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Literary realism is dead


Zadie Smith's "NW" charts a bold new path for the novel and offers its readers a unique brand of
"authenticity"
EMILY KEELER, THE NEW INQUIRY SKIP TO COMMENTS

TOPICS: DAVID FOSTER WALLACE, INFINITE JEST, JONATHAN FRANZEN, LITERATURE, NW, THE NEW INQUIRY, ZADIE SMITH, LIFE NEWS,

ENTERTAINMENT NEWS

This piece originally appeared in The New Inquiry.

Weve waited seven years for Zadie Smiths NW, the same number of years it took Joseph
ONeill to write Netherland and for Tom McCarthy to place Remainder with a mainstream

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publisher. Its been four years since Smith pitted these two books against each other in her
much ballyhooed (and occasionally derided) New York Review of Books essay Two Paths for the
Novel, where she put all her bets for the novels future on the darkest horse in the race, the
anti-lyrical avant-garde.

The New Inquiry In the essay, Smith grounded her argument on the idea of an ailing
literary culture, lamenting that each and every novel published now
clamors to be heard like church bells rung by wild sugar high children:
All novels, she writes, attempt to cut neural routes through the brain,
to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies.
Whatever the case for previous generations of novelists, todays writers,
she believes, are being herded down the path toward a homoglossic
future: A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with
most other exits blocked. Smith stops just short of blaming lyrical realism that pretty
literary device that gussies up the verisimilitudinous details of a characters interior life and
external experiences, and the mode in which she had by then already written three novels
for the deterioration of literatures role in our eras popular consciousness.

Just as Jonathan Franzens 1996 Harpers essay, Perchance to Dream laid bare the social
concerns that would dominate the next book hed publish, 2001s The Corrections, and David
Foster Wallaces E Unibus Pluram seems to simmer beneath much of Innite Jest, Two Paths
now seems like the drawing board for NW. But unlike Franzens belligerence about society
having a deleterious eect on art or the soul, or Wallaces paralyzing concern about the
relationship between writers and their television screens, Smiths work as both a critic and
novelist invites her readers to celebrate the delicious and ever disastrous commingling of the
world and the self. She blurs these borders in order to simultaneously honor and disparage
arts greatest article of faith-based apdoodle: authenticity. It is a really neat trick.

But let me back up a little bit. Smiths incredible rst novel, White Teeth, very much partakes in
straight-up lyrical realism, what she calls the Balzac-Flaubert mode. Its a social novel that
positions idiomatic rather than stock characters in a messy world and then strips both
down to perversely specic universals through a strong plot and the soul-level clarity of
beautiful language. Though the situations that tie together the Iqbal and Jones families in the
book are frequently hyperbolic, not to mention rendered with such historically and personally
specic detail, their entanglement feels like a thing bourne of fate rather than chance; Smith
created a nely realized portrait of an incredibly particular group of people that somehow also
manages to open a space of recognition for her readership. Its a real Novel of a novel, replete

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with precious nuggets of an authentic-seeming voice, of authentic characters, of exaggerated


situations that function to reveal the interconnectedness of authentic human being.

White Teeth is, as the New York Timess Michiko Kakutani recently wrote in her review of NW,
concerned with the big issues of its day: intergenerational family relationships, the resonant
aectations of the postcolonial children of immigrants, class, gender, race, coming of age in a
highly mediated world, and the oscillating rhythm of joy and indignity that accompanies any
longstanding intimacy among friends, family, or lovers. It is also about, as all narratives must
be in some sense, the everyday peculiarities of time and its passage. Despite Kakutanis
implication that Smiths latest novel lacks the heft of these big ideas, NW (and On Beauty before
it) is also about these issues. They form the territory that Smith has always been striving to
map, though NW is tighter, and experiments much more radically with form.

NW is principally the story of four denizens, past and present, of a particular government-
aided housing complex in the titular quadrant of London. Leah Hanwell, the focus of the rst
of the books ve sections, rails against times passing. She refuses to contemplate
motherhood, even though her husband wants children, because she doesnt have the desire
to take on the responsibility of generation. Shed rather prolong the present indenitely. Smith
crafts Leahs life through a modernist stream of consciousness, and the eect of Leah going
back and forth and inside and outside of herself mixes up the chronology of her life in a way
that seems to mirror her desire for stasis. In her intellectual reections and refractions, Leah
happens upon ugly thoughts about how unfair it is that she appears to be aging faster than
her husband, and though she both opens and closes the novel in the pose of stillness, she
resents her best friend Natalie Blake for the apparently linear momentum of progress that
drives Natalies accomplished life.

Unlike Leah, Natalies desire for a managed and ordered relationship to time is oset by the
palimpsest of life. Where Leah wants to stay suspended indenitely in a present that keeps
inching away into the past, Natalie tries to get ahead of herself and erase her own history. She
takes on her past and rewrites her life as a clear chronology of success. She unburdens herself
of her racially and socioeconomically signicant birth name, Keisha, but history catches up
with her. No matter how hard she tries to organize her time on earth, to create for herself a
measured and progressive narrative, the numbers will never add up to a life.

Novels are an especially apt medium for playing with and among time, and the impulse to use
language as a relativity machine is strong in NW. Time in the novel ties itself to space, to the
way we move about the world, and the novel unfolds at the exact intersection of back there

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and back when. Like Big Ben overseeing every page of Virginia Woolfs modernist classic Mrs.
Dalloway, time even the actual word haunts NW with a needling and anxious insistence.
These textual echolocations with Mrs. Dalloway patinas the novel as a literary artifact with the
same shimmer of historical specicity that makes London itself a humbling delight, written
over and over again by the people who live there.

The titles of many of the 185 numbered sections that outline the narrative of Natalies life
hammer at Smiths preoccupation with time: 16. The new timetable; 26. Relative time; 79.
The end of history; 89. Time slows down; 143. The present; 148. The future; 152. The
past; 160. Time speeds up. These show the ins and outs of time and the ins and outs of
what the novel, or this novel, can do to it and through it.

This digressive chunk about Natalie does what Smith does at her best, which is to double back
on her readers behalf to illustrate anew for us the danger of a mind thats been made up.
Natalies ambitions to upwardly mobile herself into class oblivion require her to live in a kind
of double time. The hours spent studying to become a barrister, the constant stream of emails
once she ascends to the professional class (Though incredibly fast, her phone was still too
slow), the pace of strident success, her lifelong social climbing, and her biological clock all
conspire to collapse time into the rapid succession of so many ladder rungs underfoot. The
tiny essays which depict text messages, the answers to teen-magazine quizzes, dinner
menus, the eused materials of a certain kind of life are illustrative errata that correct the
impression the reader will already have of Natalie from Leah.

Where Woolf dealt in the horror of the hours, Smith sets down moments and gels them into
years. NWs characters stand inside of time but try to think or act outside it. Their competing
desires for progress and stagnation make for especially rich reading in an era where the
phrase time poor is a way that people actually describe themselves. In an accelerated
culture, we all nd ourselves time poor; we all reserve the right to fall into the so-called busy
trap, that self-inicted urry of obligations by which we can better better imagine the value of
our lives. But then again, the poverty of time is part of the human condition. The awareness of
time as both linear passage and circuitous rhythm lends a special signicance to being, to
being here, alive, in this world.

Narrative is how we make sense of this, is the base unit of meaning, the story we can tell
ourselves, to help pass the time into something that feels a little less like its running away
from us. Smith shifts narrative gears throughout each section of NW, and each character is
dierently equipped to both describe and be described by the chronology of their lives. Of

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course, it ultimately doesnt matter; while we may experience time in many dierent ways, it
runs only one course. No amount of narrative construction can ever truly stop it, slow it, or
speed it up.

In NWs opening chapter, Leah latches onto a phrase she hears on the radio: I am the sole
author of the dictionary that denes me. The phrase echoes on the rst page and throughout
the book. Its a beautiful slip of nothing, the idea that the self is a collection of denitions,
penned not by ones relationship to the world but by some elementally authentic and
impenetrable kernel within each of us.

The novels characters all grapple with the self as a transient gossamer thing, easily obliterated
and readily rebuilt. They move through time, but then time moves back through them, and the
border between outside and inside moves around, becomes more and less permeable. They
tell themselves stories both during and after the events that make up their days. Natalie Blake,
standing outside of a danger place, rings the bell, an act she later characterized to herself as
leaving her own body. Everywhere the self dissolves, and yet what remains is still more,
somehow, than mere artice. Mere images. The images are never quite untethered from the
real, and Smith, despite her structural detouring, cant quite escape some semblance of
Realism, cant discard her innate lyrical gifts.

***

Now, about authenticity and Two Paths for the Novel.

Smiths anxieties about Realism stem from the realist project to assert the transcendent
importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness
and continuity of the self. Her characters are fragmented, and each struggles with clinging to
the thread of the self. The formal explorations in each of NWs sections reveal a relentless
sense of the back-and-forth struggle between the constraints of voice and style and the
impulse to break free of them, to mirror the spontaneity of life.

Then again, given Smiths intense championing of McCarthys Remainder, perhaps spontaneity
is not precisely the right word. Where NW maps the variable and innite ways people relate to
time, in all of its trickling and ooding, through both plot and form, Remainder is hinged on a
single idea and depicts a narrator faced with the opportunity to take control of that particular
river. Smith calls McCarthys nameless main character The Reenactor a play on one of
Remainders many internal jokes, because his function is to build and then enact the novel you
nd yourself reading. Unlike a conventional Realist protagonist, The Reenactor is completely

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free to author his own plot.

Both Remainder and NW are written against Realism. And both are preoccupied with time and
its constructions. McCarthys Reenactor manufactures articial moments of experience that he
can endlessly repeat, each detail so choreographed and rehearsed that it becomes a
controlled second nature. In one scene, hes lying on the oor of a building hes had rebuilt
from memory. He watches the sun travel across the space for an afternoon, reveling in how
exactly this journey matches some authentic feeling hes had before. When he next repeats
the exercise, trying to restage that moment of feeling, he nds he cant: its later in the year,
and the sun has moved farther away from the earth,changing the quality and duration of the
lights path across the tile. Time has passed, and it is the one element beyond his control it
cannot be made or remade, authentically or inauthentically.

In Two Paths, Smith praises Remainder for how the novel empties its characters of their
interiority, how it uproots and denies the idea of a solidly authentic inner self. Smith does
something similar in NW: Natalie worries that shes managed to go her whole life without
developing much of a personality, and Leah wants, perhaps too much, or for hollow reasons,
to keep it real and stay near her working class roots. But time keeps happening to them, and
they move on with that inevitable ow, somehow real and full of their selves, even when they
thought theyd managed to self-annihilate through drugs or sex or dancing or whichever way
one goes about losing oneself. They still manage to trudge through the other side of oblivion
with a self still intact. Its as if time, in all of its varying speed and slowness, is the thing that ties
that tenuously grasped slip of a thing, the self, to each body. Events happen, time happens, in
various ways, but its the narrative imposed by time that ties these factors to that little golden
ticket of the self. Time is also what ties Leah and Natalie together, and is the one thing that
prevents the Reenactor from being able to organize a one-hundred percent articially
authentic moment.

***

Franzens Perchance to Dream is a premature swan song for literature as it passes out of
fashion in consumer culture and allegedly becomes overwhelmed by the worlds proliferating
materiality. For Franzen, the problem was overstimulation, and his worry seems to have
stemmed from his perception that the world had become too big to write down. (After taking
a year o to gather material for his third novel, Franzen returned to ction thinking he may
not have acquired enough. But, he wrote, the problem manifested itself as just the
opposite: an overload.) Its no wonder the man refuses to tweet.

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David Foster Wallace also wrote an essay on the future of ction to work out many of the
issues that would dominate the novel he was then working on. His 1993 essay E Unibus
Pluram reads like an equivocating cry against television, while much of Innite Jest describes
the mediums exquisitely satisfying dangers. Wallace argued that TV programming had by then
adopted and perfected so many techniques that had once seemed unique to ction; whereas
once only writers were ooglers, people who accumulate details through constant voyeurism,
Wallace claimed television had made ooglers of us all, and worse, had collapsed the distance
between authentic experience and watching articial experience. The problem for novelists,
he wrote, is that they will cull from television rather than life for their art. Its just too easy not
to.

Smiths Two Paths picks up where Wallace leaves us, still concerned with the great burden of
authentic watching and its corollary, the seemingly inauthentic watching of the self. The
central thrust of Two Paths resounds with the decade-long echo of Wallaces claim in E
Unibus Pluram that realism is no longer a tting strategy for telling stories about a world
which has rapidly become less real. Wallace wrote,

one of realistic ctions big jobs used to be to aord easements across borders, to help
readers leap over the walls of self and locale and show us unseen or dreamed-of people and
cultures and ways to be. Realism made the strange familiar. Today, when we can eat Tex-
Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching a Soviet-satellite newscast of the
Berlin Walls Fall i.e., when damn near everything presents itself as familiar its not a
surprise that some of todays most ambitious Realist ction is going about trying to make the
familiar strange.

Compare Smiths major indictment against Realism, by way of Netherland:

An interesting thought is trying to reach us here, but the ghost of the literary burns it away,
leaving only its remainder: a nicely constructed sentence, rich in sound and syntax,
signifying (almost) nothing. Netherland doesnt really want to know about misapprehension.
It wants to oer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like?
Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want
meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our
childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels?
Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of
times past? Is this really Realism?

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Smith and Wallace both come up against the new, worried that its impossible to build solid
novels, let alone the future, with lyrical realisms rusty old tools. Wallace coined the term
Image-ction (which, thankfully, hasnt much caught on) to semi-disparagingly describe the
work of his contemporaries: a reliance on the distances permitted by images of things rather
than the things themselves to generate a perpetual irony of engagement which is but more
distance, bringing writers and readers further away from each other and from their own
authentic selves. Smith, for her part, upbraids Netherland for trying too hard to have it both
ways. Though she nds ONeills novel possessed of a new sort of lyric irony questioning its
own motives, shes dismayed to nd that in the end Netherland wants always to comfort us, to
assure us of our beautiful plenitude.

Its no wonder, then, that Smith would advocate so ercely for Tom McCarthys Remainder as
harbinger of the novels future. Remainder is, by design, the most authentic piece of plain-
prose Image-ction ever written. Her infatuation with McCarthys Remainder stems from a
desire to do away with a realism modeled on authenticity and novelty. In Remainder the
narrator tries to reactualize a faded memory, ambiguously built from a lifetime of sensual,
cinematic, and otherwise imagined experiences. The point in time he is trying to recreate,
whether it ever existed or not, is the only point in his memory where he felt free from artice
in his actions. Its the only way he can picture himself unburdened by the double awareness of
being watched and thus always watching himself. If he builds this moment by articial means,
hell be able to inhabit that moment of authenticity. One could read Remainder as an allegory
for the Realist novel. Here is a person building a fake world in order to experience real feeling.
Isnt that precisely what novelists do?

NW occupies a very dierent space from Remainder. Even though she wrote against the
adjectival mania of lyrical realism, Smith seemingly cant help but to use language in a way
that honors its grand scope. At one point, Felix, one of the four core characters of NW whose
presence is the ghost of his history in the titular neighborhood, sees a stranger through a
mullioned, glittering window sitting on a leather poue, trying on one of those green jackets,
waxy like a tablecloth, with the tartan inside. Later, Smith describes afternoon tea as a
highlight in the lethal quiet of Leahs childhood home. No, Smith was never ready to
abandon the luscious and incantatory powers of rich language.

Perhaps its a sign that our literary culture is not quite so ailing that Smith managed to make a
space for NW, to clear a third path, one that meanders through Willesden, through time, and
through the mind. The book, by the way, is really good. Its her most authentic yet.

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