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Review: Zadie Smith gets intimate in a searching collection of quarantine essays

Zadie Smith, author of the collection of essays “Intimations.”
Zadie Smith, author of the collection of essays “Intimations.”
(Dominique Nabokov / Penguin Books)

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“What modest dreamers we have become,” Zadie Smith writes midway through her new book, “Intimations,” which gathers six short essays that seek to reckon with the experience of pandemic life. Smith is referring in part to what she describes (invoking herself in the third person) as “the social protections of her youth, which had not seemed to her dreams, but rather mundane realities — universal health care, free university education, decent public housing — all now recast as revolutionary concepts” in America, where the British-born author lives part of the year. But really, her subject is the strange, dislocated present we occupy.

There are certain books that take their form from circumstance: the manner — or even the moment — in which they were composed. (Think of Frieda Hughes’ “Forty-Five,” 45 poems published around her 45th birthday, or Heidi Julavits’ mash-up diary “The Folded Clock.”) The essential form of this moment, it appears, is the essay, which has proliferated like a contagion of its own.

I’m not complaining; for an essayist, that would be hypocrisy. Rather, the essay seems the perfect genre for a lockdown in which the familiar signposts — family, community, home, workplace — have been reconfigured through a new and unfamiliar lens. At its most exhilarating, that is what the essay does: looking inward, looking closely, asking questions about who and where we are.

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Over the last three months, 17 writers provided diaries to the Times of their days in isolation, followed by weeks of protest. This is their story.

In “The Pandemic Is a Portal,” as an example, Arundhati Roy writes, “even while the virus proliferates, who could not be thrilled by the swell of birdsong in cities, peacocks dancing at traffic crossings and the silence in the skies?” Not every essay is so capacious, which explains some of the pushback against pandemic diary pieces, too many of which eschew the necessary work of self-interrogation in favor of the sort of small-bore observations found on social media. There is also, of course, the press of privilege, of having the space to reflect upon or celebrate small elusive pleasures in the midst of a catastrophe exacerbated by inequality.

Smith is aware of such criticism, yet even as she grapples with it she maintains the interiority that makes essays distinct. She is a spectacular essayist — even better, I’d say, than as a novelist — who has written searchingly about race and culture, identity and place and family. Such issues continue to infuse the present, although their salience is complicated by the ways the virus has eroded collective trust.

I’m not talking about politics (although that too), but rather how we interact with the people with whom we share the world. These problems center the pastiche essay “Screen Grabs,” a series of impressions of Smith’s Manhattan neighborhood, Greenwich Village. “There is an ideal, rent-controlled city dweller who appears to experience no self-pity, who knows exactly how long to talk to someone in the street, who creates community without overly sentimentalizing the concept — or ever saying aloud the word ‘community,’” she introduces one particular neighbor, “and who always picks up after their dog, even if it’s physically painful to do so.”

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But the admiring portrait grows more complex when the actual, nonidealized woman announces: “Thing is, we’re a community, and we got each other’s back. … We’ll get through this, all of us, together.” It’s a prayer, of course, and a plea for connection — which Smith curtly acknowledges. Then, she walks on, “maintaining a six-foot distance, whether to conform with the new regulations or to avoid Beck [the dog] biting me in some vulnerable spot I couldn’t tell.”

This is my favorite moment in “Intimations” because it implicates Smith herself. The neighbor is isolated, terrified, facing the long, uncharted emptiness of who knows how much time alone. Smith is empathetic but wants to get away. In part, it’s practical: social distancing protects them both. Yet equally, she is motivated by her own emotional distance, her own fear. The admission allows Smith to get at something universal, the suspicion that has infiltrated our interactions even with those we want to think we know. This is the essential job of the essayist: to explore not our innocence but our complicity.

I want to say this works because Smith doesn’t take herself too seriously, but that’s not accurate. More to the point, she is willing to expose the tangle of feelings the pandemic has provoked. And this may seem a small thing, but it’s essential: I never doubt her voice on the page.

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey always wrote of public pain and private struggle. Her memoir, “Memorial Drive,” lets her mother speak.

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Take “Something to Do,” which probes the question of why she writes: “[T]he surest motivation I know,” she declares, “the one I feel deepest within myself, and which, when all is said, done, stripped away — as it is at the moment — seems to be at the truth of the matter for a lot of people, to wit: it’s something to do.”

Her offhandedness, at first, feels out of step with a moment in which we are desperate to feel that whatever something we are trying to do matters. But it also describes that moment perfectly.

“I used to stand at podiums or in front of my own students and have that answer on the tip of my tongue, but knew if I said it aloud it would be mistaken for a joke or fake humility or perhaps plain stupidity,” Smith continues. “Now I am gratified to find this most honest of phrases in everybody’s mouths all of a sudden, and in answer to almost every question. 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 do, isn’t it? Fills the time.”

If the core of “Something To Do” is a long-unspoken existential joke, the collection’s title essay takes the task of filling time more solemnly — offering an annotated list of “Debts and Lessons.”

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“That I was born when I was born, where I was born — a case of relative historical luck,” Smith writes in a section called “Contingency.” “That I grew up in a moment of social, religious and national transition. … That the tail end of one and the beginning of another were both visible and equally interesting to me.”

This is less a gratitude list than an accounting, which moves from the historical to the personal. What she’s addressing is the substance of her life, its gifts and also its gaps. “That I met a human whose love has allowed me not to apply for love too often through my work — even when we’ve hurt each other desperately,” Smith concludes the essay and the book, acknowledging the intensity and the inadequacy of her love. “That my children know the truth about me but still tolerate me, so far. That my physical and moral cowardice have never really been tested, until now.”

Here we see the kind of devastating self-exposure that the essay, as a form, requires — the realization of how limited we are even in the best of times, and how bereft in the worst.

Ulin is the former book editor and book critic of The Times.

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Intimations
Zadie Smith
Penguin Books: 112 pages, $11


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