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British Literature in the Present (Supplement)

Zadie Smith’s NW: the Novel at an ‘anxiety crossroads’?

NW de Zadie Smith : le roman à un « carrefour angoissant » ?
Vanessa Guignery


Cet article propose d’envisager NW (2012) de Zadie Smith à la lumière de son essai « Deux directions pour le roman », dans lequel elle envisage deux routes possibles pour l’écriture romanesque: « le réalisme lyrique », et « la déconstruction constructive ». Par le biais d’une analyse de ses techniques narratives empruntées aux traditions réaliste, moderniste et postmoderniste, cette étude tente de déterminer où Smith se situe dans le paysage littéraire en 2012, comment elle s’accommode du legs du passé et quelles nouvelles lignes elle trace pour elle-même. Plus de quarante ans après l’essai de David Lodge « Le romancier au carrefour », on peut se demander si Smith ne se trouve pas à un « carrefour angoissant », pour la citer elle-même. Son recours à la technique du courant de conscience, à une narration conventionnelle et à des stratégies métafictionnelles révèle qu’elle ne choisit ni l’autoroute du roman bien fait ni la route secondaire d’une déconstruction généralisée, mais emprunte plusieurs directions sans chercher à les réconcilier.

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1NW (2012) is Zadie Smith’s fourth novel after White Teeth (2000), The Autograph Man (2002) and On Beauty (2005). At the start of the new millennium, Smith jokingly described herself as ‘an English writer of third-person comic fiction, a scribbler of epic narratives’ (2001). Ten years later, in NW, she develops modes and strategies partly indebted to realist, modernist and postmodernist practices. Such diversity calls for an examination of where, in 2012, she can be placed on the literary map, how she deals with the legacies of the past and what new lines she may be drawing for herself and for what she calls ‘the future [of] the Anglophone Novel’ (2009b, 72).

2More than forty years after Lodge’s ‘The Novelist at the Crossroads’ (1969), the metaphor suggesting the variety of formal directions a novelist can take is still valid and echoed by Smith in her essay ‘Two Directions for the Novel’: ‘All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us down this road the true future of the Novel lies’. ‘In healthy times’, she argues, ‘we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene’, but our times are not particularly healthy. As a consequence, [a] breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked’ (Smith 2009b, 73). By ‘lyrical realism’, Smith means the type of nineteenth-century realism of Balzac and Flaubert, Austen and George Eliot, and describes it as a ‘literary form in long-term crisis’ that has been subjected to the ‘theoretical assaults’ of modernism, deconstruction, phenomenology and the Nouveau Roman, but has outlived them (74). Another route exists however, a ‘skewed side road’ where Smith greets Perec, Blanchot, Burroughs and Ballard (93), an alternate road that takes the conventions of the novel apart, a ‘constructive deconstruction’ which does not ‘kill the novel stone dead’ but shakes it ‘out of its present complacency’ (94).

3When considering the main road of lyrical realism, Smith wonders whether this is ‘really the closest model we have to our condition’ (74) and if it can still ‘blithely continue on its merry road’ (81). Her impatience with it could be related to the ‘novel-nausea’ with which writers such as J. M. Coetzee, David Shields and Smith herself have been afflicted. This nausea concerns what Coetzee calls the ‘well-made novel’ with its conventional plot, its sentimental and bourgeois characters and its bad theatrical backdrops, a model which, according to Coetzee and Shields, should be replaced by ‘the coolly superior, aphoristic essay’ (Smith 2009a). Smith admits she has been writing essays out of that same ‘novel-nausea’ or narrative scepticism encapsulated in Kafka’s catchphrase: ‘But then? No then’. Seven years elapsed between her third and fourth novel during which she became more of an essayist and less of a fiction writer. In her comeback as a novelist with NW, what road does she now take? That of lyrical realism and the well-made novel, or the skewed side road of constructive deconstruction?

4Each of the five sections in NW is marked by a specific narrative mode and literary colour. While the first part is mainly written in a stream-of-consciousness technique familiar to readers of Woolf and Joyce, the second is a more conventional third-person narrative following Felix’s wanderings in London on 27 August 2010, at the end of which day he is killed. This technique of a one-day narrative bears obvious echoes of Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway but also Ian McEwan’s Saturday. The third part is divided into 185 sections, the fragmented form (maybe typical of a more postmodernist vein) possibly reflecting the fragmentation of Keisha’s identity. The fourth part takes place on the evening of the murder, as Nathan and Natalie (as Keisha renamed herself) are crisscrossing north-west London until Natalie finds herself on Hornsey Lane bridge (281), the ‘suicide bridge’ people jump off from, which Felix had referred to earlier (128). The literary ghosts of Mrs Dalloway and Septimus spring to mind, walking the streets of London on 13 June 1923, and the description of the spikes on the bridge, ‘spikes up and spikes down’ (281), recalls the area railings onto which Septimus flung himself. Woolf’s novel is pervaded with the intimation of an approaching death, and in its first version, Clarissa was to take her life. But just as Woolf saved Clarissa and had Septimus (whom Clarissa has never met) die instead, Smith saves Natalie and has the less fortunate Felix (whom Natalie has never met) die instead. NW as the chronicle of a death foretold is also filled with a sense of doom not alien to some of McEwan’s novels, and the coda during which Natalie fears her children have disappeared in a supermarket (288-289) resonates with eerie echoes of McEwan’s The Child in Time.

5This brief overview of the novel suggests that Smith does not seem to be suffering from Bloom’s anxiety of influence and she readily admits that her ‘writing desk is covered in open novels’ whenever she is writing one. She thus fully abides by Forster’s ‘literary echo chamber’, ‘in which writers speak so helpfully to one another, across time and space’ (Smith 2009b, 103), and like Keats, she says she does not fear influence but rather ‘devour[s] influences’ (104) in a joyful mélange redolent of the postmodern inclusive episteme.

6After White Teeth, which had been ‘immersed in both Dickens’s social realism and Rushdie’s merry hybridity’ (Franklin), and On Beauty, a social novel openly inspired from Forster’s Howards End, NW mixes techniques of modernism and postmodernism. Chapters 9 and 10 are a brilliant juxtaposition of contemporary technology and modernist narration: while the former is a pastiche of Google Map-type factual direction instructions to walk from point A to point B, the latter is its stream-of-consciousness alter ego. As Leah is walking from one place to the other, she observes, smells and hears people, scenes, objects around her, and the text records her impressions in a cumulative and enumerative mode that is reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses. Chapter 7, written in the same mode, has a left page that looks like a calligram in the shape of a tree as Leah is in the garden thinking of apple trees, while the right page is a block of text recording her husband’s simultaneously occurring monologue. This arrangement is redolent of the pages divided in two columns in B. S. Johnson’s Albert Angelo, the left one for direct speech, the right one for the professor’s simultaneous thoughts. Like Johnson, Smith is here attempting a truthful transcription of simultaneous thoughts and monologue, without any narratorial intervention.

7The lack of any superior narrative authority is also manifest in dialogue when Smith transcribes the mocking comments of Leah’s colleagues, without punctuation marks or reported verbs, with blanks on the page to suggest pauses and capital letters for emphasis (31), ‘a traditional round in which no voice is separated from the other’ (30). Smith’s command of dialogue has often been praised, and in NW, like Joyce (but also like Sterne and Roddy Doyle), she does away with inverted commas to indicate direct speech and uses dashes instead, or else discards dashes altogether and proposes direct speech without any signaling punctuation mark, which gives a greater sense of immediacy (also conveyed by capital letters when people are shouting) but also blurs the frontiers between speech and narration. In her essay on Zora Neale Hurston, Smith praises Hurston’s knack for dialogue—‘Her conversations reveal individual personalities, accurately, swiftly, as if they had no author at all’ (2009b, 5)—and this might be partly what Smith is trying to achieve with the erasure of all signs of a narrative voice. However, in another section, Smith retains reporting verbs but places them after full stops instead of commas, which lends a sense of artificiality to the dialogue, as in ‘Don’t worry ‘bout me. Said Marcus. I get paid. I do all right. Said Marcus’ (248). This narrative strategy not only reflects the absurdity of the quarrel that is taking place in a playground, but also lays bare the very constructedness of dialogue, which Smith was trying to hide in previous instances.

8What these examples suggest is that Smith does not choose just one road: she combines modernist strategies with a typically postmodernist tendency to draw attention to the mechanisms of novel-writing, without letting go completely of the road of realism. Thus, she still uses the convention of dialogue, recognizes ‘its inauthenticity, its lack of novelty, even its possible dullness’ but employs it anyway (Smith 2009b: 75). And by laying bare the mechanisms, she displays her awareness of that inauthenticity and her simultaneous knowledge that she cannot do without dialogue. NW thus might be said to be sitting ‘at an anxiety crossroads’ (2009b, 74) as it both nods towards realism and ‘retain[s] the wound’ (81) inflicted on that narrative mode by the assaults of Joyce and modernism. By not choosing one path but, in a quasi Borgesian way, going down several literary roads, NW is accommodating several traditions, but not reconciling them, and in the process, sometimes finds itself ‘struck in the middle’ (2012, 70), in that ‘middling spot’ or ‘interim place’ (2009b, 135), which might be specific to the postmodernist episteme. In addition, NW takes part in the ethical and neo-humanist trend of contemporary British literature in the way in which she proposes a mesh of cultural, literary, ethnic and class connections or ‘crossings’ (the title of the fourth part).

9NW is thus certainly not ‘a well-made novel’, nor an example of the lyrical realism Smith grew impatient with while ‘cautiously hop[ing] for its survival’ (2009b, 81). It is neither comic fiction nor an epic narrative. And yet, for all its ‘identity crisis’ and its standing at the literary crossroads, ‘an exile in search of a home’ (Franklin), NW probably cannot be called constructive deconstruction either as it still relies on realism and on ‘the supposedly contemptible components: plot, setting, character’ (Smith 2009a) that remain the basis of the imaginative novel. Maybe it still relies on the latter because ‘after you have raged at the impossible artificiality of storytelling, once you have shouted, with Kafka, “But then? No then”, well, maybe you will find yourself returning to the crossroads of “And then, and then”, if only to see what’s going on down there’ (Smith 2009a).

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Franklin, Ruth, ‘The Identity Crisis of Zadie Smith’, New Republic, 14 Sept. 2012. Retrieved on 2 Feb. 2013.

Smith, Zadie, ‘On the Road: American Writers and their Hair’, 26 July 2001. Retrieved on 2 Feb. 2013.

Smith, Zadie, a, ‘An Essay is an Act of Imagination’, The Guardian on the Web, 21 Nov. 2009. Retrieved on 2 Feb. 2013.

Smith, Zadie, b, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, New York: Penguin, 2009.

Smith, Zadie, NW, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2012.

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Vanessa Guignery, « Zadie Smith’s NW: the Novel at an ‘anxiety crossroads’? »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 45 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2013, consulté le 24 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Vanessa Guignery

E.N.S. de Lyon – IUF
Vanessa Guignery is Professor of Contemporary English Literature and Postcolonial Literature at the École normale supérieure in Lyon and a member of the Institut universitaire de France. Her most recent publications include a monograph, Seeing and Being: Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (PUF, 2012), a collection of interviews with eight contemporary writers, Novelists in the New Millennium (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and a collection of essays, The Famished Road: Ben Okri’s Imaginary Homelands (CSP, 2013). She is the author of several books on the work of Julian Barnes, including The Fiction of Julian Barnes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and Conversations with Julian Barnes (Mississippi Press, 2009), co-edited with Ryan Roberts. She has published a monograph on B. S. Johnson, Ceci n’est pas une fiction (Sorbonne UP, 2009), and translated Jonathan Coe’s biography of B. S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant, into French (Quidam, 2010).

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