ON ‘NW’: ZADIE SMITH’S DEFINITION OF STORY

Amy Fladeboe

Zadie Smith has never disappointed us with her ability to capture a sense of place that goes beyond basic setting and transcends into character. In her debut novel, White Teeth (2000), Smith gave us an unforgettable London, in On Beauty (2005), there was Wellington, and now again with her most recent 2012 release, NW, we are shown Caldwell Estate, a fictional, yet somehow very real borough of northwest London. Once again, Smith shows us a place—

Low-down dirty shopping arcade to mansion flats to an Englishman’s home is his castle. Open top, soft-top, drive-by, hip hop. Watch the money pile up. Holla! Security lights, security gates, security walls, security trees, Tudor, Modernist, postwar, prewar, stone pineapples, stone lions, stone eagles. Face east and dream of Regent’s Park, of St. John’s Wood. The Arabs, the Israelis, the Russians, the Americans: here united by the furnished penthouse, the private clinic. If we pay enough, if we squint, Kilburn need not exist. (43)

—that is very much a character on its own accord, a character that Smith lends a voice to. “How have you lived your whole life in these streets and never known me,” says a statue in a Caldwell park (83). The tangle that occurs in this place is one that Smith’s characters, like Natalie, can’t help but be caught in, “no more than she can help the shape of her feet or the street on which she was born.”

Like her other novels, NW tackles many of the themes that brought Smith her early literary success—racial and economic diversity, culture, politics, sex, love, violence, philosophy, and the most apparent thematic comparison, that unexpected convergence of very different lives in a very specific place. Smithcontinues to write in a close third person narration, switching perspectives between those within the knot.

But what makes NW stand out amongst Smith’s body of work is not the ways in which it is similar to her earlier successes. Smith’s dialogue, setting, and imagery have always been her strongestcraft elements, and in the case of NW, she takes them to a whole new level, by abandoning plot altogether, some might say, to get straight to the heart of it, to tackle head on, what one of NW’s characters refers to as “the way a narrative works, how you can tell a story through images” (139).

And that is exactly what Smith does. She provides the reader with a stack of polaroids and says, here you go, you find the story. We get a woman “thumping the door with her fist,” “the chain pull[ing] tight, a little hand fly[ing] through the gap” (5). We get a window through which we see a naked man, laying in bed, holding a dressed woman’s wrist, “truck doors opening, boxes of produce heaved on the tarmac” (113).  We get a boy smoking in a children’s playground, “a cloud of sycamore leaves spinning to the pavement” as a man is stabbed to death, “a young girl in a yellow summer dress” running for the bus, “the doors fold[ing] neatly behind her” (198). In and amongst these seemingly disparate images, the three main characters of NW form their identities through the stories they tell themselves, all in strikingly different forms.

The novel opens through the lens of Leah Hanwell, an Anglo-Irish woman in her thirties, dissatisfied with her work in the public sector, confused about her marriage, and secretly terminating the pregnancy her West African husband is so eager to see through to a family. Leah’s section is numbered into chapters, the opening ones reading like poetry, rife with sentence fragments, lots of white space, line breaks, and visual manipulation of the text. It’s a list of visceral images standing without narration, unfiltered stream-of-consciousness.

As soon as the reader feels accustomed to the writing style, Smith changes it, includes a chapter unlike the others, skips a chapter entirely, jumps out of sequence, goes back to the sequence again for a bit, then skips ten more chapters before finding the narrative line again. Leah’s section of the book is exhausting and disorienting, mirroring her discombobulated state. The reader feels as Leah feels when her mother “starts talking of things,” the chaos of structure serving as an equalizer for all images, or in Leah’s words, “All things are equal. Leah or tea or rape or bedroom or heart attack or school or who had a baby” (12).

At this point, readers may wish to shelf the book and take a nap, but Smith lets us come up for air. The proceeding section is Felix Cooper’s narrative, clear and digestible. Felix is a Caldwell resident in the projects, a recovering addict, former drug-dealer, who used to have aspirations to work in film but has now settled on working in a garage. His story follows a classic narrative arch. A guy who mostly has it together visits his past to officially let go of it, grapples back and forth with it, breaks out and is heading for a bright future. And just before he reaches it, spoiler alert… he gets killed. His story comes and goes in less than ninety pages of this 400-plus page book. The ease of narrative, the accessibility of character, the beginning—middle—endplot, and the sheer brevity of it all adds up to Smith chiding her readers. She shows us that this sort of simple story just can’t last. Story—identity—is never this clear.

To counter our rendezvous with Felix, we meet Keisha, Leah’s best friend, who renames herself Natalie when she leaves Caldwell to go to college. On the outside or from Leah’s perspective, Keisha/Natalie, a young black lawyer, seems to have it all pulled together with her husband, a “negroid Italian,” and two children, but when we get a closer look, we can see that it is she who suffers greatest from an identity crisis, not to mention that she explicitly admits to hating plots (282).  It’s no surprise then that her story is told in the most unconventional manner of the book, a numbered list of small vignettes haphazardly collaged together that take up the bulk of the novel’s middle, vaguely following a timeline but rarely if ever maintaining a pattern of form. Some vignettes seem to tell the story of Keisha and Leah’s friendship, others are Keisha’s stream-of-conscious ponderings about sex, religion, philosophy, others a scripted dialogue, a scene in stage directions, an exchange of instant messages, poetry, the list goes on. As soon as a pattern might seem to emerge, Smith breaks it by bringing in a new and unexpected written genre.

“The last thing a drowning person needs is another drowning person,” quips Natalie, but that’s exactly what we get with these two protagonists. Natalie, like Leah, is also unhappy in her marriage, conflicted about motherhood. She is burdened by a multitude of philosophical debates such as “the difference between a moment and an instant” and she takes us along for the ride (302). We watch each harrowing instant of the story Natalie tells herself. She bounces between identities, never knowing which story is really hers:

Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic. (333)

As some sort of salve for her crisis, Natalie authors a new identity for herself on the internet, an identity where “she was what everybody was looking for.” She embarks on a number of sexual escapades and eventually her husband catches her transgressions and confronts her, “What is this? ‘KeishaNW@gmail.com.’ What the fuck is this? Fiction?” (353)

Not lies, not cheating, but “fiction” is the word Natalie’s husband uses. Fiction, synonymous with story, and story being a stand in for identity, Smith uses dialogue to hammer in her point that all identities are authored; all identities are fiction.In White Teeth, Smith gave us Archie, a working class, World War II vet, divorced and remarried to a Jamaican woman forty years his junior. Archie’s defining characteristic is the way he “uses a hammer and nails to replace nouns and adjectives” (79). In NW, her nod to the grammatical parts of speech continues as she presents us with the two long-time girl friends, Leah and Keisha who share “a relation based on verbs, not nouns” (209). The parts of speech are the working parts of fiction, the pieces we use to form identity.

Despite her technique of rotating perspective and telling “the story” through the narrative lens of these three characters, some of NW’s most memorable characters are actually secondary. Annie, a heroine addict and wealthy shut-in, who according to Felix, “could fall and fall and fall and never quite hit the ground,” is a sort of anti-hero for the novel (167). She accepts her life’s lack of narrative and in her final words to Felix before he leaves her for good, she exclaims, “not everyone wants this conventional little life you’re rowing your boat toward. I like my river of fire” (185). We get flashes of Nathan Bogle, throughout the novel as well, a boy who Natalie had a crush on as a child, now turned to street vagrant and addict. He serves as a physical embodiment of the disintegration of identity occurring for all characters. There’s also Shar, the woman who knocked on Leah’s door at the beginning of the novel, stole her money, and makes an implied reappearance at the end. The novel ends unraveled with hardly a semblance of plot to hang onto. The final words come from Keisha, not Natalie, who is about to share a fiction of her own making about Shar with Leah. She is “disguising her voice with her own voice” (401).

Ultimately, Smith’s content matches her form. This story, about the way we tell stories and how we let them define us, reminds us that the core ingredient of story is image, no matter how it’s cut up and pasted together again. Smith’s novel provides a montage of such images from every vantage and lands on the same point she started with, Leah’s opening rant that dwells on the radio line, “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me” (3).

NW is not an easy novel to flip through; it’s not bathroom reading material, and you might have trouble digesting it on your morning commute.But be certain you will see some pictures that you cannot unsee. Smith’s images stick with you. Whether you can string them together and form a collage or not, is the clamoring question. Smith’s NW asks us not only how we will take our stories, what form we will accept them in, but also how will we rely on story to form our identities. Smith’s readers are left with one searing question: is this a story?

After closing the pages of NW, I immediately wanted to open them up again. I had that overwhelming feeling of passionate nostalgia that Felix described as the instant “it had seemed possible to climb inside another person, head first, and disappear entirely” (182). I think Smith knew the limitations of telling a story in this unconventional manner. She won’t be deterred to learn that some of her readers did not, as “Natalie did not recognize this story” (316). This reader, however, climbed in, headfirst and disappeared in all of Smith’s characters. My answer to the question is an emphatic yes. Thank you Miss Smith; a story can be told through images.

Works Cited:

Smith, Zadie,On Beauty, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005, Print

Smith, Zadie, NW, USA: Penguin Group, 2012, Print

Smith, Zadie, White Teeth, New York: Random House, 2000, Print

Amy Fladeboe hosts the literary radio program, The Weekly Reader, interviewing authors from around the globe. She's had the pleasure of chatting with Carmen Bugan, Alyson Hagy, Dylan Hicks, and many other contemporary authors. She's currently working on a novel that takes place in Albania, where she served as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2008-2010.
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