I read Zadie Smith’s “NW” immediately after finishing Jonas Jonasson’s “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared.” The juxtaposition taught me something about my reading proclivities: I prefer books and authors that make me work.
Zadie Smith made me work. It was sometimes difficult to sort out the connection amongst the constellation of characters in “NW.” Standard formatting devices such as quotation marks around speech were often eschewed blurring the line between what was spoken out loud and what was internal monologue. The four parts of the novel were each structured differently: the first, “visitation,” had a typical format of numbered chapters; the second, “guest,” used borough designations to set off the chapters; the third and longest part, “host,” numbered not the chapters but each individual paragraph; and finally the fourth, reprised the title “visitation” and was essentially one relatively short chapter. But more challenging than these structural variations were the difficulties that I experienced in following the characters’ evolutions with the at-times convoluted plot. I had to be constantly attentive. I needed to reread sections or flip back to previous chapters. I did a great deal of highlighting of passages that I thought would help me follow the storyline.
And, bottom line, I was totally engaged. “NW” was not a fun, easy read. It was, by contrast, difficult. And I loved it. Like a great workout at the gym, Zadie Smith had the adrenalin pumping through my brain. And that left me satisfied in the same way that a rush of endorphins does.
As for “The 100-Year-Old Man…,” it’s probably sacrilege to say that I was bored. I know that the book has been immensely popular, as are others by Jonasson. And, truth be told, I wasn’t exactly bored. It was a fun story told by Jonasson with such an entertaining narrative style that the book carried me along effortlessly. Which is not to say that Jonasson’s writing is effortless. As a struggling fiction writer myself, I know how hard it is to write a text that has the fluidity of Jonasson’s work. But as for visceral satisfaction? For me, “The 100-Year-Old Man…” doesn’t come close to “NW.”