Reviews — From the November 2012 issue

Mental Weather

The many voices of Zadie Smith

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Discussed in this essay:

NW, by Zadie Smith. The Penguin Press. 416 pages. $26.95. penguin.com.

Zadie Smith is a writer much given to acts of public self-examination. In 2008, Smith gave a lecture to students at Columbia University in which she disowned the spirit of meddling investigation that characterized White Teeth, her thunderously acclaimed 2000 debut novel, written when she was twenty-four. Back then she had a quotation from Gravity’s Rainbow hanging on her door.

At that time, I apparently believed it was the duty of the novel to rigorously pursue hidden information: personal, political, historical. I say apparently because I don’t recognize that writer anymore, and I find her idea of the novel oppressive, alien, totally useless.

Oppressive, alien, and useless—well, apostasy does require stronger language than conversion, and one irony of precocity is that it gives you so much to apologize for later. When the lecture rolled around, Smith had traded Pynchon for a Derrida screen saver: “If a right to a secret is not maintained then we are in a totalitarian space.” She explained that “it’s awful to me now, that passion for human dissection I had, always entering the brains of characters, cracking them open, rooting every secret out . . . I know that this new novel, that I’ve hardly begun, will be shameful and strange to me soon enough.”

The years are gone and that book is done. NW is her fourth novel, after White Teeth, The Autograph Man (2002), and On Beauty (2005). Its stream-of-consciousness style forgoes the management of interrelated clans that has hitherto been Smith’s specialty, preferring the illusion of direct mental access to the illusion of omniscience. Here, self-knowledge is opaque and patchy; no one is more ignorant of a secret than its bearer. Actions that Smith would once have tied to genealogy or capital-H History are immediate and local, value judgments more obviously matters of lifestyle. The limits are geographic too: unlike her first three novels, all of which hopped continents, NW barely leaves the neighborhood. And unlike those books, which located violence in the past, NW is a crime story. Before we are through, one man and one dog will be dead.

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has written for Bookforum, The New York Review of Books, and other publications. Her last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Heartache and the Thousand Natural Shocks,” appeared in the November 2010 issue.

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