Yourself at the End of a Dark Alley: On NW, Briefly

Does anyone else have a writer crush on Zadie Smith? I couldn’t bear to read White Teeth when it came out because I was narcissistic as every twenty-year-old wannabe is, unwilling to learn from her betters, and I was more envious than I could bear. But I did read On Beauty when it came out and fell head over heels with Smith and her thinking and her writing, and then proceeded to read not only everything she had written but also Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, because she had mentioned it inspiring her to write her novel.

So, yeah, I read NW. 


And I had a little trouble finding my way into it, but that’s been happening with many novels lately. Part of it is that my own writing has made the suspension of disbelief more difficult, part of it is that my reading time is constantly interrupted or influenced by sleep-deprivation. The different narrators of NW written in drastically different ways: Leah in a gorgeous stream-of-consciousness which seems to reflect her intuitive and generous way of being in the world, Felix in a third-person omniscience that reflects his sense about himself as driven like a protagonist in a Victorian novel, and Keisha/Natalie in a series of numbered sections that contain both a great deal of insight and also reflect her way of being in the world–her sense that she has constructed herself out of nothing, her seeming distance from her own thoughts.

In an interview with Eleanor Watchtel, Smith says about the style of the book:

Different sentences make people feel different things.

And this truism gets at what we should all aim for as writers: to get our sentences to do that work. Smith continues to give me something to aspire to. (The interview and the book, too, offer loads of wisdom on the writer’s life but also on what it’s like to be a woman in her thirties, living the “full catastrophe.”)

One of the little truths I gleaned was this:

160. Time Speeds Up

There is an image system at work in the world. We wait for an experience large or brutal enough to disturb it or break it open completely, but this moment never quite arrives. Maybe it comes at the very end, when everything breaks and no more images are possible. . . .

Pregnancy brought Natalie only more broken images from the great mass of cultural detritus. She took in every day on a number of different devices, some hand-held, some not. To behave in accordance with these images bored. To deviate from them filled her with the old anxiety. . . .

[and on giving birth, it was said to be ]

Like meeting yourself at the end of a dark alley. (237)

I have been meeting myself at the end of too many dark alleys over the past five years.

I plan to read this book again, to buy it and read it taking notes, to try to absorb some of it. I want, badly, to learn from my betters.

One thought on “Yourself at the End of a Dark Alley: On NW, Briefly

  1. Liz,

    I too just finished NW and found it staggeringly brilliant. I loved how the entire ~150 pgs of Keisha/Natalie’s story all came to a point with the last sentence of that section. So ingeniously crafted.

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