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The Thou of Zadie Smith

In Feel Free, a new collection of nonfiction, the author gets paradoxical—maybe infinitely so

In college, while taking a class on Virginia Woolf, I began to have fantasies about something I call the Infinite Essay. It started with Montaigne, who has a line in “An Observation Concerning Cicero” that goes, “And how many stories have I scattered up and down in this Book, that I only touch upon, which, should any one more curiously search into, they would find Matter enough to produce infinite Essays.” Montaigne is gesturing toward what I envision with the Infinite Essay—he’s even naming it—but it’s not quite there, because as the title suggests the Infinite Essay would not be an infinite series of discrete essays but just one piece of writing, continuing forever. The purpose of the Infinite Essay is that it would unite all things in the known universe—person, place, animal, idea, work of art, historical event, funny anecdote, pastry, etc.—and as a result become a written portrait of existence in its true form, a snagged and twisted mesh of connections, intersections, overlaps, and collisions. It would have to go on in perpetuity because new things are constantly being added without the old things ever going away, whether we’re talking in memory or historical record or physical matter.

I know what you’re thinking: Knausgaard is already doing this. No. Knausgaard is too weird to write the Infinite Essay—he may be writing an infinite essay, and his current project, about the seasons, approaches the idea of infinite essays, but it seems there are things about the world that he just does not get, or gets radically differently from most of us, and while that’s one of the reasons everyone loves him it disqualifies him from taking on this horrible idea I came up with when I was twenty-one years old and helplessly emotional. No, no. If I were going to assign the Infinite Essay to any living writer it would be to Zadie Smith, whose work, as it accumulates, is beginning to feel more and more like one long piece of writing that demonstrates how everything in the world is connected to everything else.

That’s not to say Smith has a particularly wide range of subject matter; she mostly writes about various genres of art and artists, a couple of major metropolises, and feelings, with race, gender, and class woven in. But what concerns her are the connective threads among these that might link up with the rest of human experience. A more succinct way of putting this might be to say she writes about life, but the preoccupation is so manifest in her new essay collection, Feel Free, which recalls its own ideas so frequently it aroused in me the same stupid overwhelming comprehensiveness I felt when Virginia Woolf opened my eyes to it all, that it becomes a kind of argument, sometimes a desperate one.

A student of Woolf’s writing, Smith has had this connection fixation (albeit in a form she’d call less “evolved”) since she was at least around that age, which is when she wrote her first novel, White Teeth. After a working- and lower-middle-class childhood that was “not perfect but . . . filled with possibility,” Smith sold the book at auction before she’d finished it, during her last year as a scholarship student at Cambridge; since then, she’s been Zadie Smith, possibility realized, though not without a lot of the existential fretting that has become characteristic of her work post-bursting-onto-scene. The angst began with the critic James Wood’s genre-defining piece against “hysterical realism,” in which he lambasted, at what must have been for the then-twenty-four-year-old Smith devastating length, what he called the “centripetal” quality of the debut, in which “the different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves. Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels. (There is something essentially paranoid about the belief that everything is connected to everything else.)” The problem, Wood wrote in the year 2000, was that among these many superficially connected human characters there was a total lack of any human depth, or feeling. Eighteen years later, we live in a dramatically more paranoid time, in which the superficial connectedness of it all is literal and terrifying and easily illuminated with a few swipes of the iPhone; as Smith notes in her foreword to Feel Free, having “so many feels” has become an Internet cliché.

Smith puts herself in the shoes of both her white father and black mother, her children, her hypothetical granddaughter, her dog, Justin Bieber, and Brexit voters.

For her part, Smith has taken what’s helpful from Wood’s charges—that she needed to be more “human,” less reliant on “instructive” and “incredible” coincidence—and forfeited the rest, including his cynical idea that “real humans disaggregate more often than they congregate.” It’s not that he’s wrong, but on the spiritual level most novelists rely on the assumption that we could all understand each other if we really tried. If before it was her active, purposeful young imagination, today Smith’s great skill is her ability to, as she writes in Feel Free, “project” herself into any number of scenarios and mindsets. The funniest example of this in the collection comes when she asks the reader to “Imagine being a corpse,” but she also puts herself in the shoes of both her white father and black mother, her children, her hypothetical granddaughter, her dog, Justin Bieber, all the people she profiles and writes criticism about, and Brexit voters. In the process, Smith inevitably envisions a unity that acknowledges our similarities as people rather than our differences as demographics.

It’s usually less cheesy and more armchair-philosophical (in a good way) than I’m making it sound, though the first of several paradoxes about Smith’s work is that this skill, a nuanced understanding of the plural, is what makes her a singular writer; surprisingly few writers possess it. And so, lately especially, she can get defensive about it, thereby rendering it less effective. It’s on this note that Feel Free opens, shifting into “pleading” for a return to “an environment in which people from different places lived relatively peaceably side by side”; the appeal doesn’t do justice to the expansive works that make up the rest of the book, though Smith’s generosity is steady throughout. Divided into five sections—“In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf,” and “Feel Free”—the collection consists mainly of pieces written for the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and Harper’s during Obama’s presidency. As a result, Smith writes in the foreword, they “are the product of a bygone world.” Though you eventually get what she means, the “In the World” essays that start us off—nostalgic hand-wringers on gentrification, climate change, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump, in that order; phrases like “liberal paranoia” and “I bore myself” offer the consolation of self-awareness—don’t support her claim about epochal shift, even if they were written with Obama still in office. Like much of what we end up reading these days, they sound like highly literate op-eds written by someone who is in the middle of being broken up with.

The next piece, her 2010 review of The Social Network, reminds you what you came for. Unencumbered by attempts to straightforwardly address the dark political situation, “Generation Why?” is not only a rousing piece of cultural criticism but also a key to understanding what matters to Smith: It pits the bland, algorithmic connectedness Mark Zuckerberg desires (an “analog”—or “Person 1.0”—version of which was on display in White Teeth) against the deeper connections possible between real people, with human feelings. Instead of Zuckerberg’s “falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous” vision of the Internet, she imagines “a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and—which is more important—to herself.”

Paradox Two of Smith’s work is that though she only ever looks through the lens of her own experience—“My evidence,” she writes, “is almost always intimate”—she is best at some remove, outward-facing, letting the parallels between her life and her work arise on their own. She describes the sentiment driving her writing as “I feel this—do you?” When she drops the second half, as in her political writing, she loses the binary that encompasses her approach to binary, and she finds herself adrift, confused instead of contemplative. Facebook, something she abandoned quickly after surveying its horrifying landscape, is a better match for her balance of assertion and question than Brexit and Donald Trump and her changing Northwest London neighborhood—these subjects prove too personal for a writer who is comfortable remaining a mystery to herself.

But writers leave clues. In her speech “The I Who Is Not Me,” Smith says that until her 2016 novel Swing Time, her first using the first person, it was “important for me to believe my fiction was about other people, rather than myself”; she cites 2005’s On Beauty, written in “a very elevated third person” that “worm[ed] itself into many different bodies, many different lives,” as an example of this “fiction that faces outwards, toward others.” Later she realized, like everyone who has written fiction does, that regardless of the voice she used, “the I that is me ran through it all in a subterranean way”—that her subconscious may have “tricked” her into writing the novel she did.

Because many of the essays in Feel Free were written in proximity to Swing Time, you can see her trying to work out the “impossible identity” of who is writing her work. She tries to “write from and to” a self “whose boundaries are uncertain, whose language is never pure, whose world is in no way ‘self-evident’.” Practically this means her pronouns are all over the place; sometimes she is a member of “us,” though it’s an “us” that signifies several different groups; sometimes she’s “them,” sometimes “I.” Other times she is writing in the second person but also in the voice of Billie Holliday. (Not a great moment for either icon.) Paradox Three: This book, which can be read as a process, “thinking aloud,” is much more interesting than the first-person novel she ultimately settled on. Swing Time had a hollow center in its voiceless, nameless, and listless narrator; Feel Free, though its narrator is just as uncertain, is much more vital and alive. The essays exist in the world of human feeling, and so end up better illustrating what Smith calls “the fictional status of identity itself” than a project that seemed, at times, to want to abandon the concept altogether. As Smith writes in “The I Who Is Not Me,” the best characters do what she does in Feel Free, “talk themselves into a particular existence” and “can talk themselves out of it, too.” That’s not because identity is false; it’s because it’s fluid.

I imagine “I feel this—do you?” is how Smith’s interviews go when she’s writing profiles, but sometimes the I-Thou relationship there—to borrow the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s concept, which she uses in her piece about Justin Bieber—slips into something like an I-Thou-I (The Thou Who Is Also Kind of Me). A revealing moment in her piece on Jay-Z:

. . . the rapper has often been accused of running on empty, too distant now from what once made him real . . . But can’t a rapper insist, like other artists, on a fictional reality, in which he is somehow still on the corner, despite occupying the penthouse suite? . . . Can’t he still rep his block?

Forty pages earlier she had described the tension she felt when her daughter befriended the son of a young mother living in the council estate where Smith herself grew up. Post-Brexit, Smith wanted to arrange a playdate but was nervous to do so, “not because I was black . . . but because I was middle class.” Though she lives, unlike Jay-Z, on the same block she did back when her family was working class, she now owns a “tall, narrow Victorian house” there, “exactly the same kind of house my middle-class friends owned when I was growing up.” (She is careful to establish, for us if not for the young mother, that she didn’t pay as much for it when she bought it fifteen years ago as it’s worth today.) Thus the question posed on behalf of a “millionaire businessman” rapper is also totally personal. She never ends up making the playdate, blaming, obliquely, the new political tensions, so I guess the answer is no—you can’t still rep your block.

The last paradox about Zadie Smith: her characteristic Zadie-Smithiness is tied up with being a kind of relatable everywoman, or at least “no authority.”

The last paradox about Zadie Smith—though I could go on forever—is that her characteristic Zadie-Smithiness is tied up with being a kind of relatable everywoman, or at least “no authority.” She is constantly making fun of herself, or putting herself down, or expressing wonder at the achievements of other artists and writers; she never steals thunder, responding to a great line in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia with, simply, “Yes, exactly that.” Like Virginia Woolf, she laments the lack of tools writing offers compared to visual art, which is not beholden to time or the linearity of the reader and can represent everything at once. (To which I say: If the essay is infinite, you don’t have to worry!) Her nonfiction is sprinkled with sincere questions and exclamations, as if she’s talking to you at one of the dinner parties she likes to use as framing devices. I’ve found it awkward to keep referring to her by her last name, because in conversation my friends and I tend to call her “Zadie.” She is open about her writing process, and because she apparently doesn’t plan or plot anything out beforehand, theoretically you too could just sit down one day and stand up with something like NW (her best, and most Woolfish, novel).

That she is not entirely this everywoman but also an international literary celebrity— impressively read; uncommonly thoughtful; attendee of not just any dinner parties but dinner parties at the homes of, e.g., the art critic Hal Foster; a woman who ignited brief controversy after saying she believed makeup was a waste of time (having neglected, momentarily, to project herself into the mind of an ugly person)—is a dualism she resists more than the others she wears proudly. In “Some Notes on Attunement,” an essay about her transformation from hater of Joni Mitchell to helplessly moved fan, she recounts an episode, pre-conversion, when she tried to get her husband to change some dreadful music on a road trip. “It’s Joni Mitchell,” he replies, disgusted. “What is wrong with you?” When she gets into one of her anxious, self-flagellating modes you want to offer her something similar. “You’re Zadie Smith. What is wrong with you?”

But then you put yourself in her shoes—a flattering exercise, sure—and you can’t really blame her. She’s not usually good at coming to conclusions, or rather she is good at not coming to them, which is why the endings of her novels are always oddly abrupt, but I don’t particularly care. Individually, her essays have a truncated effect, too, but read in succession, they start to take a form that makes more sense. They become something like a novel, with Zadie Smith as its most compelling character.