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Zadie Smith Takes On the Pandemic

Lots of writers have done the coronavirus essay. Smith has made a book of them.


What have you done with your quarantine? Those of us who aren’t nurses find ourselves rich in time, and being dutiful citizens, we work: nurturing scallions in cups of water or Duolingo-ing our way to conversational Arabic. Zadie Smith continues her long track record of putting the rest of us to shame by having spent her quarantine producing a book, Intimations.

Covid-19 has crippled many industries, but it’s been a boon for the personal essay. The New York Review of Books has published several dispatches from its contributors, who have ruminated on the renaissance of the old-fashioned telephone call or reflected on the effect of the crisis on the U.S. census. The New Yorker has published essays by Gary Shteyngart, Maggie Nelson, and Lorrie Moore trying to get at the weirdness of this time; these essays include the first piece in Smith’s new collection, “The American Exception.”

by Zadie Smith
Penguin, 112 pp. $10.95

Smith begins with Trump’s words: “I wish we could have our old life back. We had the greatest economy that we’ve ever had, and we didn’t have death.” Smith points out that the president isn’t entirely wrong—that the American way is to think of death as something that might be defeated via social program. (“Wars on drugs, cancer, poverty, and so on.”) Smith notes that, while extant hierarchies of race and class are holding firm, “Death has come to America. It was always here, albeit obscured and denied, but now everybody can see it.”

There’s nothing here to quibble with. I understand why editors at our leading magazines would turn to our most gifted artists to weigh in on everything that’s happening. But clarity or fresh insight on a still-unfolding catastrophe is a tall order. It’s a relief that punchy turns of phrase and scathing oversimplification—the dominant modes of most contemporary chatter—are not of interest to Smith. But Intimations doesn’t argue much. It’s an echo of the reader’s internal monologue, the stuff you probably already think bouncing back at you, improved by Smith’s prose.

Smith is a good student of people. She riffs on the curious case of the United Kingdom’s Dominic Cummings, who ignored the rules his own government had established to take a road trip for his wife’s birthday. “This is an especially British strain of the virus,” she writes. “Class contempt. Technocratic contempt. Philosopher king contempt. When you catch the British strain, you believe the people are there to be ruled.” Smith has always been great on her homeland, her finest novels—the raucous White Teeth, the Forster homage On Beauty, the superb comedy of manners NW—a withering but affectionate look at Britishness, whatever that might be.

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 are 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 with. 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 I.T. 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 paean to Cy the I.T. 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.