Once upon a time, there was no Facebook newsfeed. The social media kingdom was the profile page, with the king being an impossibly flattering profile photo, and the knights of the round table being the contents of your ‘interests’ area.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this tiny area of cyberspace, particularly to, say, a university undergraduate in the cold and lonely north in 2005. During the many hours of manual hunting, I didn’t have much more to go on than this carefully curated shopfront of cultural interests. The efforts at reading crevasse-deep into the favourite films of friends-of-friends-of-friends sucked up months supposedly dedicated to academic mind expansion, and may well account for the fact I don’t remember a single thing taught in my first year, except for Death of a Salesman being fairly miserable and The Odyssey being a bit tricky to follow.
Of course, a related amount of time and thought had to be put into my own profile to ensnare a gorgeous genius. After lengthy consideration, one of the few books I considered worthy of the favourite books space was Zadie Smith’s White Teeth* (to my mind indicative of my deeper-thinking-but-still-accessible tastes but of course in reality a mainstream choice shared by 95% of novel readers.) Of course, had I realised then that Smith had written this while at university herself, I might have spent less time on Facebook altogether.
But despite this historic love of White Teeth, I approached NW warily, the word “experimental” ringing in my ears. I wasn’t sure about her 3rd novel, On Beauty, and while NW is more successful, it is inconsistent.
Smith uses a conspicuous variety of narrative techniques throughout the novel which are at times spellbinding. Her greatest gift as a writer is her perception; capturing ways of thought, expression, the way people do and say things with a musical ear that recreates those internal doubts and those lifts and lulls in conversation. When letting herself loose to do this, she excels, and you are carried away with the scintillating brilliance of her storytelling. The middle section of this three-part novel is where she relaxes into this, and takes you on a journey as well as the best fiction out there – the development of the mind which created White Teeth.
However, Smith has a bigger agenda in NW, and she plays with form to achieve it. Unfortunately, this often forms a barrier between the narrative and the reader. You can see exactly why she uses these different techniques (text in certain shapes, conversations moving on without signposting, unascribed dialogue, jumpy streams of consciousness…) – but the self-consciousness this creates in the reader is, in my opinion, to the detriment of the novel as a whole.
On reading NW, you’re aware you’re in the hands of a genius – but perhaps that bit too aware. If Smith can find a way to explore her fascinating themes in a way which makes the most of her narrative gift rather than undercuts it, then I think she’s a hot contender for our best contemporary British novelist.
By now, of course, you’re burning to know what other novels I considered Facebook winners, surefire catnip to my tall dark philosophy-studying adonis. From memory, Catch 22, A Farewell to Arms and Gone with the Wind. Mixed messages if ever I saw them; no wonder my gorgeous genius didn’t come knocking.