By Eric L.
I recall the first time I read something in the New Yorker by Zadie Smith nearly a decade ago. It was a nonfiction story about Joni Mitchell entitled “Some Notes on Attunement: A Voyage Around Joni Mitchell.” It was a nonfiction personal reflection about how she, a woman of color, had no interest in the music of a white folk singer, who on the surface would have nothing at all in common with her despite her friends’ incredulous responses concerning her cluelessness.
Smith describes how she realized her youthful stubbornness and closed-minded self as the culprit. The essay was about her own change and growth and the change of Joni Mitchell as an artist (she is pretty great by the way). Probably much like all people that love books, artists, writers, and the like, I felt a connection to Zadie Smith. I liked her style, her attitude, and her contemplative nature. And I can certainly relate to the glib rejection of things I didn’t think were for me. I subsequently realized we’re the same age, although other than that, we are very different on the surface I may not have guessed her writing was the sort of thing I’d love, but I do.
At any rate, her new essay collection, Intimations, is a book of very short essays written just prior to and during the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. The essays include the commonplace and ordinary events of everyday life, set into a broader, more abstract context. Obviously, I have a bias in this matter, but her essays and style are perfect for this moment. Smith’s ability to relate everyday individual experiences into a much more abstract concept is nonpareil. I found the essays particularly poignant now that I miss, and have ample time to ruminate about, the quotidian things of my pre-socially distant life.
There is an essay about our desire, or our need, to fill up time with things to do. One entitled “Suffering Like Mel Gibson,” (I’m a sucker for a strange title) that is hardly at all about the actor. Instead, it’s a piece about suffering and privilege, and how we ought to consider these separately, and not discount the feelings of others. Smith even describes the moment when she recognized her own class privilege. She has a series of very short character sketches about the people in her neighborhood and their respective reactions to the looming pandemic in America. “Peonies” is a very entertaining piece about flowers, control, aging, being a woman, and the coronavirus. The penultimate essay, “Postscript: Contempt as a Virus,” is arguably the best: it begins with a description of the global pandemic, her experience in England (where she has gone after leaving New York), and “herd immunity,” then gets into the murder of George Floyd and racism as a virus we all spread and suffer. It’s a masterfully done and moving piece. All the essays are excellent, but this one alone is worth picking up the book.
Since that first essay, I’ve read almost all of her essays. However, I must admit that I liked, but did not love, her most famous fictional work, White Teeth. No matter; for me, she excels in the essay genre. I’d highly recommend Grand Union and Feel Free (which includes a great story about a library), as well.
Smith’s ability to display so much humility and not only admit, but describe in detail, her foibles and ignorance is something I really respect. Perhaps this is the very opposite of the cultural atmosphere in the United States.
Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.