Tag Archives: London

Review: NW by Zadie Smith

Didn't spot the bridge until the end of the book!NW takes a cross-section of a community in Willesden, North London, following the lives of four characters who grew up in the same run-down Caldwell estate. Leah and Natalie, childhood friends, have found their friendship strained by the different directions their lives have taken. Leah is content in her job and content in her marriage, except she secretly takes the pill to avoid the baby they both claim to want. Her narration is the most fractured and meandering, merging description and memory, thoughts and senses. In contrast, Natalie (originally Keisha) has thrown off her council-estate roots completely and reinvented herself as a lawyer living on the well-heeled outskirts of their community. But her transformation has left her with an identity crisis, as filling in her various roles as wife, mother and lawyer give her no clue to who Natalie (or Keisha) is. Felix is a young man with a new girlfriend, a pocketful of cash and the world at his feet. It’s the most inspiring and upbeat part of the novel (except we know that it’s not). And Nathan is, for most of them, the spectre of Caldwell – scarred, poverty stricken, and angry.

The narration reflects the consciousness of the characters themselves. It’s the free indirect speech of your A-levels, and then some (Mrs Dalloway is an obvious, and probably conscious, point of comparison). Chapter 37 recurs, out of order, because of its special significance for Leah. Natalie’s life is broken into 185 numbered segments that maybe smack a little of the creative writing class, but which I thought worked rather well. Smith’s writing is meant to evoke the bustle and jostle of London, and it is as dense, as crowded and sometimes as antagonising as London can be.

In fact, reading the novel I ended up with a Leah/Natalie split of my own. One side of me enjoyed the undoubtedly good and sometimes brilliant writing, the sheer joy of a novel that meanders rather than drives, sprawls rather than directs, and the pithy literary asides (‘People were not people but merely an effect of language. You could conjure them up and kill them in a sentence.’)

But the other side wondered whether there isn’t something missing. I’m not saying I wanted a moral of the story, but I did feel like it was a novel supposedly about class that wasn’t actually saying very much. For example, it wants to hate and satirize the middle classes, but while it manages a certain amount of self-aware eye-rolling, you don’t get the sense she really means it. Leah and her husband scoff at Natalie’s success, but they also crave it, and Natalie herself rolls her eyes at herself during one (stereo)typical brunch.

But the Thing that happens that knits the four characters together? That, that is reaffirming a whole load of stereotypes – those who seem to be scammers are, the scarred junkie commits the crime, a phone call to the police will sort it all out, the only victim of gang crime worth mourning is one whose making something of himself. Her Nathan section is the shortest and the one where the character is kept at the furthest remove, as though Smith herself has fallen victim to her middle class squeamishness and couldn’t quite bear the thought of spending too much time with him. But another part of me wonders whether she’s challenging us to look at how our prejudices work? We want to read books about working-class girl done good because it makes us feel more comfortable, as though we don’t hold the prejudices about the Nathans and the Shars that we undoubtedly do.

I don’t know. These aren’t demands that I would make of just any author, or most books. But they are ones that this book made me make! Like Zadie Smith, I had trouble wrapping this book up in a neat little parcel too. There are parts of exquisite craftsmanship next to some rather more difficult aspects (and a few editorial booboos – who carries around a bus ticket in London?). The infrastructure isn’t without its faults, but you can still have a great time. A bit like London…*

Other London-based metaphors for NW are gratefully received, nay, ENCOURAGED.

First line: The fat sun stalls by the phone masts.
In a tweet: A big job for a big city.



On paper, the idea of an 8-hour play about a man reading The Great Gatsby, with a script comprised only of every word of Fitzgerald’s novel (that’s Every. Single. Word.) sounds like the sort of undergraduate train wreck you would go to see at the Edinburgh Fringe after 3 bottles of bad red wine. Even when I bought the tickets, I was doing it in a half-undergraduate-2-bottles-down-aren’t-I-so-post-semi-ironic kind of way. Luckily, I have a couple of half-undergraduate-2-bottles-down-aren’t-I-so-post-semi-ironic friends, so we all decided to take the plunge together and book tickets for some distant day in the future.

And then it turned into something of a coup, as everybody in London discovered they’ll be getting substantially more value for money for their theatre seats if you go in at matinee time and come out at last orders. Elevator Repair Service are staging only 23 shows, and I think they’re mostly sold out by now. Reviewers seem to be unanimous in their cry – it shouldn’t work, but it does.

The play is set in a run down office – Nick (Scott Shepherd) finds his computer broken and, at a loss for anything else to do, cracks open a copy of The Great Gatsby and starts reading. Stilted at first, he becomes drawn in and as he does so, the rest of the office characters become part of the novel too. It’s amazing how easily the drab office fades away – drunken, lascivious parties are evoked with a simple throwing up of the nearby paperwork, upending a couple of chairs and lounging across the office sofa. You’ll find as Nick’s narration works up to talking about a particular character, that they have been idling in the background or subtly wandering to shift some papers around. The attention to detail, and the wittiness with which the play’s creators have engaged with the novel is incredible – more so because it is worn so easily. The swaggering, vaguely intimidating security guard (Gary Wilmes) makes a particularly brilliant Tom – selfish, thoughtless, cruel, earnest.

And it’s funny! Never in all my wildest A-level coursework dreams did I think ROFLMAO @ NICK CARRAWAY’S OBSERVATIONAL ONE-LINERS but it’s true! Hearing it aloud, seeing characters react or participate in the funniness, really emphasises Fitzgerald’s eye for the sublimely ridiculous in high society. The layers of characters playing characters means that there is a knowing nod to the unreasonableness, and unreality of some of the scenes playing out in the novel. It didn’t always work – sometimes I felt like parts were played for laughs when they didn’t need to be, and there was one bit during Tom and Daisy’s climactic argument in the hotel room where Jordan Baker inexplicably made a fart joke which (rightly) went down like a lead balloon…and I am speaking as one of the Fart Joke’s staunchest advocates. But when it did work, it was brilliant! It was somebody lifting the lid on what had always been sold to me as an Important Work of Literature And A Great American Novel and said – but also, it’s FUN. You can’t have an 8-hour play without it, and it means that largely, the pacing is spot on.

By the novel’s climax, the office has receded almost completely and the novel has taken over. You’re no longer wondering why the narrator is wandering around with a book in his hand and you’re fine that people keep using office stationery as cigar boxes or whisky decanters. It’s poignant and moving, hitting the right notes in the right places. I felt like the fourth act dragged a little, thanks to Fitzgerald’s post-amble (it struck me that actually the novel is structured in a really weird way, actually, with all the action, then a long period of dissection. It works, but…isn’t it weird?), but there’s not really a lot you can do about that, plus the ending is one of the most famous and beautiful endings in the canon, so you’d be as well not to sneak out because your parking ticket’s about to run out.

I wasn’t as blown away by it as some of the reviewers, perhaps because I’d read the reviews and was primed for big things. I felt like Gatz himself was a bit of an odd fit – Gatsby’s such an elusive, mesmerising figure who’s defined by Nick’s own memory that it was incongruous to have an older, balding (sorry, Jim Fletcher) man in the role who didn’t have that same charisma. But then I guess the point is that Gatsby himself isn’t that charismatic – it’s his money.

Similarly, I initially struggled with asking ‘Why an office? Why anywhere, for that matter.’ While I totally understand the benefits of having the process of reading as part of the play – Fitzgerald’s writing is such an important part of the drama that to simply take the dialogue would be to immeasurably reduce the work as a whole – I wasn’t sure how relevant the dated office setting really was. Matt Trueman suggested that reveals the dirty truth of the American Dream, that it is built on American Workers toiling in American Offices just like that one. It is the modern(ish) day equivalent of Fitzgerald’s Ash Heaps.  I think this is probably it, but because you don’t really encounter the office workers in their own right, I didn’t feel like this was really brought out. But then I guess you didn’t come for somebody else’s polemic. These would have been minor gripes in a shorter play, and here they provide food for thought, more than anything else.

In a nutshell, this was eight hours well spent, and the smartest, sexiest show you’ll see with a filing cabinet in it.

Correction: This post originally said Tom was played by Robert Cucuzza – while he has played the role, the night I saw it it was the excellent Gary Wilmes. (Sorry, Gary!)