I was interested, reviewing NW, in how Zadie Smith’s critical writing and her statements distancing NW from her previous fiction staged the novel as
a book to be considered not only as itself but as a suggestion of the path for the novel, or as the memes of 2012 might have it, a path for a novel.
How to adequately convey something necessary with characters uninterested in language capable of conveying it?
[…] If, in certain flavors of novel, people are more likely to experience life as a series of transfiguring aesthetic experiences than real people seem to be, and in language no one outside such novels has used in a century, isn’t it also inauthentic or self-satirizing to relentlessly seek authenticity? “I AM SO FULL OF EMPATHY,” doodles Leah Hanwell, one of NW’s protagonists, at her desk at a job she believes in and loathes. The moment seems both placed by Smith to satirize would-be flâneurs and true to Leah as no lyrical flight of fancy would be. Leah might sigh, transcendent after a spliff, but if she worked her empathy into elaborate diction—if she had a Live Journal—would she be discovering more fully how she feels, or creating something quite distinct from the original passing impulse? Maybe better a tweet, #feelings, or a quick comment on The Hairpin, “ALL THE FEELS.” Which leaves novelists to answer what 400 pages need to do to be necessary, or more necessary than a Tumblr.
The Common gave me a bit more space than standard for reviews, and named the piece to its 2012 Best of.
Excerpts lightly edited, 2016.
Photo: Sarah Malone