One of the endearing characteristics of Intimations is how much time Smith spends feeling uncomfortable, or confessing her own timidity or passivity, even treachery. She won’t make any special claim for herself because she’s a writer. “I write because … well, the best I can say for it is it’s a psychological quirk of mine developed in response to whatever personal failings I have.” She can’t really believe – can she, this hungry reader? – that there’s “no great difference between novels and banana bread”. And yet this self-doubt is the core of her moral intelligence – and seems like a significant source, too, for her fiction-making. It is by not being certain we are right that we come closest to truth.
In Intimations: Six Essays, Smith’s verbal brilliance and self-deprecating wit can seem like obstacles in her search for moral honesty. Smith is always a lucid essayist, but these feel like personal essays that attempt to avoid the personal. They hold our attention with their technical skill, without quite getting to the heart of their urgent subjects.
But the highlight essay is Screengrabs, a series of vignettes about people Smith knows in New York. Her skill as a novelist comes to the fore as she describes the man who runs a nail salon, who allows her to “maintain symmetry” by pretending school closures will have the same impact on them both; the heavy-smoking neighbour who says “We’ll get through this together”, as Smith is about to leave New York. Each small life has the shadow of destruction hanging over it. Many will doubtless quote from Contempt as a Virus, where, with clear-eyed dismay, Smith uses an extended metaphor to describe how the behaviour of men like Dominic Cummings and Derek Chauvin has infected public life. But the final line of the final essay, a free, eclectic list of the people to whom she owes a debt, from her parents to Virginia Woolf, has the most startling sentence, indicating what it all adds up to. As well as offering a new guide to living in a wild, messy and unfair world, Smith provides a reminder that we can use this crisis to imagine a better one, and that might inspire future conversations with our grandchildren.
If Smith takes pains to show how lucky she has it, there’s a productive shift of mood in Suffering Like Mel Gibson, which voices caveats about the discourse of privilege. (The title refers to an internet meme: Mel Gibson, on set for The Passion of the Christ, directing the lead, Jim Caviezel, bloodied under his crown of thorns, with the caption: “explaining to my friends with kids under six what it’s been like isolating alone”.) Here, Smith probes the obligation she feels, when asked how she’s been faring under lockdown, to point out that she’s “lucky compared to so many others, inconvenienced, yes, melancholy often, but not suffering”. But the essay ends with one of the more provocative insights of this thoughtful book: that to admit the reality of one’s own troubles, in whatever form they take, might actually make it easier, not harder, to address those of others.
Intimations can be dogmatic (possibly inevitable in these highly charged times) and the next years will no doubt bring more polished reflections. But Smith’s raw, visceral book is nonetheless a powerful portrait of what we’re living through. I’ve yet to try a banana bread of which one could say the same.
At her most withering, on the subject of race, she writes about the many, “even in the bluest states in America,” who “are very happy to ‘blackout’ their social media for a day, to read all-Black books and ‘educate’ themselves about Black issues — as long as this education does not occur in the form of actual Black children attending their actual schools.”
But despite these jabs, Smith remains unmistakably noncombative. This spirit appears born not of a fear of confrontation but a genuine perplexity (of a searching, brilliant kind) at the nature of experience and people, including herself...
She notes her own advantages; parses the stubbornness of inequality; and outlines the explanatory (and experiential) limitations of privilege, including its ultimate inability to shield anyone from suffering, sometimes to the point of suicide. In Zadie Smith’s universe — meaning, for my money, the one we’re all living in — complexity is king.