Literature is primarily full of two types of writers: traditionalists and stylists. Author Zadie Smith, the 36-year-old Brit phenom known most popularly for the dazzling 2000 debut novel White Teeth, is a playful stylist of the highest order. Where traditionalists tell stories according to tried-and-true, English class conventions, the more creative writing falls to stylists, who bend and break those rules with chic techniques as appealing as the stories they tell. Dave Eggers and the late David Foster Wallace are arguably the top stylists of their generation; at the turn of the century, Zadie Smith (only 24 at the time) easily elbowed her way in.
Smith's latest novel—NW, her fourth—covers the life and times of Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake, two longtime friends from Caldwell, a council estate (read: housing project) in Willesden, which is the northwest postal sector of London where Smith herself grew up. Besties since the childhood moment when Natalie saved Leah’s life in a shallow swimming pool, the two have grown into an adulthood friendship made ill at ease mainly due to class envy. Leah, of Irish descent, marries a French-African hairstylist and stays stuck in the ’hood; as her tale begins, she gets scammed out of 30£ by a crackhead with a sob story. Natalie, born Keisha Blake, is a workaholic barrister with a Jamaican background who marries into money and struggles with heavy identity issues. These issues prod her onto the Internet in search of threesome forums.
Sandwiched in between large sections devoted to Leah and Natalie is a chapter on Felix Cooper, another NW dweller whose presence in the novel ends abruptly, tragically. Felix is in the midst of change, spurred on by a supportive girlfriend who encourages him to “ask the universe” for what he wants in life. His story is a series of set pieces: he visits his dredlocked, anti-establishment father; he buys a dilapidated car; he dumps Annie, his complicated older woman on the side, to concentrate faithfully on his new girl…
The Felix section (entitled “Guest”) either rings as NW’s truest or comes across as an unwelcome interruption of the Leah-Natalie strand, depending on taste. In “Guest,” Smith concentrates on bare bones storytelling in a way most reminiscent of White Teeth or her last masterful novel, 2005’s On Beauty. The “look ma, no hands” flourishes she pulls out of her stylist bag of tricks elsewhere are absent here. In “Visitation,” the Leah Hanwell segment, Smith formats the prose of a marijuana-induced reflection on apple trees in the actual shape of a tree. Natalie Blake’s section, “Host,” is told in 185 numbered subsections to highlight the character’s fractured psyche (numbering and lists are standard literary lines of attack for stylists). With “Guest,” Smith does away with such preciousness to simply tell the story. Of course, if you adore Smith’s preciousness, then you’re anxious to get through the chapter.
If NW were a Prince album it would be Controversy, not Dirty Mind; Parade, not Purple Rain. Fans of the way Zadie Smith flips verbs, metaphors and story arcs welcome all of her novels (this is only her fourth in 12 years) just to read where her imagination will lead. Smith’s latest doesn’t quite cohere like her best work. At times, the whole novel has the cut-and-paste feel she was intentionally shooting for in “Host.” But writers write. Rather than impatiently awaiting another indisputable Zadie Smith masterwork—fans of the late Ralph Ellison sat listlessly forever waiting for an Invisible Man follow-up that never materialized—readers have NW to enjoy before she pens another classic. For the most part, NW feels like enough.