Changing My Mind
The Penguin Press: 306 pp., $26.95
Reviewing Zadie Smith’s 2001 debut, “White Teeth,” the critic James Wood lumped the blazing hot young British writer with no less than Salman Rushdie, David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon to launch a broadside at a genre he’d named “hysterical realism.” While praising Smith’s assured prose and her comic gifts, Wood wrung his hands over the giant tomes with their artificially frenzied vitality, subdividing plot lines and mushrooming characters, few of whom stick around long enough to engage our interest, let alone our allegiance.
He wouldn’t say that about Charles Dickens, I muttered, but then he did. Dickens, with his huge canvases, and multiple subplots stuffed with characters with funny names, may have been slapped by Wood with a paternity suit for this new genre, but, the critic bemoaned, his descendants lack the master’s capacity to imbue caricatures with strong feeling. Having tried several times to force my way into the sprawling, multi-culti “White Teeth,” set in the northwest London working-class borough of Willesden, where Smith grew up, I had to agree. The novel is not boring -- Smith’s darting intelligence alone holds you -- but her self-conscious prose enervates, and her sketchy characters and scattershot subplots lack the deep satisfactions of, say, Monica Ali’s " Brick Lane,” which takes on the teeming melee of the 21st century city without sacrificing our identification with the immigrant family at its heart.
The British reading public begged to differ. At age 25, Smith became the author of a runaway bestseller, for which her publisher reportedly paid her an advance of 250,000 pounds, while she was still an undergraduate star at Cambridge University. Born of a black mother from the Caribbean and a white working-class father, Smith endured unwelcome pressure to become the voice of multicultural Britain, which must explain why she makes no secret of her mistrust of identity politics. The telegenic Smith became an instant celebrity who cut an articulate, if sometimes haughty, public figure (she could be cranky to a degree that would make V.S. Naipaul proud). Inevitably, praise was more muted for her next two novels, “The Autograph Man” and “On Beauty.”
Today, Smith flits across the Atlantic to teach and lecture at Ivy League schools. To judge by “Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays,” her new collection of writings for a range of periodicals, she hasn’t been idle on the writing front. Smith’s reflections on, among other things, Greta Garbo, literary trends, Oscar parties and a trip to Liberia, fall more or less gracefully into ostensibly banal categories of “Reading,” “Being,” “Seeing,” “Feeling” and “Remembering.” Taken together, they reflect a lively, unselfconscious, rigorous, erudite and earnestly open mind that’s busy refining its view of life, literature and a great deal in between.
Delightful, painful and spontaneously funny (it runs in the family -- her two younger brothers are rap artists and stand-up comedians), Smith’s personal writing opens a candid, though never prurient window onto her parents’ “code-red marriage” and subsequent divorce. “Family represents a reality of which Christmas is the dream,” she writes wistfully but without self-pity, analyzing a damaged photograph of a long-ago compulsory celebration of “the most cultish, insular day in the nuclear-family calendar.” Returning more than once -- as she does in her novels -- to a fractious but formative relationship with a much older father, whose ashes she once kept in a sandwich bag, Smith shows herself in more ways than one to be a very old, empathetic head on ridiculously young shoulders.
Which may be why her favorite film is not the pioneering multicultural “My Beautiful Laundrette” but “The Philadelphia Story.” Smith’s film criticism is instinctive and untutored (not necessarily a bad thing), but her enthusiasm for Katharine Hepburn, whose body she describes as “one long muscle, devoid of bust but surprisingly shapely if seen from the back,” is so infectious that -- as one who agrees with Dorothy Parker’s judgment that Hepburn’s acting “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B” -- I’m willing to forgive the claim that the actress gave a great performance in “Little Women.” Her take on Garbo’s face is basically recycled Roland Barthes, and “Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend,” a report on hanging out with screenwriting nominees, is wickedly observant (lounging at the Mondrian, she’s devastating on the difference between hot girls and actresses) but hardly groundbreaking about Hollywood.
It’s in her impassioned, compulsively dialectical and endearingly wonkish inquiry into literature that Smith really takes off. Deploring the idea of a “Black Female Literary Tradition” (“thick with a breed of greeting-card lyricism”), she confesses her unwilling conversion, at her mother’s behest, to the work of Zora Neale Hurston (“as exceptional among black women writers as Tolstoy is among white male writers”). “Their Eyes Were Watching God” rescued Smith from her postmodern aversion to identification with character (and pushes her, as she has publicly acknowledged, further into Wood’s camp). For a literary rebel who counts among her heroes Nabokov and Barthes (both of whom she re-reads here) and Robbe-Grillet, Smith digs in pretty deep with the canon. She defends George Eliot against Henry James and E.M. Forster against detractors who dismiss him as middlebrow. She stakes a claim to fellowship with Cynthia Ozick and gives Kafka his due as an existential prophet of postmodern identity crises. “These days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us,” she writes. “We’re all insects, all Ungeziefer, now.”
Indeed, 21st century anxiety is the subject of the two most ambitious essays here. “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace” is a rigorously exegetical defense of Wallace’s short-story collection, as well as a lovely memorial to the moral self-interrogations of the writer, written shortly after his 2008 suicide. “Two Directions for the Novel” pits Joseph O’Neill’s acclaimed “Netherland” against Tom McCarthy’s “Remainder,” both of which address post- 9/11 anxieties about the authenticity of the self. Smith approves of “Remainder,” whose “narrative has a nervous breakdown,” while accusing O’Neill of embodying a “breed of lyrical realism [that] has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.” You can agree or not, but in “lyrical realism” one can’t help hearing either echoes of James Wood or a sly dig in his ribs.
Taylor is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.