I'm two thirds of the way through Zadie Smith's NW, and it's a long time since i enjoyed a book so much. Now, I enjoy books all the time, usually about one a week, but this one struck me as different: I am enjoying every word of it, I am enjoying being in the middle of it. This is unusual with books - not only do stories emerge from their pages, firming up and briefly catching you unawares until the final denouement, but they are also our most tangible story artefacts (assuming you are reading a paper version, of course). Between my hands is the beginning, the middle and the end - I can easily navigate myself back and forth while I read, looking for how much longer there is to go, quickly calculating how many hours of reading it might take to get there, even guessing where the story may lead based on the number of diminishing pages. There's a similarity with certain TV formats; think, for instance, how many times you've said, or words to this effect, "he can't be the killer, there's still 20 minutes left".
I haven't watched any of Breaking Bad yet, but I was struck not only by the frenzy surrounding the final episode, but the desire to get to the end, catch up, not have it spoilt, or the barely disguised glee of the "binge watch".
The joy of Zadie's writing is that it is itself so pleasurable to read. As a reader, she reminds me to work in the here and now, to take pleasure in the small things in life, the little similarities, its accurate reflection in words. Her great strength as a writer is her ability to show the larger significance in tiny events. She has an incredible eye for the habits of speech and behaviour in everyday exchanges, but in my limited experience that is not enough; there are many writers out there who are careful observers, but she has the confidence (brio?) to leave it at that, to let it do the talking and tell you what you need to know not only about the character's thoughts, but their actions as well.
For instance, this short burst as Natalie Blake enters a stranger's bathroom:
The toilet seat was see-through plexi with a goldfish print. The water out of the tap was brown. Head & Shoulders. Radox. Both empty.
- p.286 of the Penguin 2013 edition
Lots has been written about the third part of Smith's fourth novel. Told in short, numbered scenes, it has a fragmentary feel (Smith has said that it was in part a result of her becoming a mother during the time she was writing it, and her subsequent inability to focus for great lengths of time), but still a story unfolds.
I was reminded of a play, not a big budget West End one but one of those small two-man ones you see in dusty windowless reclaimed industrial units round the back of railway lines that serve bottled beers and vinegary red wine at the interval. Each scene was lit, proceeded, and faded until the next one.
It reminded me that there's more to stories in a novel (and arguably what's emerging in other long form formats, like the TV drama series) - they are big and baggy, incorporating more than one line of thought, sometimes thousands without even the use of something as simple as quotation marks.
The best ones make you forget where you are, your thumb losing its place among the pages. You enjoy themselves along the way, finding the author's significances, and some of your own too. It's not just a race to the end.