Hysterical Realist No Longer

By Zadie Smith
Penguin, 401 pp.

Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW returns to the streets of NW London. This is the setting of her first novel and where she has lived most of her life,  which she populates with characters whose colloquial British English differs greatly from her prose in diction, but not in rhythm. Her most stylistically ambitious novel, NW makes widespread use of unattributed dialogue and free, indirect speech to make the similarities in her prose more apparent. As self-described “sentimental humanist”, she does not shy away from the fact that she was born to these streets herself, not trying to hide her personal connection.

She goes so far as to create a caricature of herself, Natalie Blake, née Keisha, a black woman of Jamaican descent who changed her name in high school and worked her way through college before becoming a successful lawyer. Smith herself was born to a Jamaican mother in NW London and changed her name from Sadie to Zadie at the age of 14. This is perhaps the best example of how Smith distances herself from the model of hysterical realism, the term critic James Wood coined for her style of writing. The high moralizing and attempts to order the chaotic streets of Kilburn are taken on by characters like Natalie and her best friend Leah, while the flow of the story follows a realist pattern which matches up with what Smith terms her own realist outlook. 

The story opens within the dreamlike mindset of Leah as she walks home. While mostly chronicling Natalie and Leah’s lives, including a string of flash-fiction pieces—taking us from their childhood together up to the time of the story—that make up a large portion of the second half of the book, Smith intersperses their narrative with the much grittier lives of the neighbors, for whom niceties are merely things to be exploited. 

Felix, the other major focus of the novel, is also in his 30s but lacks forward moving social momentum. Part-time mechanic, former head chef, one-time entrepreneur; he’s tried many ways of life but has found himself defeated by the world around him. Although he claims to be in love with his girlfriend Grace, he continues to sleep with his beautiful friend Annie and they imagine together the films he could direct given the opportunity. He is a drifter, and his part of the story is told stream-of-consciousness style in one prolonged chapter. Leah, a former philosophy major, might at times find her thoughts floating, but for the most part the prose is delivered in concise sentences, meant to be read at a breakneck speed—resembling more the action of traveling over choppy water in a motorboat than than the smooth flow of a river. Within NW London, this is the manic way in which you live and think.    

With Smith the sentimental humanist saying, as she did in the New York Review of Books that, she believes “art is here to help,” realism seems to be an odd genre choice. In Smith’s world the people who achieve success in life weren’t seeking it and don’t know what to do with it, while those who are too benevolent are taken advantage of; the world is a cruel and unforgiving place when you’re in one of its most tempestuous precincts, then existentially fraught if you ever manage to escape. Often exhilarating, it is never an uplifting book: the sentimentalism is bleak but strong. It is a success, however, due to its humanizing demonstration of the flaws belying its characters that, even as their external forces differ and change dramatically, continue to wind themselves in ever-tightening coils around them.