DH: The last half of NW, almost exactly, comprises the sections “Host”, which I believe is the largest division in the book, and two smaller sections. “Crossing” and “Visitation” (repeated”), which serve as a kind of double coda.
Perhaps British writers can’t but help feeling Anglican, even if they’re not. I note the double meaning of “Host” both as the counterpart of “Guest” section of the book and as referring to a sacrament. And we have “Visitation” a word I have discussed in the first part of our talk.
JR my brother, I swear, the Host section nearly sank me. It’s was torture to get through. I came within a few seconds of giving up on the book. I was outraged that I was put through this. But I promised to finish the book. We had a discussion going.
That part of NW breaks with a conventional narrative structure and consists of 187 brief sections, arranged and numbered in a loose sequence. The story decisively shifts its center to Natalie Blake for the remainder of the plot. By the time you come up for air, or in my case emergency CPR, the book is wrapping up loose ends in its final scenes.
How the reader views the overall form of a novel, or an art lover a work of art, or a listener music, can be very subjective. The more conservative composer Gluck thought that Beethoven’s Seventh wasn’t really music, just a chaos of noises. Many casual observers think Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm is just the painter making a big mess on the canvas.
So when I think that NW is a poorly constructed novel, it could be that I’m being intolerant of its innovative form. It seemed to me in “Host” that Zadie took the notes for the midsection of her story, arranged on a sequence of index cards, and published that. To me, that’s lazy. Instead of a story, I got a story board. But note the qualifications that I have added above.
I find it interesting that the central character, Harry, in A.M. Homes May We Be Forgiven and Natalie Blake in NW both use the internet to set up anonymous sexual encounters as a way of relieving their boredom and despair. That two such prominent contemporary novels both use the same device makes it a cliche. (How about “new” cliche. Is that possible?) Maybe that plot device will date these novels in the years ahead. I hope I don’t have to encounter it in a story again. It’s getting old for me.
But what Homes and Smith, two of my favorite writers, do with that device reveals a wide swing in opposite directions. Homes towards optimism and Smith heading straight for pessimism. Or perhaps just a sober realism on Zadie’s part.
That probably reflects a cultural gap between the two countries. Homes, you could say improbably, has Harry construct a counter-cultural family, the kind that wouldn’t be represented at the Republican Convention, in part as a result of the women he meets on his sexual adventures. Smith, in a smooth move, has Natalie use her ghetto name, Keisha, when she comes on to the guys she has met on the internet. The barrister becomes a whore without payment in an act of class rebellion and in a rebellion against her husband.
I’m exhausted JR. Exhausted by Zadie Smith’s brilliance which, in the end, I didn’t care about. I was impressed with NW, even though it’s not possible for an American to get all the insider London cultural references. I’m greatly looking forward to Zadie Smith’s next novel. In part because it won’t be this one. Zadie Smith is still, by far, one of the brightest lights in the dark country of contemporary literature. But reviewers, ease off on the comparisons to Charles Dickens! It’s a much more limited analogy than you think.
JR: Yikes! Was my overall feeling when I finished this last half of the book, the 187 loosely woven narratives. It was a chore, like stacking wood, say, five cords of it. Which I did as a child, year after year. I looked for bright moments of distraction while reading this last part, (not the sex stuff, which was deeply beneath Zadie’s talents) Richard Yates short stories, other novels, the dust bunnies under my desk, it was easy to find a distraction. Sadly.
It’s not because it’s bad, but impenetrable. When Natalie is referred to by her “ghetto” name (aptly put DH) Zadie is doing something unforgivable, or perhaps interesting like a kind of Tyler Durden motif that creeps out, or seeps out. There is no reason for taking these two women, Leah and Natalie from birth to early adulthood, it’s boring, and not at this point in the novel. I take issue with the structure of the entire book, and not the narrative style and rubix cube tone. I don’t need to see where Natalie and Leah separated as kids, we already know this, or had hints to it. I felt like Zadie didn’t trust me, which is the most vexing flaw of this book. Flashing back and forth like H.G. Wells in Time Machine is just lazy. If we put this story in chronological order, would it hold weight plot wise? And why the ill-mannered sex? I’m no prude, but what does this mean? Like the “period sex” earlier in the novel, Zadie exemplifies a stereotype of this part of London? Or the people who inhabit it? Why is sex depraved and foul? Sex is sex, why describe it, unless she wanted to titillate the reader? Wait! They went to have sex with people they met online, that’s so “human”. Leah and Natalie take different paths in life. But is that worthy of a novel? Especially when their jobs are nothing more than cogs in society? This the place they came from, and this is the color of paint on the walls where they live. This isn’t a novel. It is a section to a travel guide for this part of London.
I worship Zadie Smith, I find her writing to be challenging and exciting, in equal parts. To hold the amazing A.M. Homes up to this story is interesting. Because in A.M.’s book, things go fantastically wrong, and then she finds even more things to throw at Harry. It’s never boring. But somehow we love him because he’s so bland, and these things would ruin the rest of us. I think what Zadie misses and A.M. gets, is that no one cares what happens to Leah or Natalie, even if you get these references to this part of London. I like A.M.’s Harry because I feel for him, Leah and Natalie, I would walk away from them at a dinner party or gallery opening. There was nothing grainy about them, or should I say, something that I could identify or enjoy. They are both unattractive, whiny and almost toxic. In the end, that’s worthy of a novel, unlikeable characters? I may never say this again, but for once, Kakutani got it right.