Given the plots of her novels and the range of her essays, what is it about Zadie Smith, of all the noughties whiz-kid writers, that makes her readers feel as if they know her personally?
She’s not particularly confessional; if anything, she’s particularly not. In this second book of nonfiction, Feel Free, and the first one, Changing My Mind (2009), she uses her experiences a bit like echolocation, in so far as it helps her illuminate a piece (or two) of culture.
But her responses to ideas, news and books are always so dependent on positionality – the position of the author, what’s caused her to take that position, what keeps that position stable, and how the position affects her judgements. She manages to be personal without being autobiographical, or rather – because some of the writing builds on stories from her life – she shows us that the life of thought is inseparable from the work of life. Her experiences of culture are contingent and provisional. Where she is informs her response to a given topic, as does her gender, race, class, nationality, marital status, and she neither hides their influences nor pretends they influence her response unduly.
Smith writes in sentences that sit easily with the reader, building a relationship as if through measured speech. It’s also like a particularly ingenious Wikipedia binge, resting less on what we learn about Joni Mitchell or Hanif Kureishi than in the inspired readings she makes of them, always brainy and reasonable, perhaps E. B. White-ish.
The results can be delicious. Many of the essays here are bona-fide internet hits, especially the ones written for The New York Review of Books, such as the good one about Facebook that spawned other good ones about Facebook, and the one about the Corona billboard that says “Find your beach”, and is really about artists being priced out of Manhattan. People will be reading these for years.
So much of it is character. These essays were first published in the Obama years, so the edge of darkness that gives a bite to most of them can’t wholly be due to the darker times they’ve been republished in – although the few that were written in the brief months between the Brexit vote and the ascent of Donald Trump are charged and fraught, even as the tone stays level. They’re sequenced early in the book and colour what comes after, even when those pieces are about websites and billboards.
When Smith writes in a diary-essay shortly after Brexit that “fences are being raised everywhere in London”, there are echoes of Sir Edward Grey circa World War I – “the lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”. It doesn’t feel dramatic; it feels serious.
Because Feel Free can be read as an encounter with character, it can also be read as an essay collection about a person growing up, if not yet growing old (despite some comments to the contrary – Smith was born in 1975). “The art of midlife is surely always cloudier than the art of youth, as life itself gets cloudier,” she writes. “But it would be disingenuous to pretend it is only that. I am a citizen as well as an individual soul and one of the things citizenship teaches us, over the long stretch, is that there is no perfectibility in human affairs.”
What makes these sections feel dark, rather than shocked and angry, is the acknowledgement that left and right are all in the same soup: “Having one’s own history so suddenly and abruptly made unreal is an experience of a whole generation of British people, who must now wander around like so many ancient mariners boring foreigners about how they went to university for free and could once find a National Health dentist on their high street.” This, in a piece about libraries.
Although Smith is from London, has lived in Rome and teaches at NYU, her concerns feel scholarly and internationalist without feeling unfixed from the places she writes in. Library enthusiasts and Brexit voters may not all live with the same issues, but they share relationships to nationhood, time, the past.
Not all the essays are as grave as this, but they are the ones that lend structure and support to the book, and are likely the ones that will strike readers, along with a range of thorough, considered essays about black art and artists. There’s one on Jordan Peele from back when he was half of a really good sketch comedy team, and another about Peele after his film Get Out set the agenda for popular engagement with race in 2017. There’s a story about accidentally burning down a building in Italy that is actually a sweet essay about Smith’s marriage. There’s a collection of new books columns she wrote for Harper’s Magazine, a job she had for six months just after having a kid.
And oh, all the others – about the film The Clock by Christian Marclay, about public gardens, about her dad, about Crash by J. G. Ballard, one explicitly about joy, and the others all about joy along with that dark troubled quality, which may be the natural effect of perspective and time.
It’s a bit of a grab bag, and some of it can be skipped. But the approach means a big book such as this, nearly 500 pages and covering nearly 10 years, at least matches the idea of herself that Smith builds up for the reader: she’s an omnivorous character who’s interested in everything, and the state of being interested has an ethical dimension.
A principle that underpins many of the essays is that who we are is informed by what we watch and read and think, as well as what we stumble upon, and what people show us, and what books happen to come across the Harper’s desk that month. In this way, in these essays, the critical really is personal: the least likely material becomes vital statistics. CR
Hamish Hamilton, 480pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 10, 2018 as "Zadie Smith, Feel Free". Subscribe here.