Achieving literary fame at a young age is frequently elusive. Once the hype surrounding a triumphant first novel fades, the literary world will look to its author with expectation, eager to see if genius will strike again or if the first book was simply a fluke. No matter what the quality of a new work, authors will always remain in the shadow of their first novel, as writers like Jay McInerney and Brett Easton Ellis know all too well.
London writer Zadie Smith certainly fits the literary darling model. She won the hearts of critics and readers alike with her 2000 debut “White Teeth,” which she finished during her final year as an undergraduate at Cambridge University. The punchy voice and teenage protagonists of “White Teeth” spoke for a new generation of Brits by capturing the gritty reality of an unrefined London.
In the intervening years since she burst into the literary world, the now 37-year-old Smith has brought her own maturation directly into her writing. She’s written tales of teenage woe for the ultimately disappointing chronicle of a down-and-out collectibles trader in 2002’s “The Autograph Man,” and a saga of two intertwined families of academics in 2005’s well-received “On Beauty.” Similarly, Smith’s latest novel, “NW,” takes aging as its theme and follows its four protagonists—Natalie, Leah, Felix, and Nathan—as they navigate the perils of adulthood in the internet age. The four characters, who range from a wealthy barrister to a homeless druggie, are united only by the place they grew up—Caldwell, a northwest London council estate (a British term for public housing).
Although “NW” purports to be a description of the growth of four Caldwell individuals, it hardly divides itself into four neat sections. Smith instead decides to focus on the 30-year friendship between the self-invented, successful Natalie Blake and the gangly dreamer Leah Hanwell. Smith’s unique voice emerges when she exposes her panoramic vision of this friendship; she manages, in a succinct paragraph, to show Natalie and Leah’s progression from childhood innocence to typical teenage debauchery. “Together they ran, jumped, danced, sang, bathed, colored-in...shared chips, sneaked cigarettes, read Cheryl’s diary, wrote the word FUCK on the first page of a Bible, tried to get ‘The Exorcist’ out of the video shop, watched a prostitute or loose woman or a girl just crazy in love suck someone off in a phone box...did the moonwalk, learned the obscene dance popularized by Salt-N-Pepa, and many other things of this nature.” The girls’ friendship emerges through the background of their maturing interests; in one brief description, Smith’s impressionistic language manages to convey their bonding, growth, and emerging personalities.
Natalie and Leah, however, have come a long way from their council estate days. “NW” opens on a Leah in her mid-30s. She still embodies the pot-loving, free spirit of her teenage self, except for one crucial, and clichéd, difference: her biological clock is ticking. When we first meet Leah she has learned that, to her embarrassment and disappointment, she is pregnant. Perhaps this unfortunate discovery is what leads her to open the door of her house to a struggling young woman. The woman, Shar, claims that her mother is extremely ill and asks Leah for cab money, which Leah readily gives after she realizes that they attended the same high school. “Leah is as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries. She knows the way people speak around here, that fuckin, around here, is only a rhythm in a sentence.” While Leah’s loyalty to her home blinds her to what is ultimately exposed as the scheme of a hapless crack addict, the incident drives Leah out of her funk and forces her to re-examine her post-Caldwell life from the eyes of the struggling adult that she has become.
“NW” finds its strength in its third section, its longest and undeniably most innovative part. Here the novel shifts focus from Leah to Natalie and follows her throughout her transformation from the intensely religious and nerdy Keisha Blake to self-styled Natalie Blake, a wealthy and competitive barrister. Although Smith risks an overly simplified plot in this oft-used theme of re-invention, her interesting breakdown of the third section into 185 choppy, titled mini-sections saves the reader from the boredom of reading a straightforward account of one woman’s upward mobility. With snarky titles like “That obscure object of desire” (an allusion to Luis Buñel’s 1977 film of the same name) and “50ml vodka,” the sections weave plenty of pop culture references and London slang into its continuing narrative of friendship and newly acquired adulthood, chronicling simultaneously the growth of the two friends and the advance of a generation.
“Some days have a depressing thematic coherence,” Smith tells the reader, but what is depressing about “NW” is its occasional lack thereof. The novel’s second section moves to follow Felix, a former drug addict and present mechanic, who also hails from Caldwell. Felix’s story, while engrossing, provides narrative discontinuity; Smith plops it into the middle of the novel and never returns to it. This 100-page lapse between Leah and Natalie’s sections is disjointing. Themes as disconnected as impending motherhood, newly found wealth, drug addiction, and unnecessary murder expose a lack of coherence; common location guarantees neither a common understanding of the world nor a similar way of progressing through it.
With “NW,” Zadie Smith has distanced herself from the youthful exploits she wrote about in “White Teeth;” she instead uses her new novel to imagine the progression of members of the same generation into their 30s. Her witty voice and infusion of pop culture, however, help “NW” retain a similar flavor to her older works and shows that time and success do not necessarilly obliterate an innovative literary voice. Perhaps Smith’s writing can be compared to her characters, who, even as they achieve success in their relationships and professions, can never completely shake their roots. “The mistake was to think that the money precisely signified—or was equivalent to—a particular arrangement of bricks and mortar,” Smith writes. “The money was not for these poky terraced houses with their short back gardens. The money was for the distance the house put between you and Caldwell.” Smith’s first novel “White Teeth” is a virtual Caldwell, a presence that continues, despite the passage of time, to uniquely color her writing. “NW,” despite some inconsistencies, is a welcome installment in Smith’s collection of innovative, incisive prose.
—Staff writer Sophie E. Heller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.