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Sunday, September 30, 2012

NW: Community, Language & Visitation

The Penguin Press, 2012

In the fourth novel from Zadie Smith, a new prose style and ambitious narrative complexity emerges. NW is a novel primarily about language and the way that language defines us as people in the context of the modern world and the cities and communities that have raised us.

The story is one of visitations and intersections, showing those who are at home within the constructed world and those who are just guests within the story - as framed by power, and ultimately by language. The narrative follows two main female protagonists, Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake (formerly Keisha Blake), childhood friends drawn together by a powerful incident when they were young. Woven within the stories of Leah and Natalie are also Felix and Nathan - the male presence, written primarily as visitors within a world over which they have not been able to garner control.

Set in NW London, where Smith set White Teeth and also where she hails from, the four main characters were raised in the same housing estate. A sense of community is established -whether real or fashioned by events and shared environments -and this community is what binds the stories together. While they are together, they are equally disparate in their own realities and Smith uses different language motifs to make the distinctions of each character more clear.

NW was very quickly compared to the work of Virginia Woolf, particularly Mrs. Dalloway, for the use of stream of consciousness prose. But while it's inherently inspired by it's Modernist predecessors, it's also filled with the language of the present climate - google maps directions, text messages, IM conversations, stage directions, concrete poems, patios, conversations overheard while waiting, pop culture references - an onslaught of hyper-modern language motifs. Perhaps even more resounding in the comparison to Woolf is the woman's struggle to make a place for herself in the modern world, and the use of time to measure this conflict. I couldn't help but hear Big Ben striking "first a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable" (Woolf), throughout my read of the novel and it's many references to time. In fact, Smith goes so far as to hold women as the cadence, the timepiece:

"If it was not quite possible to feel happy for him it was because the arrangement was timeless - it did not come bound by the constrictions of time - and this was the consequence of a crucial detail: no women were included with the schema. Women come bearing time."

Even in the telling, Smith clearly understands this is the most complex of her works, and uses her own language throughout the novel to engage with the reader. She pulls through the narrative, as if to separate herself from the story, and address you: "reader, keep up!" Characters are often referred to by their full name, as if this use might serve as a formal separation between author, protagonist, and reader. We may share a community within the novel, but we are not the same.

And, keep up you must. For as much emphasis is placed on language, it's perhaps the implications between the language that play the most important role in the story. Conclusions must be drawn between what is told and what is felt, a motif that the late Modernists mastered, but perhaps becomes most relevant now in the age of technology. At the same time that one is or seeks to be the "the sole author" of their story, it becomes clear that that, "nothing survives in the telling."

Smith crafts very careful communities - both in Willesden, in relationships between protagonists, and in the pages of the novel itself - and then is careful to show that these communities have been authored. The illusion is broken, both for Leah and Natalie, Felix and Nathan; but alas, for the reader as well.
"People were not people but merely an effect of language. You could conjure them up and kill them in a sentence."

Perhaps my only complaint with the novel was the progression towards the novel's ending and it's ultimate conclusion. It seemed that something this carefully wrought by language ran out of time and came to a desperate end within the last 50 pages. Communities are established and destroyed, and thus in the ultimate act for control, the narrative is changed drastically not by language, which has been our guide, but by force. However, being a masterful artist, I can't help but wonder if this was Smith's intention after all. For as quickly as communities were created in the text (by socio-economic conditions, geography, incidents in youth, birth and death), they can just as easily be destroyed. A dramatic play for control -a search for authorship -is made by each of the characters within the novel, and at the end of the novel it seems their story has not been fully drawn. Control is lost. The characters are merely ghosts; failing to understand their progression towards, and ultimately away from their own conclusions about themselves.

Smith still reigns master at writing histories for characters of race, socio-economic struggle, and especially of women trying to build a place for themselves within the roles society has demanded. As a fan of Woolf, I was especially drawn in by the prose, and felt the language was a successful, resounding attempt for Smith. Though, let's be careful not to place this story on the shelf with other Modernists as a few reviewers have suggested, because in its essence and conclusion it's inherently a story of our current Zeitgeist. Ultimately, we are all just visitors in the communities that have been constructed for us, or even unknowingly created by our own hands.

For more wonderful writing by Zadie Smith, check out her article on Jay Z, The House that Hova Built.

© 2012 Eamonn McCabe

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