September 12, 2012
Zadie Smith’s new novel NW was – mathematically – one of the longest awaited of the year, and its mixed reception surprised me. For every 850 words of closely-argued praise, there was a crowd of cavils by a normally perceptive critic. I had expected critical near-unanimity on this one, with the only disagreement being which section was best. Anyway the attention paid to the book affirmed that any new work by Zadie Smith is a publishing event, and this time, in my view, a literary event too. I was grateful for the opportunity to ask the author some questions about NW and her writing.
(You can buy any of the books mentioned by Zadie Smith from the excellent independent bookshop Bookseller Crow by clicking on the images below.)
NW is a novel in varied parts, about the lives of very different people in one area of London. Did you always know that their stories would be part of something larger? How did the novel find its form?
I didn’t begin with any stories, really. Just this single idea of a girl coming to the door. The novel found its form slowly, over a long period. I wrote the first lines almost nine years ago. And that’s really how it was built: sentence by sentence, hoping the shape would emerge by itself. But once I had the idea of the girl coming to the door, I started to read around the idea of guests and hosts… and there’s sort of a long philosophical history to those ideas, and inevitably they ended up being a part of the book, and shaping it. And from “Who gets invited?” I went to “Once you’re invited, what kind of hospitality is ideal?” – and that gets you into thinking about utopia and dystopia… And those ideas ended up being another room in the house of the book. It’s hard for me to explain, but I guess as a general rule I find the characters subconsciously, but then the conscious part of a novel are these larger ideas. The whole trick for me is not to let the ideas overwhelm that subconscious work, which is where I feel the real life of the thing is. But perhaps for 90 percent of readers all the larger framework goes unnoticed and all they see is a lot of uncouth Kilburn people, talking… I can never tell. It doesn’t really matter. I think that’s just the risk you take when you shape a novel round the present. People distrust the present – it looks formless, unserious. They want the security of the past, and of familiar forms.
Much of the strength of the book lies in the way it reports communication between characters, particularly those of different social and cultural backgrounds. Is NW a state-of-England (or part of it) novel?
I find that idea really boring: ‘state of the nation’. It’s one of those phrases that people who secretly dislike fiction use to pretend a novel is just a spring board to enter into some other, less embarrassing discussion: a political analysis or a sociological portrait. I really don’t presume to know the state of England. I’m a fiction writer. I’m interested in trying to find ways to depict experience through a medium that can never succeed in depicting experience fully: language. It’s a fool’s task, but I know that the pleasure I have as a reader is watching different writers attempt it. And this is just my attempt, to add to all the attempts by others that have come before it. Of course some of that experience involves ‘having been born and bred in England,’ but a sense of place is just one part of a larger concern, as it is with all novelists, no matter where they were born. How does language feel to hear and use? How does time feel? How can we know other people are real and not just projections of our own desires or fears? What does the thought of death do to us? These are the sort of vulgar, childlike question that novelists ask – at least, the kind of novelists I’m interested in. Because it’s just so odd to be alive! And fiction is about that. I think all good novels are about “the state of being alive.” Trying to make them act as national sociological descriptors isn’t the worst crime in the world, but focusing on that aspect ignores the very particular linguistic thingyness of the form. To me writing is deeply irrational, idiosyncratic, because its medium – language – has so much ambiguity built into it. That argument that Alice and Humpty Dumpty have about the instability of meaning that’s the epigraph of a million graduate dissertations… Language is the absurd bit of writing that can’t be entirely suppressed or controlled by journalistic ideas like ‘state of the nation’ novels. Maybe the phrase, if it’s used at all, is best used satirically, as Amis used it.
Sometimes it feels that in England and America especially there is this desire that the novel behave itself and exist as only a sort of mildly creative interpretation of the news. Faction. Solid, recognizable, like a TV sitcom written down. But a novel should have a little witchcraft in it, don’t you think? It should be a little weird. It should try to do something that can only be done in this form, in language.
When reading NW, I thought of other books. London Fields (obviously), which is similarly controlled in its prose yet enacts the messiness of life even as it portrays it. Or Evan S Connell’s Mrs Bridge, which like the ‘Host’ section in NW, makes up a whole life in short discrete scenes. Does the book have any direct literary inspirations or influences?
Hmmm… When I think of London Fields I think of White Teeth. And there the influence is direct. But nothing could have been further from my mind writing NW than London Fields… I see books in terms of their sentences and to me the sentences of White Teeth and NW are really from different planets! But this may be my own delusion. In the end, you have to defer to readers: you can’t instruct them to see a sentence your way – they have to see it themselves.
Anyway, Mrs Bridge was certainly in there, though perhaps not as much as Roland Barthes’ autobiography, Raymond Queneau’s variations, and various books of epigraphs I was reading. I became envious of that numbered structure – and then it seemed to suit Natalie so perfectly, with her determination to march boldly into the future. Originally her section was in a sort of fractured first person. Everyone who read it hated it – me included. Then another writer said to me: “You’re the only writer I know who can create no sympathy in the first person.” I thought: that’s right! When I write the pronoun “I”, I think of myself and end up being incredibly cruel. I’m not sympathetic to myself, as it turns out. I need the she and he.
NW is on the one hand psychologically acute and strongly character-driven, but also experiments with form and content – it’s littered with up-to-date cultural references, has typographical trickery and surprising appearances of the way we live now (such as a chapter made of Google Maps directions). Do these elements come easily? Or is “the culture doing strange things to novels“?
Oh, not so strange. You could find far, far stranger in 1918 or 1761. Nothing new under the sun. The novel has always been a weird form, full of oddities. If there’s trickery in this one, I’m sorry for it: I genuinely wanted to try and get closer to reality, not to obscure it. I mean, look: a version of the most realistic novel possible right now would be the one that took into account the fact that for much of each day in the west, the consciousness of many of us is projected outwards into a 14-inch lit screen, and any thought we have constantly penetrated by news, trivia, gossip, adverts, glimpses of content, and email, always email. I can’t figure out a way to do that, but some younger writer will. Not in the dull manner of ‘putting emails in a novel’ but some organic and genuine way of representing that reality. And stuff like that will always be called ‘trickery’ and accused of shallowness and then fifty years later it will be understood as pure realism. I remember David Foster Wallace saying somewhere that his ‘real’ life did not involve walking by a stream, pausing under an apple tree and having a deep internal monologue about the nature of the world – yet that’s what his fiction teacher expected of him and it’s true to this day that much contemporary fiction hangs upon what are actually quite unrealistic premises. But people still call it realism and think of it as completely ‘natural,’ not strange at all. To me it’s a little strange.
The same goes – at the most banal level – for content. When I first started writing, people often asked why I insisted on this ‘multicultural’ cast. To them it was a publishing ‘angle’ or some kind of post-modern trick. Slowly you realize: these people live in an entirely white social world. So to them it probably is exotic, it is an angle. I had interviewers – especially abroad – congratulating me on the “trendiness” of my family, as if I had picked out a black mother and a white father for fashion purposes. But to me what’s exotic is a world in which everyone is white. I’ve never lived in that world. Being mixed race is not some kind of gimmick: a third of the kids in my school had families like that, and nothing could have been more dull to all of us, more everyday. I remember, too, the shock of reading reviews that took it for granted that Willesden is a sort of piteous place to live, unutterably ‘grim.’ And if a character of mine isn’t living in a four storey house in Hampstead their lives are also described as ‘grim,’ or brutally modern, or whatever. It makes you wonder: where do these reviewers come from? This is just bog standard London life I’m describing, the lives of millions. But perhaps the only ‘moral’ of my fiction is that one person’s strange is another person’s normal.
Your essay ‘Two Directions for the Novel’ attracted much attention, contrasting lyrical realism (in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland) with the ‘alternative road’ of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Where do you place your own work in this context?
I don’t really. The critic in me and the writer in me are two different people. The critic writes of what she would ideally like to read; the writer only writes what she can. Criticism is easy; fiction hard. I know what I’m doing when I write an essay. I have no idea what I’m doing when I write a novel. Fiction is a much riskier enterprise.
And then that essay is a polemic, and describes what I felt, at the time, to be an extreme situation in publishing. I think China Miéville – my Kilburn neighbour! – said recently that English fiction tends to privilege recognition over strangeness and alienation, and I think that has often been true. Personally I adore the recognition Jane Austen provides but I also love the strangeness of B.S. Johnson or Octavia Butler. In “healthy” times there’s no need for the polemic: it’s a wide church and both types of writers can exist perfectly happily in there. But it didn’t seem to me to be a very healthy time. I think it’s got a little better, at least from the books that I’m being sent. And the ideal – as I think I said in the essay – are those books that defy all categorization, that are great on their own idiosyncratic terms. I was describing two particular paths in the tradition of the novel, but what marks the most interesting novels is their absolute particularity. You can’t pin them down so easily. What kind of a novel is Invisible Cities? What kind of novel is [Naipaul's] Half a Life? I’m afraid real writing laughs in the face of polemical essays. They were rare four hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, fifty years ago, yesterday – great books will always be rare. Lolita doesn’t come around every day. Heart of Darkness doesn’t come around every day. Most novels are just “good enough”, and given that this is so, shouldn’t they be welcomed in their full variety? Great writing comes in a trickle, not a flood. And we’re not so drowning in riches that we can afford to dam up certain tributaries.
As for my own writing, I’m surprised to find I’m quite excited about the future, which I’ve never really been before. NW feels like my first novel in some ways, maybe because it’s the first I’ve written as what my mother would call “a grown ass woman.” So I’m just going to keep on shuffling down my own path, wherever it leads me. The next novel I have in mind is actually a sort of speculative fiction, set in the future, so I don’t know where that lies along those two paths. I don’t think I care!
As a reader, I’ve discovered that since becoming a parent, limited reading time means I’m much less forgiving of – or willing to continue with – mediocre books. Does parenthood have any comparable effect on writing? Are the short sections of NW an effect of this?
Sure. But that makes it sound purely practical. To me, the intense awareness of time that parenthood creates makes a different person of you, and necessarily a different writer. I hate waste of all kinds now. I hate padding. I want only essential things. A good analogy is party-going. I love to drink and I love to dance. I didn’t used to need an excuse to do those things. But now it better be the best party that man has ever invented, otherwise I ain’t going. Otherwise I’m not paying the babysitter, enduring the tears, texting to check the child hasn’t died, and so on and so forth. The same logic works on the page. If I’m going to write it, it better be a necessary word. It better be essential. Because otherwise I could be hanging out with my family, which most days is about infinity times more enjoyable than struggling over a paragraph in the library.
Parenthood is also a central subject in NW. Is this something that came from the essence of the characters Leah and Natalie, or from a desire to write about something prominent in your own life?
I began the book five years before I had a child. That seems to be a pattern with me. On Beauty is about a marriage of thirty years standing, but at the time I had been married only two. I don’t know the reasons. You’d have to ask a psychiatrist.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or author for readers of this blog?
I don’t know if it’s overlooked, but someone just recommended it to me and I’m enjoying it. It’s got a great title, too: How to make love to a negro without getting tired by Dany Laferrière.
September 3, 2012
In approaching this book, I’ve been wondering how to avoid reading it – and writing about it – as Zadie Smith’s first novel in seven years, when it is, undeniably, her first novel in seven years. Such a formulation creates expectations of something massive, epic, exhaustively life-encompassing. Most of all it sustains the illusion that the author really was working on the book for all of the intervening period. This does happen, but rarely. Yet we know that Smith, after On Beauty (2005), had many other things to occupy her, not least becoming a parent. She has, perhaps to dampen expectations, called her new novel a “very, very small book.”
NW is a small book – in page count, Smith’s shortest novel yet. There is not a scrap of fat on it. But it unfolds, like an origami water lily, and contains multitudes. Indeed it is by making it such a small book – set in a few square miles of north-west London – and making us so intimate with her few characters, that Smith has created such a rich experience for the reader. After Hawthorn & Child, it feels like the second great London novel of the year (and yes, I did try Lanchester’s Capital). It feels, in fact, like a refinement of White Teeth and a focusing of that novel’s messy but charming potential, speaking of the encounters and fields of exchange that take place in a world city: even in part of it.
The window logs Kilburn’s skyline. Ungentrified, ungentrifiable. Boom and bust never come here. Here bust is permanent. Empty State Empire, empty Odeon, graffiti-streaked sidings rising and falling like a rickety roller-coaster. Higgledy-piggledy rooftops and chimneys, some high, some low, packed tightly, shaken fags in a box.
These encounters are across social and racial boundaries, and show how people who share the same streets, and labour under the same governments, engage, or fail to. There are three main sections to the book, though the characters sometimes cross into one another’s pages, to emphasise the point. Leah Hanwell anchors each end of the book. At the beginning (‘Visitation’), she has just discovered that she is pregnant, when she answers the door to a young woman, Shar, who needs to borrow money urgently. Shar is garrulous, gabby, half-charming; Leah is more distant, at a disadvantage. Shar lives in the nearby Garvey House council block, where Leah grew up (“From there to here, a journey longer than it looks”). The friction of their exchange sets up a charge that runs through the book.
Leah lives with her husband Michel, from whom she has secrets, and their dog Olive (“ridiculous, adored”). Leah’s character is cool, perhaps cold, and it is a notable achievement to convey this in prose as likeable and slinky as Smith’s. Her ease of style and lightness of touch are there on every page, and she is very good on the internal uncertainties which paralyse us all yet drive our actions. She uses a scattering of textual styles and surprising inclusions – a chapter in Google Maps directions, a cacophony of workplace voices running down the page, one character’s internal monologue proclaiming ‘EPIC FAIL’ – which reflect the wild diversity and modernity even of this one corner of the city. Crucially, she writes fluently about race: her characters have various ethnicities, but it is through others’ awareness of their racial and cultural differences that abrasions and illuminations occur. Leah’s mother, castigating her for lending Shar the money (“robbed on your own doorstep by a Gypsy”), places her trust in Michel. “You can’t con his people so easy.” (“All of them are Nigerian, all of them, even if they are French, or Algerian, they are Nigerian, the whole of Africa being, for Pauline, essentially Nigeria…”) Leah’s colleagues offer a passive-aggressive word of advice:
no offence, but for the women in our community, in the Afro-Caribbean community, no offence, but when we see one of our lot with someone like you it’s a real issue. It’s just a real issue you should be aware of. No offence.
The pleasure is that these brief phrases pack so much in, not only about those speaking – you can hear the very voice and tone in that last excerpt – but about their relationship to Leah, and touch too the book’s wider themes. Leah herself is a fascinating character, resisting change (“why must love ‘move forward’? What way is forward?”) and seeing increasing disparity between her life and that of her oldest friend, Natalie, now a lawyer and a parent. “Overnight everyone has grown up. While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.”
The risk for an author in a composite novel like this is of frustrating the reader when cutting away from an interesting character. Here – and again comparison with Hawthorn & Child is inevitable – Smith achieved the rare feat of taking me out of a story I was enjoying, and making me enjoy the next one even more. In the second part, ‘Guest’, the book moves up a gear in its depiction of how people engage across divides. Felix Cooper is 32 years old and a charming man – no mean trick to make a former drug dealer the most likeable person in a book – and his story is the most perfect self-contained part of NW. He is an urban creature, who “had been to Wiltshire once and returned astounded.” He has a series of encounters on his way to meet his sometime girlfriend, and former customer, Annie. He meets his feckless father Lloyd (one of the few family connections Felix has left: brother in prison, mum gone), an elderly neighbour Phil Barnes, and Tom Mercer, a posh young man selling a car. The awkwardness of Tom’s inept negotiations with Felix – an unease which goes beyond the generic discomfort of a middle-class householder struggling to make conversation with the tradesman – is a comic highlight of the book. Much more brittle is his meeting with Annie, a privileged but damaged young woman, one of those who “could fall and fall and fall and still never quite hit the ground.”
Smith breaks the story again, and takes a bigger risk, in the third section, ‘Host’, which occupies most of the second half the book. This gives us a scattered history of Leah’s friend Natalie – born Keisha – told in short, numbered sections, like Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge. Natalie, even while she is still a child, while she is still Keisha, fears that she has no identity of her own (“You are making it up as you go along,” she chides herself): so she creates one. The story of Natalie and Leah is of drive and no drive: or of Drive and Neutral. The representation of Natalie’s adolescent and post-adolescent angst is just so: “she struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness she now knew to be the one and only true reality of this world.” A finely judged teenage pretension also slips into the numbered sections themselves, and their titles too, which if read straight might seem to run close to affectation. It is into this part of the book that parenthood (“her whole life had essentially become work”) comes in full flood; parenthood, and the absence of it, running through the novel.
It filled her with panic and rage to see her spoilt children sat upon the floor, flicking through past images, moving images, of themselves, on their father’s phone, an experience of self-awareness literally unknown in the history of human existence – outside dream and miracle – until very recently. Until just before now.
It may be this part that Smith refers to in this interview, where she says that she rewrote the last third of the book after her husband, Nick Laird, told her it had gone “very wrong”. There remains a strangeness to it, an ill-fitting quality. This may be a function of the staccato telling: screengrabs of a life which don’t create an illusion of wholeness as Connell’s Bridge books do. It may be of the sadness which begins to overwhelm the book in the second half, and sits oddly with Smith’s always sparky prose. Yet the more I thought about this section, the more I felt that these were ‘problems’ that, more than anything, demand another reading to get to grips with. (Increasingly, I am of the view that I should read a book twice before committing any thoughts to writing at all.) New things are, by definition, strange, and NW feels new all the way through. It’s almost in the title. The book is full of how we live now, but it has a traditional feel for people, and for language across generations and social classes: like a third way between Smith’s two directions for the novel. It also feels like a breakthrough for Smith, in a sense her first mature work. Her previous novels were written before the age of 30, and ultimately fell down to a greater or lesser extent: books I enjoyed, but wouldn’t reread. Not so NW, a novel altogether tighter and trickier to unlock. My feelings about it are similar to those for Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room: quibbles while reading, once I began thinking and writing about it, began first to dissolve and then to transform into praiseworthy qualities. Not incidentally, I was softened up a little by finding an author at the top of her game who shares so many of my cultural references: a late-thirties thing, I suppose. How many novels, after all, contain a chapter titled Spectrum 128k?
November 8, 2007
There’s nothing like a striking cover to get me interested in a book. And what better than this?
Well, one thing that would be better is if the pink bit across the middle was just a loose paper band which comes off and leaves the cover devoid of any words at all. Of course to show you that I’d have to stop just downloading cover pics off tesco.com and actually photograph my own copy. Oh all right then.
Very handsome: very McSweeney’s, in fact, and sure enough this is a production of Dave Eggers’ busy literary community, or rather from one of its offshoots, 826 New York, a non-profit organisation aimed at supporting students with creative writing. (I had to search around for the link to their site, as the one given in the book, somewhat embarrassingly, is wrong.) In this good cause, Zadie Smith has edited a collection of stories from, well, the usual McSweeney’s suspects plus a handful of others. What “Edited by” means is not quite clear. Would Smith really take the blue pencil to Colm Tóibín’s prose? Or were they simply relying on her big list of Facebook friends?
The concept of the collection is, in Smith’s words, for the writers to “make somebody up.” Thus each story is named after its main character, though the styles are varied. Some, such as the great George Saunders, use the task simply to write another story along their usual lines, and Saunders’s ‘Puppy’, while as funny as ever, risks seeming like just more of the same from him. Others have stretched themselves more: Andrew O’Hagan, whose novels I have never been able to get along with, turns a neat trick in his story ‘Gordon’ which immediately sent me back to the beginning to re-read it (no great task, as it was only four pages long).
The writers who have made their characters live most vividly seem to be those who have opted to create comic monsters. The most entertaining story in the collection, David Mitchell’s ‘Judith Castle’, is about a woman of a certain age, and particular aspects of Englishness. She discusses her search for love with us:
That Olly and I were intellectual equals was no surprise. Soulmate Solutions don’t let any old Tom, Dick or Harry sign up. But at our rendezvous in Bath, he couldn’t hide how utterly enchanté he was with little old moi on a carnal level. Once over fifty, most British women go to seed, leaving the rest of us to arise, like roses in a bombsite.
Hari Kunzru gives us something similar in ‘Magda Mandela’, and like Mitchell’s Castle, there is more than an air of sadness beneath the madness. And Jonathan Safran Foer makes good on his excellent novels by giving us a tiny but irresistible slice of ‘Rhoda’, a grandmother with all the prejudices of her time:
When we came over, in 1950, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a schwartze. Nobody told me. Nobody sat me down and said, By the way, there’s schwartzes.
Other stories, perhaps intended as comic, are less successful, such as Toby Litt’s ‘Monster’, which seemed to me predictably self-indulgent. A.L. Kennedy’s ‘Frank’ was, like the other books of hers I’ve read, technically impressive but not really enjoyable.
The collection introduced me to several writers I’d heard of but had never bothered to sample. Now I know I simply must read more ZZ Packer, whose ‘Gideon’ was confident and mesmerising, and Aleksandr Hemon, whose ‘The Liar’ was let down by its central revelation but otherwise beautifully done, set in another time and reminding me of Jim Crace (“The crowd had been looking at him all along, but now it tightens, as if each man were a blood vessel and the air has just become colder”). Similarly, Miranda July, whose debut collection of stories was recently published, gives a story both entertaining and Carveresquely touching in ‘Roy Spivey,’ about a woman who meets a Hollywood star on a plane.
Meanwhile, Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware break up the text with their comic strips: Clowes’s ‘Justin M. Damiano’ is a satirical look at internet geeks who think anyone cares what they post on their review blogs (hey…), and Ware is typically lacerating, and beautifully meticulous in his artwork, with the tale of ‘Jordan Wellington Lint’ up to the age of 13.
The two most established writers on the roster prove particularly interesting. Colm Tóibín’s ‘Donal Webster’ is a typically sober and sonorous work, probably one of the richest on show, but it looks oddly out of place among the generally more showy performances which surround it. Nick Hornby on the other hand is unexpectedly innovative, with his ‘J. Johnson’, which gives us a writer’s life told through a series of About the Author blurbs (illustrated by Posy Simmons), a teasing and clever portrait of frustration and revisionism. It’s a work of reinvention – and brevity – that some of these young whippersnappers could learn from.