being itself than any fiction that tries to imitate it.
Smith is intelligent enough to acknowledge this obvious enough point. “Such an attitude is easily mistaken for linguistic or philosophical nihilism,” she writes, arguing that it does in fact leave room for literary meaning through “a perverse acknowledgment of limitations,” a “narration defined by absence, by partial knowledge,” one that “does not seek the secret, authentic heart of things.” So there can be deep literary truth, but only one kind: the truth that we cannot know the truth of things. That is so limiting it may as well be linguistic nihilism. Surely acknowledging that we are limited does not have to mean that we cannot know something about things, enough to try to write about them, enough to search for truth. It may be good for authors to keep this “acknowledgement of limitations” in mind, but they need not write only about those limitations. They can and should chafe against them and strive for greater meaning, strive to “elevate matter to form.”
And where NW succeeds, it does so precisely because Smith is very capable of doing this. The story of Leah’s dealings with Shar doesn’t just superficially capture city life; it finds meaning and captures a human truth—the haunting power of fear—and moves us. The story of Leah and Natalie’s childhood friendship works the same way: its narrative pulls us along and affects us and tells us something deeply true about the limits of human connection.
And the two adult friends, each wrongly envying the other, each struggling with the weight of racial identity and adulthood and profound disillusionment: this, too, could make for great fiction, and I think Smith knows it. At the very end NW she finally brings the two together in their sadness, but like so much else in this book, that scene is an unsatisfying fragment too disconnected from everything around it to tell us anything meaningful. A job well done, Smith might think, but we know better.
NW is available from Penguin Press for $27.
Photo by Izzy Kornblatt-Stier/the Daily Gazette.
This article was updated on November 2, 2012. The third paragraph of this article originally read:
So it’s important to understand the problems with Smith’s arguments. She’s right to note that the literary establishment is unfortunately inclined to acclaim and award a certain brand of Very Serious Novel—you know, the kind that invariably have something to do with class or race struggle, are full of excruciatingly drawn-out metaphors and faux-lyricism, begin with pretentious epigraphs and always seem to slip into extreme didacticism. But any genre produces bad novels; Smith mistakes disliking these with disliking the “credos upon which realism is built: the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self” (whatever that means). At least the first two of these are not just the credos upon which realism is built—they are, as the critic James Wood has argued, the credos upon which the entire enterprise of fiction is built.
The second- and third-to-last paragraphs originally read:
Indeed, the “fundamental division” she describes, if it really exists for anyone but her and a select few others, is really a division between those who’ve accepted that fiction is by its very nature the elevation of matter to form and those who haven’t. In fiction form allows us to condense a potentially limitless world into a book with a beginning and an end from which we can glean deeper meaning than we do in our direct dealings with the world. Fiction that attempts to reject elevating matter to form relegates itself to shallow replication (Felix’s section is a good example of this), and ultimately is pointless and frequently boring: the world in all its complexity and tedium already exists and will surely do better at being itself than any fiction that tries to imitate it (after all, a book must end at some point).
Of course, using form well does not have to mean writing in a dully conventional way. There are many great novels that reinvent and experiment with form—David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, for example—but none of them reject the meaning and truth at the heart of fiction. And where NWsucceeds, it does so precisely because Smith, too, can work effectively and inventively with form. The story of Leah’s dealings with Shar doesn’t just superficially capture city life; it captures a human truth—the haunting power of fear—and moves us. The story of Leah and Natalie’s childhood friendship works the same way: its narrative pulls us along and affects us and tells us something deeply true about the limits of human connection.