I like books that freestyle a bit, with some narrative to-ing and fro-ing, and playing with form and style, and that have people who are just people, and not much plot as such, just ordinary stuff that happens, sometimes stuff that makes sense and has a point and sometimes not, but you draw your own conclusions, make of it what you will, because such is life. I’m fine without a story or big characters. If these things are important to you, NW will annoy you, probably a lot.
Reading this felt like reading Virginia Woolf. Not as in style – although Zadie Smith really makes the stream of consciousness her own here – but as in the weightless feeling of narrative untethered to A Series of Events, characters with no strong sense of self, and the setting an ever-shifting kaleidoscope, physically and experientially, that jolts from familiar and comfortable to horror and panic in a moment.
In NW just as much as any of Woolf’s big hitters, everything is conditional, uncertain, coming together and falling apart, and written just as evocatively. Ask not ‘What happens to this character?’, ‘Where is this storyline going?’ or ‘How does it end?’ Just admire the artistry of the author whose writing feels just like how things are, how time and people and places and feelings and thoughts are, how things come together and fragment, dissolve, re-form, ebb and flow.
Virginia Woolf is like virtual reality for me. I’m not really interested in whether Mrs Dalloway’s party is a success or whether she should have married Peter Walsh, I’m just enraptured by the spooky word-magic that lets me float through virtual worlds, whoosh around London, drift in and out of people’s minds. And Zadie Smith does just the same in this book. She swoops and dives in and out of a little patch of London, showing us it in close up and from far away, in public, in private, past, present, rich, poor, order, chaos, multiple viewpoints, multiple voices, the feeling (as in Mrs Dalloway) that everything is held by a thread, could all fall apart at any moment.
Fictional characters are fictional so it doesn’t matter what happens to them because they don’t exist. They are not my new imaginary friends. They are figures in a piece of art, no different to an apple or a bottle in a still life, or an instrument in an orchestra, there to serve a purpose in the whole. I read for the artistry of the whole thing, ie the book as a work of art. The purpose of reading NW is not for me to decide whether I warm to the personalities or endorse the moral choices of the characters*. It’s about appreciating the work of the artist/author in creating (in this case) a truthful multifaceted multi-everythinged complex messy slice of life out of some dialogue, a few relationships, a few events, some narration and observations, some interior thoughts, some settings and imagery, some structural cleverness, and to alchemise these – using only words – into a virtual world that I can whoosh around. I don’t compare just anyone to Virginia Woolf, who is my ultimate boss level author, so from that you can deduce that I thought NW was seriously good shit and chapeau Zadie Smith.
* Although I think asking myself ‘Why does X in this book make me feel Y?’ is important.