Saturday, August 8, 2020

Zadie Smith Takes on the Pandemic

Zadie Smith Takes on the Pandemic

It’s satisfying to hear her diagnose the British ruling class’s initial obsession with reaching herd immunity, which she translates this way: “Immunity. From the herd.” For Smith, there’s the virus, then there all these other sicknesses. The author turns her attention Stateside, to George Floyd, writing of the man who killed him in public seemingly without concern for any consequence, “You’d have to be pretty certain of immunity from the herd—not an unsafe bet for a white police officer, historically, in America.”

There’s an undeniable, unsettling relationship between the conditions of quarantine and the nationwide protests around Floyd’s death. The metaphor is inescapable; the protests feel like the symptom of a disease we’ve ignored too long. “Patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave ship four hundred years ago,” Smith writes, “looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck and reverse engineered an emotion—contempt—from a situation that he, the patient himself, had created.”

This is hard to argue. Smith is a writer with style: staccato sentences and occasional outbursts, with wry exclamation marks. There’s passion in the lines, but she’s a circumspect thinker. This is a good combination, something all writers should aim for, but I wanted more: a surprise, a revelation, a gasp.

I truly believe that many people are unaware that they carry the virus at all until the very moment you find yourself phoning the cops to explain the race of the man you thought looked suspicious walking through his own neighborhood, or who spoke back to you in Central Park, or whatever the fuck it is.

This isn’t new, but maybe it bears repeating.

In “Something to Do,” the author grapples with a question we love to put to our artists: Why do you toss paint onto a canvas or tell stories about made-up people? Her answer is in the work’s title, and it allows Smith to deliver both a standard-issue why I write essay and weigh in on the curious nature of time as we currently experience it: “Why did you bake that banana bread? It was something to do. Why did you make a fort in your living room? Well, it’s something to do. Why dress the dog as a cat? It’s something to do, isn’t it? Fills the time.”

Smith probably isn’t being coy—at any rate this doesn’t read as false modesty. I only wish Smith had filled the time we all suddenly have with fiction, the thing she certainly does best. Novels express the artist’s mind just as essays do, and Smith is adept at conjuring character to carry her ideas.

Even in this work of nonfiction, she cannot resist the temptation, transforming presumably real people—the manager of a spa where she enjoys the occasional massage, a neighbor with her dog, an IT guy at her university—into portraits. The couple of pages she spends on this last figure, Cy, are lovely: “his inimitable energy, slightly exophthalmic, piggish eyes, and irregularly coiled, unpredictable Afro, so like my own.” Smith has written not only a a paean to Cy the IT guy but to the idea of the black nerd more generally:

I felt glad he was at least tethered to an institution, like a red balloon caught in a tree, instead of floating out into the unforgiving city and finding himself deflated in the IT department of a bank or ad agency or some such I used to see Cy (without him seeing me) from my carrel—bouncing around the library, presumably off to aid someone with an IT issue…

Smith’s ability to write like this about people she’s (partly) made up is like Spiderman’s gifts: a power she ought to discharge responsibly. We’re all at home, fretting over, well, you name it. Intimations articulates what we already know; how I’d love to see Smith pull this off in a novel once again. Never mind; the book’s proceeds benefit charity, and we’re all so lonely, and could do worse for company than Zadie Smith. “I do feel comforted,” Smith writes, “to discover I’m not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, nor what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it.” I suppose you could read a book; I suppose you could read this one.

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