Sketching Shades of a Story
LONDON: In fiction, as in anything else, it's hard to do anything new. It's hard to break rules that have never been broken. It's hard to find new styles, and new rhythms, and new ways of structuring a narrative that keeps the reader engaged and the reading experience fresh. It's hard to find new plots. You can't, in a world where many critics think there are only seven, find new plots. But what's much, much harder than all of this is to change, or try to change, the way people think.
In her new novel, NW, Zadie Smith has a go. She writes, in singing, soaring, street-savvy prose, about a corner of north-west London, and the people who call it home. She writes, in particular, about a group of people who grew up on the same council estate, the ones who seem to have survived and thrived, and the ones who seem to have sunk.
She writes, in other words, about the hopes, struggles, successes and disappointments of a group of people who were born and bred in London, but whose parents often weren't. She does this without talking about, or hardly ever talking about, the colour of anyone's skin.
"In novels where the characters are white," she said in a radio interview recently, "nobody thinks the race is being obscured. They just don't think the races exist, because of this idea of neutrality when it comes to white characters. It is very difficult to find a way to get people out of that mindset, so that they can see that people of colour are not strange or exotic in themselves, or to themselves." She tried, she said, "many different ways of doing it", but couldn't seem "to find a technique".
In this, as in the fiercely critical review she wrote all those years ago of her own flawed-but-brilliant first novel, White Teeth, she's wrong.
She has found a technique that works very well. She uses, for example, the rhythms of London street slang, the London street slang that's more Caribbean patois than Cockney, to show that what's often more important than race in a city of migrants - and children of migrants - is culture and class.
Some readers might assume that the woman who knocks on the door of one of the characters at the start of the novel, and begs for money, and whose speech is peppered with "innits" and "you get mes", is black. Later, we find out she's Asian and that the woman whose door she has knocked on is white.
Another character, we can guess from the fact that her friend calls her a "coconut" and refers to her "big Afro puff", is black. But skin colour is mostly only mentioned when it's white.
It was, said Smith in the same interview, one of the things she did to "amuse" herself. "I remember as a kid," she said, "reading Updike or Roth, writers I loved, but halfway through the book you'd have to deal with the appearance of 'the black man', who would be described as 'the black man'. That can be quite exhausting to read, so I wanted to see if I could create that exhaustion the other way round."
Actually, she doesn't. There's nothing "exhausting" about reading about "a young white couple" crossing the road, or about reading about a character who "frowned absently at the nipples of the white woman in his newspaper", though there can be something a little bit tiring about the fragmented structure of this novel, and its clearly-inspired-by-high-modernism style.
But there's a certainly a sense for the reader of being jolted out of a certain kind of laziness, a sense, you could say, of having to keep awake. …