London Calling

NW, by Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£18.99, 304 pages

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, Penguin, RRP£8.99, 464 pages

The Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith, Penguin, RRP£8.99, 432 pages

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, Penguin, RRP£8.99, 560 pages

The opening of Zadie Smith’s long-awaited fourth novel is scattered, rough. Here are abrupt phrases, disjointed impressions, stray details: “The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lamp posts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. 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.” Plot is not forthcoming, and neither are the normal trappings of characterisation. Instead, Leah Hanwell lies in a hammock in the back garden, listening out for ideas, like a writer in search of a narrative.

Smith, who has described her own instinct to pack the beginnings of previous novels “tighter than tuna in a can”, is doing something new in NW. She is also doing someone else – someone more light-headed, poetic, like Virginia Woolf or the lesser-known author of 1960s avant-garde novels, Ann Quinn. The style reflects a sensibility: if Smith’s sentences lack momentum, it is because Leah lacks “drive” – the desire to forward herself, to procreate. (“We’re getting there, no?” asks her husband, Michel, a French-African hairdresser. “The woman does not know where there is,” Smith narrates.)

Smith’s essays in recent years have revealed a growing interest in the techniques of writers such as Tom McCarthy and David Foster Wallace, whose experimental prose, she has argued, portray people’s inherent neuroticism more effectively than traditional realism. In NW, she puts theory into practice; the novel is divided into sections, each told from a different perspective, and in a different literary style. Each is architecturally impressive; the overall effect is of a cacophony of subjectivities – something like what Smith once called, describing Middlemarch, “the narrative equivalent of surround sound”.

In its formal innovation, NW suggests a culmination of a long investigation into “voice”, a nebulous concept that Smith has explored in refreshingly concrete and personal ways. Born in 1975 to a Jamaican mother and British father, Smith grew up in a council flat in Willesden in northwest London (the area’s postcodes begin with “NW”) and attended local state schools before going to Cambridge University. She has written about her sense of the chasm between those places, and of her own self-invention – most revealingly in a lecture she gave about accents, which was subsequently published in her 2009 essay collection, Changing My Mind. (“Hello,” the lecture begins. “This voice I speak with these days, this English voice with its rounded vowels and consonants in more or less the right place – this is not the voice of my childhood. I picked it up in college, along with the unabridged Clarissa and a taste for port.”)

White Teeth, her debut novel, was published in 2000, to widespread critical acclaim, winning several prizes and selling 1.5m copies in English. Spanning 150 years in the histories of two immigrant families settled in Willesden, it featured an international cast of Londoners – posh, middle-class, cockney, mockney – who together made it clear that Smith was a natural mimic. (Her characters are mimics too, like Irie, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and British father, who becomes a fixture in the middle-class Chalfens’ family kitchen, or, in NW, Leah and her best friend Natalie Blake, who sign off MSN chats with the farewell of their Irish neighbours, “Bye noe”.)

Smith’s second novel, published in 2002 to mixed reviews, suggested the impossibility of sounding natural unless you happen to be a movie star; the characters in The Autograph Man walked about a London without place-names, dreaming of Hollywood. On Beauty (2005) was more conventional, and stronger: a campus novel set in the fictive American liberal arts college of Wellington (it was published following Smith’s Radcliffe fellowship at Harvard), it used the “classy old frame” of EM Forster’s Howards End to explore the lure of the authentic, here represented in a subplot by an unschooled rapper and the female Poet Laureate who nurtures him. Finding the right voice for a given occasion is not just a social requirement, the novel suggested, but an existential problem – one particularly troubling for the university student Zora who, after class, “saw at once how she might have argued the thing just as viciously and successfully the other way around; defended Flaubert over Foucault; rescued Austen from insult instead of Adorno. Was anyone ever genuinely attached to anything? She had no idea.”

While Smith’s novels show her willing to assume new voices, her non-fiction has explored what it means to discard old ones. In a memoir for the New Yorker published last year, she wrote about having lent money to an old schoolfriend living in council property, and how quickly her own generosity turned into suspicion. “I continued passively-aggressively texting in the middle class tradition – to the wrong number, it turned out,” she wrote with disarming candour.

In a recent interview, Smith spoke of her need to write for the Londoners she grew up with, rather than assuming that all her readers will be “white and middle-class and highly educated”. The dream of finding a voice that appeals to all audiences is heard throughout NW, in which people define themselves by their musical, rather than literary, tastes. As one character asks, after listening to the melody of a “lovely voice” that “sounded ... as if its owner were the patron saint of their neighbourhoods”: “Is voice something you can own?” (A clue to the singer’s identity is given in the chapter heading, “Beehive”.)

NW revisits the Willesden of White Teeth – the market stall owners and Irish and old Hindus who “look like they have walked to Willesden from Delhi, adding layers of knitwear as they progress northwards” – but this is a changing landscape. New, middle-class inhabitants arrive with their window boxes and tea-towels (“We are the village green preservation society. God save little shops, china cups and virginity!”) and their “loud music of white origin”, all of which make Leah question her own class allegiance. “Wish we had confession,” she tells her mother. “Wish I could confess.”

In this gentrifying area, property prices are in direct relation to “the distance the house put between you and Caldwell”, the estate where three of the main characters grew up. Leah now lives in a council flat nearby; Natalie is in a house she owns with her husband across the green. Both of them have access to perks (university, private healthcare, brunch) that are unavailable to Nathan Bogle, who also went to the local state school and is now to be found in Kilburn station illegally re-selling travel passes. These varying degrees of separation have a parallel in Smith’s narrative, in which speech is presented either without quotation marks, making it uncomfortably close; or a little too indirectly, suggesting a cold remove: “She told a story concerning the children’s preparations for carnival, which could hardly avoid demonstrating the happy fullness of her life.”

In the novel’s opening section, called “Visitation”, Leah, newly pregnant, is visited by a local girl asking for money for a taxi to hospital. She is later revealed to be a con and a drug addict. Leah’s determination to remain open to those less fortunate than herself is seen again when she rails against a news item about the death of Felix Cooper, a black man living in the Caldwell blocks and a former resident of a notorious Holloway estate. “He was murdered!” she cries at the screen, sensing a euphemism. “Why does it matter where he grew up?”

Felix is brought back to life in “Guest”, the second narrative, which recounts the day of his death and, oddly, is one of the most uplifting sections of the novel – Smith’s trick being to fill his narrative with so many glittering details that we cannot help but have faith in the future of a man we know, objectively, is doomed.

The third narrative, “Host”, belongs to Natalie, who, like Zadie (née Sadie) Smith, has changed her name (from Keisha) as part of a larger pattern of self-invention that has also involved abandoning the religion of her parents and marrying a man who looks like “he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren”. Whereas Leah neglects to tell those around her that her visitor had been wearing a headscarf, Natalie knows how to pick up on the details. Her narrative is made up of short paragraphs that resemble, in their acute analyses of cultural signifiers, the entries in Roland Barthes’ Mythologies: to move up in the world, Natalie suggests, one must buy into the myth – of tea served on a tray, milk first; of a pair of Nike Air Max; of iPhones; of commercial law; of a picnic.

In the penultimate section, “Crossing”, two of Smith’s characters take nightmarish journeys across north London and arrive at its infamous suicide spot, Archway bridge. This section has a messier kind of structure, in which characters seem to merge into each other, brilliantly evoking the conclusion to Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook.

The ending of NW feels a bit neat, though, like a double-knot at the end of a fishing net. But the desire to turn messy experience into shapely forms is consistent with a work in which people are trying to plan their futures, and in which fleeting airborne voices are retold or written down. That song lyric from the opening scene recurs throughout: “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me”. As the younger Keisha discovers, while searching for something she can’t quite put her finger on, dictionary entries tend to lead to the search for another word, “and every book led to another book, a process which of course could never be completed”.

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