Zadie Smith has abandoned plot. At least for now. In her 2009 collection of essays, "Changing My Mind," she outlines two possible directions for the novel's future. Of the first path, the lyrical realism of the Balzac-Flaubert tradition (and of her own best book, "On Beauty"), she asks, "Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?" She has significantly more confidence in the less traveled road of experimental fiction, constructive deconstructions like Tom McCarthy's wonder cabinet "Remainder," which Smith hopes might "shake the novel out of its present complacency."
Reading the essay, her many passionate fans, myself included, wondered whether her next book would be some thrillingly weirdo departure, a Sgt. Pepper's-like breakthrough for both herself and fiction as a whole. Lofty expectations, but Smith is exactly that talented.
Well, that new novel is finally here and it's called "NW" and it uses lists, vignettes, Web links, sentence fragments, varied fonts, stage directions, dinner menus, G-chat transcripts and chapters entirely in unattributed dialogue to tell the story of four Londoners who grew up together in a public housing estate in the NW corner of the city. On page five, a mysterious woman comes knocking on one of their doors.
But "NW" does not put its energies behind the sturdy Stranger Comes to Town narrative of "Jaws" and "Beloved." Nor is the book about four Londoners, not really, or at least not equally. Smith is disproportionately interested in Natalie Blake, a hardworking lawyer of Caribbean descent who changed her name from Keisha, hijacks the point-of-view in the entire second half of the novel, and wonders if she "had in fact any personality at all or was in truth only the accumulation and reflection of all the things she had read in books and seen on television."
Smith tells Natalie's story from childhood to midlife crisis primarily in a series of brief numbered sections instead of traditional scenes, with the empty space of line breaks standing in for transitions. This approach allows for some wonderful, isolated moments, as when Natalie puts down her suitcase to wrestle with a blossom-heavy twig that she'd intended to break off in a carefree gesture. Without the so-called burdens of plot, Natalie more closely resembles a lawyer from real life than she does a John Grisham character. But without plot, without causality, there is little opportunity for consequences, for characters reckoning with and taking ownership of their mistakes. Eventually Natalie does screw up and gets caught, but then the novel ends, right where a writer like, say, Dostoevsky would have begun. Perhaps Smith is making a comment about our current society of disavowed political responsibility. Or maybe she just couldn't face finishing what she'd started.
Matt Burgess is the author of "Dogfight: A Love Story." He teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul.