restricted access Whatever Works
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Whatever Works
NW. Zadie Smith. Penguin. 416 pages; cloth, $26.95, paper, $16.00, eBook, $12.99, CD Audiobook, $39.95.

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In “Two Paths for the Novel” (2008), her sweeping review of the literary landscape, Zadie Smith spots a fork in the road precisely where postmodernism left the contemporary novelist. On her one hand, she sees the beaten track of Realism, walked by the likes of Balzac and Flaubert and many of today’s authors, encouraged by cheering crowds and influential critics. On her other hand, she sees the equally well-trodden path of anti-Realism, taken by avant-gardists such as Joyce, Barth, and Pynchon, under the banners of modernism and postmodernism. Which path to take?

Smith is known to be keenly aware of her place in the literary tradition, as well as an astute observer of contemporary culture. A disposition that pushes her, time and again, out of her comfort zone. After the global success of her debut novel White Teeth (2000), which could be described as a realist novel for the twenty-first century, with its narrative exuberance and multitude of plotlines, she could have rested on her laurels, cashing in on an instantly acquired mass audience. She chose differently—consequently, each of her novels departed from the last.

The period between the much praised On Beauty (2005), arguably her most traditionally realist novel, and her latest novel, NW (2012), lasted seven long years, a period—judging from “Two Paths for the Novel”—she used to reflect upon the state of today’s literature and plot herself a new trajectory. The path of realism, she came to realize, needs some reconstruction work if the realist novel is to survive as a legitimate art form. After modernism and postmodernism, realist authors simply cannot “continue on their merry road, with not a metaphysical care in the world.” So Smith veered towards the path of anti-realism, “an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward,” albeit after some “constructive deconstruction.” It is at the end of this road that we find NW.

NW is set against the background of Caldwell, a run-down council estate in northwest London. It charts the lives of four Caldwell residents—Leah, Natalie, and, to a lesser extent, Felix and Nathan—as they try to move up in society and out of the estate. It turns out, however, that they never really leave Caldwell or, rather, that Caldwell never really leaves them. Although the novel lightly touches upon the themes of race and class (the Irish Leah describes herself as “the only white girl” at the office; the Jamaican Natalie is warned to avoid “ghetto work”), NW wants to be, first and foremost, an existentialist novel. Towards the end, Leah and Natalie have a telling conversation, referring in passing to the random stabbing incident that ended Felix’s life (something the reader learns in the unhinged, stand-alone panel that forms the novel’s second section).

“I just don’t understand why I have this life,” [Leah] said quietly. “What?” “You, me, all of us. Why that girl and not us. Why that poor bastard on Albert Road. It doesn’t make sense to me.” “Because we worked harder,” [Natalie] said…. “People like [Nathan] Bogle—they didn’t want it enough.”

The novel’s existentialist intentions are hammered home, somewhat superfluously, by frequent references to existentialist philosophers. Far subtler, however, are the ways in which “Camus” and “Sartre” drive the main plotlines. The novel’s first section follows Leah—now thirty-five years old—as she drags herself through everyday life. She abides her time in a dead end job, regretting her “useless” student years. She hides her contraceptive pills from her husband, endlessly deferring the future. She is stuck in time. While visiting Natalie’s house, she has a revealing epiphany: “This house makes her feel like a child…. Overnight everyone has grown up. While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.”

While Leah feels increasingly out of place, Natalie is going places. The novel’s third section develops her character by chronicling her life from childhood onwards rather...