Great Books Guide
Home Page
The 100 Best Novels
The Ten Year Reading List
The Alt Reality Nobel Prize
Contact Ted Gioia at
tedgioia@hotmail.com

Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter:
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Visit his web site at
www.tedgioia.com

Great Books Guide is an
Amazon.com associate


Disclosure:  This web site and its
sister sites may receive
promotional copies of review
items and other materials from
publisher, publicists and other
parties.
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter:
www.twitter.com/tedgioia
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

In his 1905 book The American Scene, Henry James called
his native land a "vast hot pot"—referring in particular to
the mixing and mingling of cultures in New York.  Four
years later, a play named
The Melting Pot, written by
Israel Zangwill, a Jewish immigrant born in London whose
parents hailed from Latvia and Poland, began a successful
run at New York's Comedy Theater, and a new phrase
entered the vocabulary, giving
expression to a defining quality
of the American experience. The
metaphor of a 'melting pot'
captured not just the fusing of
heterogeneous elements, but
also the heat and intensity that
often accompanied this process
of forced amalgamation.

A century later, the heat of the
fire can still be felt but, in an
unexpected turn of events, the
most penetrating 'melting pot'
fiction is now coming from the
Old World, especially the British
Isles where authors as different as
V.S. Naipaul, Cólm
Toibin
, Hari Kunzru and Zadie Smith have proven masters
at a subject once seen as the special domain of American
writers.  And the subject is as timely as ever—perhaps a
surprise to those who have repeatedly predicted that
cultural frictions must inevitably soften over time. "None
of the great thinkers of the nineteenth century predicted
this," Isaiah Berlin once noted, in discussing the ever-
present nationalistic and cultural identity conflicts of
modern life.  Those who based their reputation on
predicting the future always saw some other motivating
force—economics, education, technology, ownership of the
means of production, whatever—as spurring our dominant
conflicts, compromises and conciliations. Instead the story
of our shared life remains the oldest one of all: the tale of
the Tower of Babel.

Zadie Smith, preeminently among her generation, has
taken this contested terrain as her special domain, and
has now mastered its tropes and rhythms with a relaxed
virtuosity and cool control that belie the heat of the subject
matter.  Even in her debut novel
White Teeth, Smith
showed a savvy in navigating cross-cultural currents, a
type of melting-pot GPS system of her literary soul that
opened up a fresh and engaging vein in the staid world of
British fiction.  She had a good ear for the verbal
idiosyncrasies, a penetrating eye for the fashions and
cultural bric-à-brac, but above all insight into the turbulent
psychic and attitudinal depths where the tensions and
resolutions of post-colonial Britain are played out in
modern-day London. Her characters came to life in all their
African, East Asian, Caribbean, Muslim, Jewish and Anglo-
Saxon splendor, and Smith moved them from sub-plot to
sub-plot with the sureness of a chess master working
toward a familiar endgame.

Smith has become a more daring author since
White Teeth,
and her fourth novel
NW might justifiably be classified as
an experimental novel.  She breaks up her narrative into
discrete fragments—at first by taking some typographical
liberties while maintaining a fairly traditional narrative,
but later with more abandon. During a gut-wrenching 150-
page section called “Host,” Smith splinters her story into  
185 separate pieces, each with its own title heading. This
pointillistic approach, although stopping short of the
extreme choppiness of, say
The Soft Machine by William
Burroughs or
The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard, is still
unsettling—but fittingly so in a story that presents a
comparable mental fragmentation in Smith's main
protagonist.

But if the radical structure of this book is new, Smith's
skill in presenting cultural oppositions and armistices is
unchanged.
NW revolves around crises in the lives of three
families with longstanding connection to northwest London
(the book is named after the postal code for the area,
where Smith herself grew up in the 1980s). Leah Hanwell,
an Anglo-Irish woman, is married to French-African
hairdresseser Michel. Her childhood friend Natalie Blake,
a lawyer of Afro-Caribbean descent, has tied the knot with
Frank, a young man of mixed Italian and Trinidadian
ancestry who is pursuing a career in high finance. Along
the way we also encounter Felix, his Rastafarian father
Lloyd, his girlfriend Grace (half Jamaican and half Nigerian)
and his blueblood British lover Annie.

A novel with so much emphasis on different cultural
inheritances must resist the tendency to settle for
stereotypes, and at times in reading Smith's earlier work I
felt she battled with this ever-present risk.  But
NW never
falls into this trap. Partly this is due to Smith's starting
points. Again and again she draws on characters who
reverse the familiar stereotype. The worst junkie in this
book is Annie, with her family ties to British nobility. The
up-and-coming lawyer is black Natalie while her white
friend Leah lacks ambition and drive. But Smith has an
even more powerful corrective for stereotypes in her
literary arsenal—namely, her insistence on letting her
characters evolve and grow, or lose their way and debase
themselves, or change their mind, or even contradict their
most deeply-held values.  The kind of static types that
sometimes even great novelists employ (think Dickens or
Proust) have no place in
NW.  Smith’s main characters are
fundamentally different at the end of the book from what
they were at its start.  

This sounds like a straightforward achievement, but few
are the works of fiction that pull it off with aplomb. Popular
fiction rarely even makes the attempt.  The world might
come close to ending during the course of a James Bond
novel, but 007 doesn't lose a hair on his head, and is still
sipping martinis and flirting with the same boss's secretary
at the story’s conclusion. Sad to say, most literary fiction
settles for the same stasis, and you can identify the
'heroes' and 'villains' with embarrassing ease before the
end of the first fifty pages. Smith will have none of that
in her kaleidoscopic novel, and her characters not only
surprise the reader as
NW moves towards its rough-and-
tumble conclusion, but they even manage to surprise
themselves.

At times, Smith may stretch her characters too far in this
novel.  In the final pages of the novel, I felt a sense of
shock as Natalie Blake took steps so out of keeping with
her character, as I perceived it, that I wondered at the
motivation and meaning underpinning her actions. Then
again, this sense of looming unreality in the reader’s mind
may ultimately stand as the most realistic aspect of
Smith's novel.  By allowing her characters to act
irrationally, she gives them more authenticity, not less.

I believe
NW is Smith’s finest work yet, largely due to the
risk-taking—the author's not the characters', although the
latter roll the dice again and again in these pages—and
the unexpected payoff as the different pieces of this
deconstructed novel begin to fit together. All of the color
and vibrancy of her earlier fiction is still present, but
Smith's ambitions have grown, and her writing is more
confident than ever. In short, this is a grand melting pot
novel, but much more as well.  Perhaps a
meltdown novel
might be an equally valid way of describing it.  Either way,
Smith hits the mark with the latest effort and has
delivered one of the must-read books of the year.  


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
NW

by Zadie Smith
To purchase, click on image.
Visit our sister sites:

Fractious Fiction
Radical, unconventional or experimental
works of fiction

The New Canon
The best works of fiction published
since 1985

Conceptual Fiction
The best of fantasy, science fiction,
magical realism and alternative reality

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental, unconventional and
postmodern approaches to stories of
mystery and suspense
Recommended Links:

Great Books Guide
Conceptual Fiction
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's personal web site

Los Angeles Review of Books
American Fiction Notes
The Big Read
Critical Mass
The Elegant Variation
Dana Gioia
The Millions
The Misread City
The Literary Saloon
Reviews and Responses
Selected Reviews
(2007-2014)
BY TED GIOIA

Donna Tartt [click here]
Eleanor Catton [
click here]
Marisha Pessl [
click here]
Michael Chabon [
click here]
Zadie Smith [
click here]
Martin Amis [
click here]
Karen Walker [
click here]
Hari Kunzru [
click here]
Chad Harbach [
click here]
Chuck Palahniuk [
click here]
Ernest Cline [
click here]
Mark Haddon [
click here]
Bonnie Jo Campbell [
click here]
China Miéville [
click here]
V.S. Naipaul [
click here]
David Foster Wallace [
click here]
T.C. Boyle [
click here]
Colm Tóibín [
click here]
Bruce Machart [
click here]
Jonathan Franzen [
click here]
Per Petterson [
click here]
David Mitchell [
click here]
Joseph Epstein [
click here]
Frederick Turner [
click here]
Tom Rachman [
click here]
Martin Amis [
click here]
Ian McEwan [
click here]
Robert Stone [
click here]
Don DeLillo [
click here]
Joshua Ferris [
click here]
Paul Auster [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Jonathan Lethem [
click here]
Richard Powers [
click here]
Jedediah Berry [
click here]
Richard Russo [
click here]
Thomas Pynchon [
click here]
Reif Larsen [
click here]
Arthur Phillips [
click here]
Colm Tóibín [
click here]
Jayne Anne Phillips [
click here]
Geoff Dyer [
click here]
T.C. Boyle [
click here]
Jonathan Littell [
click here]
Daniel Suarez [
click here]
Jim Harrison [
click here]
José Saramago [
click here]
Toni Morrison [
click here]
Roberto Bolaño [
click here]
Elizabeth Strout [
click here]
Chuck Klosterman [
click here]
Paul Auster [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Julian Barnes [
click here]
Marilynne Robinson
[click here]
Tim Winton [
click here]
Jonathan Miles [
click here]
Jhumpa Lahiri [
click here]
Joseph O'Neill [
click here]
Richard Price [
click here]
Tobias Wolff [
click here]
Donald Ray Pollock
[click here]
Charles Bock [
click here]
Geraldine Brooks [
click here]
Alan Bennett [
click here]
Mario Vargas Llosa [
click here]
Denis Johnson [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Ann Patchett [
click here]
Junot Diaz [
click here]
Matt Ruff [
click here]
Ryszard Kapuściński [
click here]
Roberto Bolaño [
click here]
Jack Kerouac [
click here]
John Leland [
click here]
Ian McEwan [
click here]
Khaled Hosseini [
click here]
Don DeLillo [
click here]
Michael Chabon [
click here]
Haruki Murakami [click here]
Jonathan Lethem [
click here]
Michael Ondaatje [
click here]
Steven Hall [
click here]