NW, Zadie Smith, The Penguin Press, 2012, 401 pp
My husband is a recording engineer and sound mixer. He is also one of the most tasteful guitarists I know. He spends his days recording and mixing music for both professional clients and his songwriter friends.
He is always studying and learning from the masters. One morning he played for me a comparison demo he had set up to show the results of what has come to be called the Loudness Wars. Since the 1980s, recorded music has gotten louder and louder. It started out as a kind of King of the Hill thing: the louder the CD, the more it would stand out, particularly on the radio. The result is that the contemporary wall of loudness has submerged the clarity of the human voice, the brilliance of solo instruments, and the punch of the drums.
I could go into the technical nuances of Zadie Smith's writing in NW and they are many, making her latest novel a challenging read. I finished her book a week and a half before writing this review. After listening to my husband's demo, I suddenly saw the brilliance of NW.
Fiction is tales of the myriad particulars of the human condition. Each novel gives us the big picture of human life by telling the details which make up a certain group of characters in certain times and places. My main beef with the modern world is a relentless extinction of the details due to factors like marketing and the internet, until a homogenization of the particulars brings about an ennui of sameness. In what I would call current popular fiction, it all begins to sound alike. We read what is the agreed upon synthesis of emotion, experience, and possibility for life.
NW takes place in a neighborhood of London where this homogenization effect is in process but not by any means complete. The characters are in various stages of either resisting or flowing with the process.
Thus I got the nuances, the exotic differences, the extinction factors, and the pressures to conform because of the techniques used by the author. Most of all I got the psychic distress experienced by each character. Once again, it is the end of the world as we know it and Zadie Smith bears witness.
(NW is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)