NW (Smith)

I’ve read two different (overlapping? contradictory?) explanations as to why Smith played with form in this novel. The first is that each character needed her or his own form of self-expression. In an interview with Book Forum, she said, “I just thought that each character needed a different style because they do genuinely experience the world so differently that it would be false to express them all in the same prose style.” [She also goes on to say something much more worrisome (and arrogant?): “And I also did it just to interest myself. You can never underestimate how boring writing is and how much you need to find new ways to do it—otherwise, what’s the point?”]

The second, from a review called, “Two Paths to the Novel” has her wondering about realism. She writes, “Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?”

I hope the first explanation was the more honest one. To play with form for its own sake (or to keep from being bored) is generally material best kept in one’s journal, I think. It makes me wonder whether the idea to experiment with form drove the plot and characters or whether it worked the other way around.

I do agree that these characters do see the world very differently, though at first, the two main women (Keisha and Leah), see it quite similarly. They are the best of friends. Wouldn’t it have been useful therefore for Smith to use the same style for them until the differences and cracks started to emerge? Though much has been written about how this novel is about a place, NW, for me, it was about what happens when we drift apart from those who knew us best in high school even though geography forces us to remain in their proximity. These characters can’t get away from their neighborhood, and so they definitely can’t get away from the people in it.

With a few exceptions, Smith’s stylistic choices did not get in my way. Many, in fact, enhanced the story. I can see, though, why this took her seven years. The plot is amazingly well constructed. Her ending shows just how far she’s come from White Teeth, a great novel with an unfortunate ending. There, Smith did not know what to do with all of the chaos she created. Here, she controls the chaos.

Selfishly, as the two women move into careers, I was longing for a glossary in order to understand all of the terms involved in their respective careers.

A marvelous novel. I hope to see her next week (https://events.umn.edu/021007). I just hope it’s not seven years before the next one.


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