The author's topics range from Brexit to Billie Holiday to Jordan Peele’s wily comedy-horror film, “Get Out.” In everything to do with books, language and family experiences, she’s funny, intuitive, spry and sharp.
by Zadie Smith
Penguin Press, 452 pp., $28
There are few better places to go for a stroll than inside Zadie Smith’s mind.
The British writer (“White Teeth,” “On Beauty”) has an ever-surprising knack for revealing the broader implications of individual experience. In her brilliant novel “Swing Time,” for instance, she pinpoints a key but undernoted aspect of what it was like to grow up in the VHS age of the 1980s.
“We were the first generation,” the narrator remarks, “to have, in our own homes, the means to re- and forward-wind reality: even very small children could press their fingers against those clunky buttons and see what-has-been become what-is or what-will-be.”
Always nimbly attentive to her characters’ wayward impulses, Smith never passes easy judgment on them and is continually nimble in the way she portrays their worlds.
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Those same qualities inform her new book of essays, “Feel Free.” Its topics range from Brexit to Billie Holiday to Jordan Peele’s wily comedy-horror film, “Get Out.” In a piece on “The Social Network” (“this wildly enjoyable, wildly inaccurate biopic”), she frets at the ways that Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is changing us: “We know what we are doing ‘in’ the software. But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us?”
Smith strikes beguiling personal notes, too. There’s a wonderful essay on how the irreverent spirit of Hanif Kureishi’s first novel, “The Buddha of Suburbia,” hit home with her when she was in her teens. Memories of growing up in London’s multiethnic Willesden neighborhood crop up throughout the book, along with alarm at the ways Willesden, London and Britain itself are changing.
Smith’s cultural commentary encompasses every medium. Sometimes she stumbles — for instance when she looks to philosopher Martin Buber to shed some light on pop singer Justin Bieber. And sometimes, especially in her essays on visual art, things get tangled or muddy.
But in everything to do with books, language and family experiences, she’s funny, intuitive, spry and sharp, whether she’s reflecting on her early writing career (“I did not understand that I was ‘championing’ multiculturalism simply by depicting it”) or the challenges she still faces when confronted with a blank page (“I find myself to be radically discontinuous with myself — but how does one re-create this principle in fiction?”).
The book is filled with lines that seem destined for the next edition of Bartlett’s (“Belief usually has an emotional component; it’s desire, disguised”). Other passages may transform the way you watch someone mosey down the street: “There is walking and then there is dancing. Between the two I like to think of a curving line, with plain utility at one end and the scandalously unnecessary at the other.”
“The I Who Is Not Me” is the closest Smith comes to a manifesto — albeit, a manifesto on how fiction can help you escape the confines of all manifestos.
“In the real world we often want our judgments and moral decisions to be swift and singular and decisive. Fiction messes with our sense of what it is possible to do with our judgments,” she writes. “A novel is fundamentally without real-world consequences, or so we think as we read them, and we can be bold in the space they create, braver, more able to tolerate our own uncertainties.”
Long may Smith’s delectable uncertainties reign.