“Inferno is, of course, ‘a poet’s novel’ and so it hit me at the perfect half way point; Eileen is the poet, Eileen is the narrator, and the book is about her and New York City and poetry and sex and love. I felt all shook up by the messy intractable beauty of some of the lines, but even more so by the willfulness of this narrator, this character, this poet writing herself into being.”
I accepted that here was another thing I knew nothing about, and that though I might like a good poem or pop song every now and then, I’ll always be on the anxious, vigilant look out for characters and narratives — in essence, I will always want something to interpret. I want to know what it’s all about.
#LitBeat: Zadie Smith’s Sentences
It was Tuesday night and the room was packed. Because I was alone I sat in the front row. The crowd seemed young enough that the handful of gray haired heads stood out. Based solely on preshow eavesdropping, it seemed like easily half the people in the crowd were college kids or recent grads. The room, so close to the water, smelled like light beer and someone was definitely eating a burrito. But I didn’t mind at all because I was there, at my city’s Harbourfront, to see Zadie Smith.
The event was hosted by local books columnist Becky Toyne, and was actually a live recording of a future show for Elenaor Wachtel’s popular CBC radio program Writers and Company—it’s been on the air for 20 years!, which leant the whole conversation a strange distance. Wachtel would, occasionally, interject what had seemed like a natural progression of questions and answers with “I’m Elenaor Wachtel, here with author Zadie Smith,” or after Smith read from her new book, Wachtel would jump on her mic to add: “Zadie Smith reading from her latest novel, NW.” It was weird. But then again, the first page of NW describes a line, snatched from the ether of the radio waves, so perhaps it was the best way for us in the crowd to get even closer, somehow, to the text.
Which is, ultimately, what it’s about. Smith was very charming and funny, and her attitude on stage was generous and inclusive; she kept mentioning commonalities with other people in the room, be they black parents, or other writers. It’s been over a decade since White Teeth, and Smith seems to have grown more comfortable with her success with each book since. While her early public appearances seemed to have a nervous, shell shocked hostility to them, the only trace of this discomfort on Tuesday came at the very beginning, when she crossed the stage with her head down and her hand up, a waive that doubled as a shield. Despite 12 years of living in the semi-public eye, there remains the sense that perhaps she still kind of wants us to look past her to the work itself.
When asked about the specific use of different writing styles in each section of NW, Smith’s face took on the glow of serious delight. “I decided I really wanted to write a book in fragments one way or another,” she said, “I wanted to make the reader feel different things.” Smith shared a quote from David Foster Wallace, saying that she too wanted to do something to, in his words, “break the rhythm that excludes thinking.” Near the end of the show, Smith simultaneously cracked up and charmed her audience by describing the surprising power that the humble sentence still has over us. Gently mocking her critics, some of whom seemed to take particular interest in her decision to leave dialog untagged by quotation marks, she raised her hands in mock outrage. But no one could doubt her when she said that these sort of stakes made the form an exciting one for her to keep working in. “To me,” she said, “the story is always language.”
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This episode of Writers and Company will be available for streaming shortly after it airs on October 4th, 2012. See also: The Millions review of NW.
SH: Because I know I did love The Hills, like that was just — my mind blew open when I saw that for the first time. It just seemed so beautiful to me, actually.
EMK: Oh, it was a beautiful show. It was so beautiful.
SH: Yeah, especially the first season. I was just so confused. What is going on? Are these people real? Are they not? Who are they?