Combining Forms

Recently, I have been hooked by the writings of Zadie Smith. While I would recommend any of her books, I especially would push for the reading of her 2012 novel NW. What captivated me, unlike any of the other books I have read in the past year, is the variety of form throughout the book. With each change in perspective comes a different form –one is written in typical prose chapter, one in short episodes, one a little more abstract than modern readers are accustomed to. The reason I am bringing this up on a poetry blog is because of one chapter which is initiated with a poem. But it is not an epithet. It is the essence of Smith’s creativity in this novel.

Apple tree, apple tree.
Thing that has apples on it. Apple blossom.
So symbolic.                                            Network of branches, roots. Tunneling under.
The fuller, the more fruitful.
The more the worms. The more the rats.
Apple tree, apple tree. Apple. Tree.                       Which way is forward? Tick, tock.
Three flats. One apple tree. Freehold, leasehold. Heavy with seed.
In the tree-top. When the bough breaks, the baby will
Dead man’s ashes. Round the roots, in the roots?
Hundred-year-old apple tree.
Sitting on your laurens. Under an apple                                     tree. Have a little boy?
New branches. New blossom.                                                          New apples. Same tree?
Born and bred. Same streets.
Same girl? Next step.
Trunk, bark.
Alice, dreaming.
Eve, eating.
Under which nice girls make mistakes.

(This should be in the shape of an apple tree, but editing is not allowing me to do so.)

Finding this in a novel is something I never imagined upon beginning the journey of a character’s story. What’s amazing is that it works. It doesn’t feel out of place. In fact, the entire novel is this bold, just in different manifestations. It sets a new bar that I, as a poet, strive to reach. Now, instead of writing fiction with eyes toward Tolstoy and Hardy, I have found a contemporary doing something exciting and technically innovative. I am intrigued by the incorporation of various forms within a novel; it appeals to multiple senses. It makes the reader work, but also is something universally understandable.

If anyone has recommendations for novels and writers that take advantage of variety like this, please share them in a comment!

One Reply to “Combining Forms”

  1. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad has some great variety!
    And Alessandro Baricco’s Ocean Sea, translated from the Italian, has a lot of formal play, including prose chapters written with / line break markers as / if they should be lineated…

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