Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, NW, has a remarkable long section beginning halfway through, a series of various-length chapters that recount the life story of Natalie Blake, one of two women at the center of the story. Chapters, maybe, is the wrong word, the numbering and page layout really more suggestive of a life structured like an argument: Natalie is a barrister after all. But the argument is not so legalistic as it is a distillation of humanistic theory, most of the chapters invoking one of a hodgepodge of theoretical discussions. Sometimes these theorists are invoked directly in the text--a party where a bunch of students dress as “Discourse Founders” including Franz Fanon--but more often the language of theory movements frame the narrative. The socialist feminist critique of “the profound way in which capitalism enters women’s minds and bodies” in one section, and later Judith Butler’s use of drag as a model for how identity works. There is the end of history, and then Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of taste and class trajectories—although one mainline of realist fiction has been sounding like Bourdieu since before there was a Bourdieu, so maybe that shouldn’t count.
What is fantastic about this section, though, is how compellingly Smith channels the different theories as a way of framing Natalie’s life and psyche. It is a character-driven story where the character really has very little interior life that is not an internalization of external perspectives, and all these theories are in some ways the best things she grabs from the world around her because they give her some critical distance from the less likeable aspects of herself.
More generally the novel is about a friendship between two women that has frayed over the course of their lives to the detriment of both. There is a homoerotic undercurrent to this friendship, perhaps more strongly felt on one side than another, but while the novel indicates some missed chances for a connection there, it doesn’t really suggest they belong together either (Leah and Natalie’s desires for the future don’t have much in common). Rather, that attraction is just one aspect of the broader friendship that sustains them when they are able to recapture it. Yet, at the same time the narrative searches for ways for them to reconnect, it also paints both characters with faults and shows how the friendship can buttress those faults in addition healing the two. This makes for an uncomfortable reading experience, although perhaps necessarily so: pushing readers along with the desire that the two women unite yet saving enough criticism to keep us from relief when they do make contact.