Ever since “White Teeth,” her dazzling debut in 2000, Zadie Smith has labored under an enviable weight of critical and popular expectations. Her second novel, “The Autograph Man,” was criticized in some quarters for not leaping even higher, but “On Beauty” won the Orange Prize in 2006. The only new literary term in recent memory to gain any currency — “hysterical realism” — was coined in James Wood’s review of her nascent body of work. Even now that she’s seated in the pantheon of modern novelists, I have things in my freezer older than she is.
And here she comes with a big, challenging new novel about the forces that poison our dreams of economic ascendancy. The title is the only thing abbreviated about “NW.” Everything else is luxuriously spun out, pulled and examined from various angles by an author who, like London, seems to have a camera on every street corner. This is what many of us were hoping for but didn’t get this summer from John Lanchester’s “Capital,” another X-ray view of contemporary London. While Lanchester focused on a pricey street in the southwest Clapham neighborhood, Smith’s characters live a world away in the northwest part of the city, where she grew up during the ’70s and ’80s. In the blunted lives of several young adults, she captures the harrowing plight of a new generation of lost souls.
Smith has said her composition of “NW” was influenced by Virginia Woolf, whose ghost you can sense in this fluid mingling of internal thoughts and dialogue, snatches of description and sudden shifts in point of view. Jennifer Egan’s protean “A Visit From the Goon Squad”has also helped prepare an audience for Smith’s new novel: Each of the four sections of “NW” demonstrates a different form. There’s no second-person narrator or anything as weird as a PowerPoint presentation, but the longest part of “NW” is divided into 185 short, numbered sections, ranging from straightforward narrative to menu items, quiz answers, IM chats and even stage directions. I sympathize if you have no patience for this sort of experimentation, which can seem so graspingly avant-garde, but Smith uses the swirl of these disparate elements to illustrate the complexity of modern life. If “NW” is difficult to enter, it’s no more difficult than moving into any new neighborhood: At first, you can’t imagine you’ll ever learn your way around the winding streets, but soon this strange habitat feels like home.
The story opens with an uncomfortable, apparently random encounter on a summer afternoon. Leah Hanwell answers the door and discovers a desperate young woman, pleading, crying: Someone has been taken to the hospital, and she has no money for a cab to follow the ambulance. Can Leah help?
All of us who live in cities, who daily risk bumping into beggars with their smelly clothes and incurable needs, have our studied methods to avoid such confrontations: the brisk walk, the straight-ahead stare, the bound volumes of Ayn Rand, our cleverly edited memory of whatever religious tradition we were raised in. But this repellent woman is right there in Leah’s house, in her face: “I live here,” she screams. “I live just here,” not far from Leah’s flat.
This is the awkward problem that “NW” begins with, and its moral calculus grows more challenging with each page. How can our ideals survive the grimy variety of close living? In our insistent climb up the economic ladder, what are we trying to become — and what exactly are we trying to escape?
As the story unfolds, we learn that Leah and the ragged woman in her hallway were raised in the same lower-class neighborhood and saw each other now and then at school. But Leah graduated, went to college and now works in a civic organization that distributes lottery money to charities and small nonprofits. Her husband, Michel, thinks she’s too soft, too gullible. He has such energetic faith in the power of free markets, personal ambition and social mobility. “This is why I’m on the laptop every night,” he tells her as she waits for him to come to bed. “There’s money to be got out there, you know? . . . It’s crazy not to try to get some of it.”
Leah’s best friend, Natalie Blake, agrees. Or seems to. She’s done even better than Leah: a law degree and a rich husband, along with children, which Leah keeps pretending she wants, too. Smith draws their get-togethers with careful attention to the subtle stresses and tensions between old friends now separated by class differences that no one wants to acknowledge. Talking to Natalie and her gorgeous husband outside their grand Victorian home, Leah thinks her friends “look like a king and queen in profile on an ancient coin. . . . This house makes her feel like a child. Cake ingredients and fancy rugs and throw cushions and upholstered chairs in chosen fabrics. Not a futon in sight.”
But when the novel turns its perspective to Natalie, we discover nothing like the self-satisfaction that Leah assumes her friend enjoys. Though Natalie raised herself by concentrated effort into the corporate world — the first in her family to go to college — that status brings her no pleasure and certainly no security. Nothing but constant work can soothe her sorrow, the dark gap she feels between her reputation and who she really is. “Natalie Blake had become a person unsuited to self-reflection,” Smith writes in this relentlessly perceptive analysis. “Left to her own mental devices she quickly spiraled into self-contempt.” At a party, Natalie wishes “she could go to the bathroom and spend the next hour alone with her e-mail.” (I had to keep reminding myself this was London, not Washington.) The conventional markers of success — a high-powered job, attractive children, an expensive house — offer her no sense of authenticity, but “to deviate from them filled her with the old anxiety.” So sympathetically does Smith explore the boundless sadness of Natalie’s life that when she gives an inspirational talk to young black women, all we can hear is the hollowness of her advice: “It was by refusing to set myself artificial limits that I was able to reach my full potential.”
But I’m giving only the barest outline of a complicated novel that’s endlessly fascinating. There’s another part involving Felix, a reformed addict, that’s startling and heartbreaking. His section — really a masterful novella in its own right — seems at first like a lengthy aside from the story of Leah and Natalie, but nothing is accidental in this tale of collision and ambition. Later, Felix shows up again, glancingly, in a crucial moment of thoughtless betrayal that resounds with all the moral amplitude of this remarkable novel.
The impression of Smith’s casual brilliance is what constantly surprises, the way she tosses off insights about parenting and work that you’ve felt in some nebulous way but never been able to articulate. While her own voice can seem crisp and clinical, it’s tinged with irony, and her dialogue ripples off the page in full stereo, whether she’s recording whole speeches or weaving together snippets of overlapping chitchat at a party that conveys, despite its apparent superficiality, a whole class of attitudes about the world.
As I’ve suggested, you either submit to Smith’s eclectic style or you set this book aside in frustration. At times, reading “NW” is like running past a fence, catching only strips of light from the scene on the other side. Smith makes no accommodation for the distracted reader — or even the reader who demands a clear itinerary. But if you’re willing to let it work on you, to hear all these voices and allow the details to come into focus when Smith wants them to, you’ll be privy to an extraordinary vision of our age.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
By Zadie Smith
Penguin Press. 401 pp. $26.95