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Structured How?

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Ellen Cohn

Play In The City


Structured How?


     Zadie Smith, throughout her novel NW, frequently changes her style of writing depending on whose perspective and voice she is speaking through. This is seen many times throughout the book, and is also mentioned by her in an interview with Cressida Leyshon, a writer for The New Yorker. Smith, while writing the novel NW, set up a rule for herself, which she claims structured her writing differently in the various sections. In the interview with Leyshon, she responded to a question about structure by saying that she looked at “how we experience time,” and how it differs depending on whose perspective we look through (Leyshon 1). Smith mentioned Natalie’s chapters, and how they are structured more chronologically because, in Natalie’s mind, “life is a progression toward some ultimate goal…‘success’” (Leyshon 1). The chapters about Natalie seemed to move more linearly, as we followed her to her successful life, and then back through her fall into her old “Keisha” identity. However, did Smith stick with this rule throughout the entire novel?

     Throughout the novel, the phrase “I am the sole author” is repeated. This phrase is first introduced in the opening paragraph, as Leah writes it on the back of a magazine after hearing it on the radio. Later, however, the phrase is repeated throughout Natalie’s chapters, showing some sort of other conscious tying the characters together. How did this consciousness travel from Leah writing it on the magazine, to Natalie? This traveling train of thought shows that, although Smith made the deliberate effort to differentiate the various sections, there are still connections tying them together, namely the authorial hand which frequently interrupts the flow of the story.

     This interruption could be for many reasons. One idea is that this helps with the randomness of the story. The events that occur throughout the book are pretty random; Felix’s death was not inevitable, and the same is true of Oliver’s death, Leah’s existential crisis, and Natalie’s fall into her old lifestyle. All of these events are pretty random, and are also randomly told; mostly in the fragmented style that Zadie Smith has developed throughout her career. Overall, Smith’s style throughout writing this book is pretty random. I think that her use of an authorial and omnipotent conscience tying the different sections together helped her both remain random, but also keep the story grounded, with certain symbols that she could repeat and come back to.

     During Zadie Smith’s talk at Bryn Mawr, a student asked her about the line “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me” (Smith 3). She asked where Smith found the line, and the answer was that she really did hear it on the radio (just as Leah did in the book). This is another puzzle piece showing that Smith involved her own voice in the writing of this novel.

     Does this use of uniting authorial input break the rule that she made for herself? In providing the reader with these things, these symbols, to hold onto, does Smith lose the game she’s created of writing through the character’s voice?

     Smith originally said that, by using the varied writing structures, she played to particular character’s voices and perspectives. However, by including her own voice with this third-person hand in the storytelling, Smith broke the walls between the characters. In my opinion, Smith lost the game.

     As opposed to speaking through the characters’ voices and perspectives, as she claims to have done, Zadie Smith incorporates her own voice and experiences into her story. Whilst sometimes she did win her game, obeying the rule of looking through the character’s perspective, throughout the majority of the novel, she spoke through her own voice and experiences, thus disobeying the rules she created.


Works Cited:

Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.

Leyshon, Cressida. "This Week in Fiction: Zadie Smith." The New Yorker. N.p., 23 July 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2013. <>.