If our everyday world suddenly turns dark, zany and lyrically weird one day, it's probably because Zadie Smith has learned how to control us all.
With "NW," her fourth novel, Ms. Smith is back with the force and oddities she's been famous for since the 2000 release of her bestseller "White Teeth" and through her 2005 novel "On Beauty," shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
The new novel profiles a neighborhood in the northwest corner of London, where Ms. Smith was born. Her cast of characters may seem predictable to already devoted fans; a crew of racially diverse, existentially troubled Londoners speckle the pages. And, as usual, her best talent -- coloring the quotidian absurd hues but maintaining emotional relatability -- isn't hard to see. But in this novel, one of Ms. Smith's other great talents -- the craft of compelling narrative story-building -- is hidden beneath a more complex approach to telling the story.
The story follows the lives of several northwest Londoners, with brief forays into their childhood to set the scene and longer lingerings in their world of adulthood, as they grow into new people outside their once-homes. At age 37, Ms. Smith's perspective on the foreignness that accompanies things such as dinner parties and office environments for young adults has not faded, and this is perhaps why she is so able to find the hilarity and edge in a world so strikingly familiar.
Much of the commentary embedded in this adult world is similar to the simultaneously grungy and intellectual landscapes of "White Teeth" and "On Beauty." Ms. Smith's prose has always been both vernacular and philosophical, harried but also artful. In "NW," though, it's almost as though she's grown bored of mere prose. She's replaced her already less-than-linear narrative style with a boldness of form.
Through each section, the largest overall consistency is the understanding that all of these characters hail from a similar background. Their adult lives are purposefully stranded away from one another, and the interrelations are initially hard to trace. The impressive feat of the book is that they are, of course, woven together with care and brilliance, though it takes patience through a few sections of the novel to fully see that. Though some of the novel gets the standard chapter-by-chapter treatment, its largest and most impressive section is written in numbered vignettes. Some of these vignettes read narratively; others, like one character's honeymoon, entitled "Miele di Luna (two weeks)," tells of the trip like this:
Swallows. Arc. Dip ...
Wish you were here?
'This is really like paradise!'
Another simply lists the menu, in full foodie-lingo, that two characters eat for lunch. And one particularly masterfully done section is a conversation entitled "bye noe," conducted presumably via an online instant-messenger, and which conveys information, builds characters and masters believability.
Ms. Smith is doing much more than trying to write an epistolary novel for the 21st century, however, and while it's not quite new to see documents, poems and fragments from fictional characters' lives submitted to a novel's pages like exhibited evidence, what is new is how impressively Ms. Smith wields a postmodern arsenal of fiction tools to build genuine characters -- characters who transcend a certain time or existential zeitgeist.
In "NW," Ms. Smith takes her courageous forays into the vernacular to new heights, using perspectives that are perhaps more native to her but in a form that feels brand new. It culminates especially in this vignetted section of the novel, the longest, the most heartfelt and one of the most striking pieces of writing Ms. Smith has yet produced.
An unfortunate side-effect of this playful attention to form is that the narrative story of "NW" may seem less captivating than her stories usually are. To read Zadie Smith is usually to be pulled into her swirling, dancing world unstoppably; to read "NW" is a slower, more halting experience. But Ms. Smith's first-time readers may notice no such problem. They are meeting a distinct author from the one who penned her earlier work, and are sure to fall into lyrical lust with her along with so many others.
Sanjena Sathian, a senior majoring in English literature at Yale University, was a summer intern at the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org).