Zadie in Metroland

September 12, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

NW by Zadie Smith. 2012.

Let’s say it right away, I couldn’t finish that one. I tried, asked Twitter followers to cheer me up and convince me to finish it. Thanks everyone for the replies and the links to reviews. I soldiered on and lost the war. I still wonder what went wrong with that book or more precisely, why the fact I couldn’t stand Leah, one of the main female characters and that I couldn’t picture her French thirty-something husband named Michel was enough to make me abandon the book.

Since it’s hard to summarise a book you haven’t finished, here is the blurb from Amazon:

Set in northwest London, Zadie Smith’s brilliant tragicomic novel follows four locals—Leah, Natalie, Fox, and Nathan—as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. In private houses and public parks, at work and at play, these Londoners inhabit a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end. Depicting the modern urban zone—familiar to city-dwellers everywhere—NW is a quietly devastating novel of encounters, mercurial and vital, like the city itself.

Smith_NWSure, the style and the description of the city are marvellous. I could see that even if I didn’t even finish the first part of the novel. Zadie Smith’s style is brilliant and vibrant, really. No doubt about this. She captures very well the fleeting sensations one has when walking in a city. She describes the environment in an impressionist way which felt close to reality. Her pace changes, she plays with the layout, inserts a chapter 37 after the seventeenth and has a rather hectic prose at times. It didn’t bother me at all. It could have been a put-off but it wasn’t. I’m sure I missed a lot of subtleties that only a Londoner can see.

It seemed clever in its assessment of city life and it’s erudite in an off-hand manner, which I like in a book. I heard Michel de Montaigne in the text, like here Laurels. And you rest on them, you don’t sit on them. You sit on your arse. It reminded me of this quote by Montaigne Sur le plus beau trône du monde, on n’est jamais assis que sur son cul ! (Even on the nicest throne in the world, one still sits on their ass !) I’m sure there were other references like this in the novel.

Unfortunately, I’m a reader who cares about characters and plot. In the first section, we meet Leah and her husband Michel. Leah is white and Michel is French and black. That’s important. They’re both in their mid-thirties and we’re in Leah’s head. And that’s an annoying head to be in. I didn’t like Leah at all. She reminded me of Bruno in Les particules élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq. The style is totally different but these characters have something in common. They go nowhere with their lives, whine, have the blues of the unsatisfied white adult and make shocking decisions. Boring. I’m still trying to figure out why Leah put me off a book I found extremely well-written and captivating in its picture of the urban world. I have trouble putting words on my emotions about her. Usually, I don’t have to like a character to enjoy a book, or I wouldn’t read crime fiction. I even liked books where I found the characters infuriating, like Maggie in Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.

So why Leah? Actually, I stopped reading after she got her third abortion and this one without telling her husband who desperately wants a child and thinks they have fertility problems. She got on my nerves. I’m all for doing whatever you want with your body but being 35, with a stable job in a country with NHS and not being able to take proper contraception three times irritated me. I thought she was plain stupid, selfish and dishonest with her husband in a way which is, in my book, as bad as cheating on him. I didn’t want to be in her head any more. I know it’s judgemental but I couldn’t help it. I realise I abandoned a book before because I couldn’t stand the main character. It was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and the poor Toru Okada has things in common with Leah. Thirty, married, childless, bored and spineless. That’s for Leah.

And then there’s Michel. Who’s French, has an accent and makes grammar mistakes familiar to a French speaker. (Of course, your skin is white, it’s different, it’s more easy, you’ve had opportunities I didn’t have.). I have troubles with a Michel who’s 35. You see, in France – and I double-checked on the INSEE web site – a Michel is born before 1960. Think of actors, writers and singers like Michel Piccoli, Michel Blanc, Michel Houllebecq, Michel Butor, Michel Berger, Michel Jonasz. Smith’s Michel is thirty-five and I couldn’t picture that, no matter how hard I tried. He’s of Algerian and Guadeloupian origin, OK but still. It’s odd. I asked around, for my generation, Michel is an avuncular name. Maybe Michel is named after Houellebecq and Montaigne. Who knows? For the same reasons, I also had trouble imagining a thirty-ish Jean-Paul in Jennifer Government by Max Barry. Please Anglophone writers, pay attention to the names of your French characters, as some names are like time stamps.

Imagine this. I’m reading, I find Leah annoying and I couldn’t picture a Michel without a pot belly and wrinkles. Hmm. When I thought about watching TV instead of picking NW, I knew it was time to let it go and start another book. My loss, I know.

Anyway, for readers who’d want to know more, here are serious reviews about NW:

Alan’s excellent review at Words of Mercury

David’s at Follow the Thread

Guy’s at His Futile Preoccupations

Lisa’s at ANZ Lit Lovers

Naomi’s at The writes of women

  1. September 12, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    How low in the ranking can a name be to be acceptable in fiction? Top 25? Or can an author go as low as 50?

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    • September 13, 2013 at 12:02 am

      Ha ha. You know what I mean. Don’t you have that in America? Names that are attached to a period?

      Here, Jean-Paul, Michel, Gérard, Bernard, Gilbert, Jean-Michel, Jean-Jacques, Monique, Chantal, …are baby-boomers.

      David, Stéphane, Fabrice, Caroline, Laurence, Fabien, Stéphanie, Virginie, Véronique…are born in the late 1960s and in the 1970s.

      Lilou, Hugo, Clément, Jules, Rose, Ryan, Chloé…are born in the 21st century

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  2. September 13, 2013 at 12:15 am

    Yeah, but I don’t scold authors for using an uncommon name.

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    • September 13, 2013 at 6:59 am

      I don’t scold them. They research the oddest things so why not that?

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  3. September 13, 2013 at 1:17 am

    I just read a story with a heroine called Doris. I don’t know why but, even though I know it was written in the 1900s, it still sounds unlikely and offputting. – On the other hand, I’d think it difficult for someone of one culture to understand enough about another culture to appreciate those kinds of things. To a English-speaking person, Michel has the more obvious problem of sounding like a girl’s name.

    I’ve actually been looking forward to NW for a while. I can’t think of a book that I feel will fit the remit of my Contemporary Literature Survey better.

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    • September 13, 2013 at 7:03 am

      It’s difficult to know without knowing the culture, yes. You can always pick the name of an actor in the right age. Take Sandrine Kimberlain: lots of Sandrines are around her age.
      I think NW is an excellent book which unfortunately didn’t work for me. I wish you a good time reading it.

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  4. September 13, 2013 at 4:01 am

    At least she didn’t name him Kevin.

    (Note: that is a double joke, since it includes an obscure reference to Zadie Smith’s first novel).

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    • September 13, 2013 at 6:58 am

      Kevin would have been good for a younger character. Lots of Kevins now in France. 🙂

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      • September 17, 2013 at 2:50 pm

        The oddity with that is that if she had named a younger character Kevin, French readers would have been fine but British readers would have found it ludicrously unlikely not knowing that it’s actually a real thing.

        Reality, sometimes it just isn’t convincingly realistic.

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        • September 17, 2013 at 10:50 pm

          I know, a British reader would have found it weird to have a French character named Kevin. (Didn’t you enquire about names in Olmi’ s book?)

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  5. September 13, 2013 at 10:05 am

    I have not read her. I started White Teeth and didn’t get into it.
    Leah doesn’t sound like a role model but I suppose if one partner wants children and the other one doesn’t you will have a problem with contraception, especially if you don’t want to take the pill.
    A doctor at a hosptal once told me that they have tons of women from other countries (notably Turkey) undergoing regular abortions because the husbands don’t accept contraception, and an abortion is cheaper than the pill.
    In a way your description makes me think that her characters are too simplistic for her style. Could that be?

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    • September 13, 2013 at 12:57 pm

      From what I’ve read, I don’t think the characters are simplistic. It didn’t work for me but I’m the problem, not the book.
      I’d like to try another one by her.
      Her style is “exigeant” (I don’t know the English equivalent) but it sounds right, not fake. It’s innovative. The characters are complex and reflect part of our society, I suppose.
      I’m a bit frustrated that I couldn’t finish it. I still don’t have any rational explanation for that.

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  6. leroyhunter
    September 13, 2013 at 11:12 am

    Like Tom, I’m a bit bemused by the name thing. But you have your reader’s lense, and through that Michel doesn’t work, it threw you out of the book, and that’s Zadie’s bad luck I guess.

    Leah *is* annoying, but she (and Michel) seem very credible as characters. You didn’t get so far, but I wonder how you would have found Natalie/Keisha. She’s a piece of work, is Natalie.

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    • September 13, 2013 at 1:02 pm

      I know, it’s totally silly, this name thing. Well not everything is rational.

      From what I’ve read in other reviews, Natalie is a complex character.
      Interesting by the way that Tom chides me about my reaction to a name when in the same book one of the characters changed her name because if it was too blue collar for her new life after she climbed the social ladder. (if I understood the reviews properly)
      Names do convey images, the writer herself acknowledges it.

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  7. September 13, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    I didn’t think you’d like this one. I enjoyed it although I didn’t find it the easiest book to read and the author was hard on her readers at times. Am I reading your comments correctly that Michel seemed unauthentic to you?

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    • September 14, 2013 at 10:20 am

      I had a hard time picturing him because when I hear Michel I see a older man. That’s my problem and it has nothing to do with the quality of the writer’s characters.

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      • September 14, 2013 at 7:05 pm

        Yes, but as Leroy says it’s the sort of thing that can ‘throw’ you out of a novel.

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  8. September 14, 2013 at 9:43 am

    Interesting review, Emma. Sorry to know that you didn’t like the book as much as you had hoped to and couldn’t finish it. I found your thoughts (and others’ comments) on names quite interesting. I didn’t know that in French you could map a name to a decade. That is really interesting! I also didn’t know that Michel is a name which belongs to the pre-1960 era. I also found obooki’s comment on Michel sounding like a girl’s name quite interesting. I actually find the French system of having a masculine-feminine pair for most names (Michel-Michelle, Daniel-Danielle, François-Françoise) quite beautiful and elegant.

    Sorry to know that you didn’t like one of the characters and so couldn’t continue reading the book. I rarely do that for books, but I can understand what you must have felt about Leah, because sometimes I do that with TV series – if I can’t like any of the main characters, I stop watching the series.

    I got this book when it came out last year, but have still not got around to reading it. I read Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’ years back and liked it very much and so wanted to try this. But when I browsed the book, I was puzzled, because it looked like Zadie Smith was trying to play with the form and experiment. I have no problems when an author tries experimenting, but there are some natural experimenters (like Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, James Joyce, Nicole Brossard) and then there are others who after they have started to teach creative writing at university, suddenly trying to experiment in their new book. I don’t know why writers-turned-creative writing teachers see the need for experimenting when they had not been doing it in the first place. But that is my own biased opinion, of course. I hope to get over my bias one day and read ‘NW’. Till then it will sit on my unread pile of books. Hope you enjoy your next book more.

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    • September 14, 2013 at 9:44 am

      Forgot to mention one more thing. Love the title of your post – ‘Zadie in Metroland’. Makes me think of ‘Zazie in the Metro’ 🙂

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      • September 14, 2013 at 10:25 am

        Thanks for noticing, that was the point!
        After I went for this title I read an interview of Zadie Smith by John Self about this book and she mentions Queneau as an inspiration.

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    • September 14, 2013 at 10:42 am

      There’s a sort of fashion in names so many children get a fashionable name and that how I had two Fabrice Muller in my class one year. (same first name and last name!)
      In the end, you can connect a name with a span of time.
      We have a lot of names which have a masculine and feminine form. Sometimes it sounds alike, like my full name Emmanuelle. People expect a man or address me as a man in emails for example. You get used to it.

      This was my first Zadie Smith, I didn’t know what to expect. I agree with you about experimental writing. Some writers are more natural than others.

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    • September 14, 2013 at 10:38 pm

      Something else, Vishy.
      Marquette Duras managed to write experimental books (“modernist” fiction, I still have trouble understanding the concept) and “classic” ones. Although I prefer her more classic narratives, she’s good at both.
      For the reader who doesn’t know it, it can be surprising to pick L’amour after L’amant and find out it’s a very different kind of literature.

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  9. September 14, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    It’s fun to look up popular names from eras, for writing stories it’s really helpful and kind of fun to look up your own year and see how unoriginal the names seem compared to today. I admit that Michel didn’t work for me and as a character he was kind of foggy and in the background, but that was also because Leah was a very self-centred character.

    I persevered with NW and though it’s not a favourite, I enjoyed it for reawakening images of a neighbourhood I used to live in and know intimately. Zadie Smith plays with structure and form in this novel and as a result risked losing many readers before the more balanced character of Felix arrived on the scene, where the narrative form changes, just like his more chilled out personality. Leah is scattered and in her chapters the prose reflected that.

    A passionate review, even if you didn’t get to finish. Bravo!

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    • September 14, 2013 at 5:49 pm

      So some English names also have a date stamp? Can you give examples?

      I’ve never read her before. I see that her other books aren’t that experimental. Perhaps I’ll try again later.

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      • September 14, 2013 at 10:37 pm

        According to the dept of social security in the US, the 5 most popular names in the 1960’s for girls were: Lisa, Mary, Susan, Karen and Kimberly and for boys: Michael, David, John, James, Robert.

        In the UK in 1964 the most popular girls names were:Susan, Julie, Karen, Jacqueline, Deborah, Tracey and boys: David, Paul, Andrew, Mark, John, Michael

        Pretty similar in the US and UK.

        Today in the UK (well a source from 2010) says it’s Olivia, Ruby, Emily, Grace, Lily for girls and Jack, Harry, Alfie, Thomas, Oliver although I think George is about to make a comeback. 🙂

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        • September 16, 2013 at 9:42 pm

          Thanks. You had to look that up so I guess it’s not as obvious as in France. Ask anyone how old is a Gérard, they’ll tell you over 60 and they will most probably right.

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          • September 16, 2013 at 9:54 pm

            I love knowing that about French names, I’m completely ignorant of which eras they belong to 🙂 what about all the hyphened prenoms, is that from an era or what? It doesn’t seem to happen with anglo names only surnames.

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            • September 16, 2013 at 9:56 pm

              Hyphened names? Like Jean-Pierre?

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              • September 17, 2013 at 7:54 am

                Yes

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              • September 17, 2013 at 8:03 am

                Babyboomers: Jean-Pierre, Jean-Jacques, Jean-Michel, Jean-Marie, Jean-Paul, Marie-José, Marie-Jeanne

                1970s-1980s: Jean-Baptiste, Jean-Philippe, Anne-Sophie, And snobbish names like Pierre-Olivier, Anne-Charlotte, Charles-Henri

                21st century: not fashionable at all. Parents go for short names.

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              • September 17, 2013 at 8:21 am

                That’s true there are no hyphenated named children in my 10 & 11 year-old childrens classes, kids all born this century.

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              • September 17, 2013 at 11:07 pm

                Told you so!

                Until 1993 when the law was changed, only names listed on calendars and common foreign names were allowed. So ok to be named Christophe or Mohammed but not invented names. (Jokes say that in the former colonies some children were named Fetnat, because it was the abridged version of Fête Nationale, written on calendars for the 14th of July. 🙂 )

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  10. September 14, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    Based upon your description it sounds as if Leah was supposed to be unlikeable in many ways. Of course depending upon how she was described I can see how a character like this can get terribly annoying.

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    • September 14, 2013 at 10:15 pm

      I don’t know why I reacted so strongly. I’ll write soon about Hangover Square by P. Hamilton and Netta is a despicable character but I still found the book amazing.

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  11. September 17, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    A shame you couldn’t finish it. Still, one of the reader’s inalienable rights is the right to not finish a book.

    The abortion thing makes Leah sound like she’s not in control of her own life and is incredibly selfish and short-sighted. I suspect it’s meant to make her sound that way. The name thing is interesting though. A bit like if a character were named Ernest or Gladys. it would just sound jarringly wrong.

    I may well still read this one. I suspect my connection to London would breathe life into it for me and from what you say she gets that impressionist side of things right. I read the John Self interview this morning funnily enough, and she talks there about the falsity of how much fiction describes our experience of the modern world and I strongly sympathise with that.

    Netta is a marvellous creation. If he’s not already encountered her I hope your review serves to introduce Guy to her. He’d love her.

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    • September 17, 2013 at 11:00 pm

      I think you’d like it and appreciate it even more as a Londoner. You’d pick a lot more details than me. Other bloggers mention the language and how it sounds like people in this area.

      You’re right about Leah, I don’t know if she improves in the next chapters.

      The name thing is one of those inexplicable things that happen with books. Sometimes the chemistry isn’t there.

      PS: According to his Goodreads rating, Guy has already read and loved Hangover Square.

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  12. September 20, 2013 at 12:35 am

    The names! In the US, there are certainly names that go in and out of fashion, like Shirley, which was a man’s name until Shirley Temple became famous. But they’re usually more attached to ethnicity or region: there are typical Southern names, Jewish names, black names, etc. Here are some lists of white and black names, for example: http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=2470131&page=1

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    • September 20, 2013 at 9:10 pm

      Here you have special names in Britanny, like Yann or Gaëlle or Nolwen.
      I don’t think you can have statistics about the “whitest” or “blackest” names since it’s forbidden to keep someone’s colour of skin in a database.

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  13. September 20, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    Well, this particular database was based on California birth certificate records from 1961 onwards, which do keep race, age, and other factors. Researchers were particularly interested in whether names affect potential employers’ response to job applications.

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    • September 20, 2013 at 10:11 pm

      Researchers in France regret that they don’t have that kind of information. Nothing is recorded regarding race or religion.

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  14. Catherine
    June 18, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    Ah Ben tu vois j’avais pas fait Le rapport avec ce titre puisque j’ai vu Le titre sur amazon “ceux du nord ouest” pour la traduction francaise. Pourquoi Le titre change on en sait rien. Bref comme tu Le sais je n’ai pas accroché non plus et je n’y ai meme pas vu ce que tu y a vu a propos du style, ni Le dynamisme rien en gros je n’ai pas du tout aimé. Et en y pensant c’est vrai que les Michel, c’est une autre époque! Et vraiment je n’aurais pas du perséverer! Tu l’as lu en anglais?

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    • June 18, 2014 at 11:17 pm

      Je l’ai en anglais. Je suppose que la traduction du titre est assez littérale, finalement, bien que franchement obscure pour un Français. C’est comme si un livre français s’appelait 17ème arrondissement en anglais.
      Je trouve qu’elle a du talent mais les personnages ne m’ont pas paru très plausibles.

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  1. January 30, 2014 at 12:48 am

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