Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Zadie Smith: Beautiful Integrations
I have been much better about this lately, but for a stretch of essays that appeared here, I felt the need to add "explanations" for pieces that I felt weren't as concise, or had glaring issues that I still noticed after editing and posting. I still read the occasional sentence or notice a little piece of syntax that irks me, but for the most part, I let these stand on their own as I move on to other readings and postings for this site. However, I need to put that idea on hold, at least for this opening, only because the self-critiques are (hopefully at least somewhat) related to my latest selection: Zadie Smith's 2009 essay collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. If you glance to the right and look at the label tags, three labels are the most dominant, and two of them give me more than the occasional pause. The label 'criticism' originated to mean literary criticism, but now includes general critiques as well, lumping together two sometimes very different notions under one heading. 'Writing' originated as writing style, but grew into a label that accounts for the rare times that I discuss my own fiction writing, or writing in general. In the past, I've spend long stretches of time editing these blog labels, and while there's much more cohesion, I still make mental notes to make more distinctions. There's an excellent chance that I'm putting way too much thought into these meanings. However, Smith's own forward to the paperback edition of Changing My Mind offers me solace: "I'm forced to recognize that ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith (Smith xi-xii)."
My reviews of essays collections have continually leaned towards writers whose fiction I admire, and therefore I assume that their non-fiction will be just as satisfying. I never make the mistake of confusing a writer's fiction from their non-fiction, but going into Zadie Smith's work, I felt as if I was reading her work for the first time; in essence, that's true. I read her debut novel White Teeth when I was around 19, and I remember enjoying it, but would be hard pressed to tell you what it was about. I re-read a lot of works that were lost on me in my late teens and early twenties, but in the majority of those cases, I retained at least a basic mental outline. For some reason, White Teeth almost completely evaporated. So while Zadie Smith's reputation continues to grow, Changing My Mind felt like a discovery of someone new, even though that's not the case at all.
The collection is divided up into five categories: "Reading," "Being," "Seeing," "Feeling," and "Remembering," and none of these labels are misleading. Right away, her literary essays proved to be extremely well-written, with quiet emphasis on her stunning breadth of theory, styles, and, yes, criticism. It's very rare that I read an essay about a book or an author whom I haven't read and feel just as compelled as if I'm reading a piece about one of my favorites, or one with whom I'm greatly familiar. Yes, having a better background on Zora Neale Hurston or E.M. Forster would have provided better illuminations for me, but Smith effortlessly glides between academic deconstructions and more personal opinions, not sacrificing one for the other. Her book reviews never go on tangents, even though all book reviewers (myself included) do that at least once in awhile. Her combination of styles and viewpoints is best evidenced by her remarks on George Eliot's Middlemarch. In the span of less than a full paragraph, Smith comments on historical styles, links it to contemporary writing, and provides historical background on Eliot, and not one word feels out of place or off subject:
"Once she saw through a glass, darkly, now she is less deceived...Of how many Victorian novels could that sentence serve as shorthand. One of the reasons we idolize the nineteenth-century English novel is the way its methods, aims, and expression seem so beautifully integrated. Author, characters, and reader are all striving in the same direction. Eliot, speaking of Dorothea's mind, describes the process this way: 'The reaching forward of the whole consciousness towards the fullest truth, the least partial good.' It is a fine description of what all good novelists try to do, after their own fashion. But Eliot made a religion of this process; it replaced the old-time religion in which she was raised. Her imagination was particularly compelled by those moments when, as we have it in the vernacular, 'the scales fall from our eyes (Smith 33).'"
Depending on a given subject, it's almost startling to feel her shift in tone. Her discussion of literature and film are marked by steady, yet natural hints of wit and personal affections (or lack thereof). When the subject turns serious, especially in "One Week In Liberia," Smith immediately turns into a steadfast journalist, reporting emotional, evocative scenes and happenings, maintaining a beautiful writing style, but scaling it back, letting her gifts of written recreation provide any necessary emotions.
Lunch in La Pointe, the "good restaurant" in Monrovia. The view is of sheer cliff dropping to marshland, and beyond this, blue green waters. During the war the beach was scattered with human skulls. Now it is simply empty. In Jamaica, the tourists marry on beaches like these. They stand barefoot in wedding outfits in white sand owned by German hotel chains and hold up champagne flutes, recreating an image from a brochure. This outcome for Liberia--a normalized, if exploitative, 'tourist economy'--seems almost too good to hope for...Everywhere in Liberia it is the same: there are only the very poor and the very powerful (Smith 129)."
In a seemingly natural combination, her personal essays and journalistic pieces do merge as she writes about her family. In an attempt to help her father discuss his World War II experiences for a public BBC project, these two voices collide, and she's the first to admit it. By doing so, yet another layer is added to an already gripping piece, a sort of "behind the scenes" look at her discussions with her father, in conjunction with a personal narrative about exploring the beaches of Normandy and presenting her father's history of D-Day:
"I was a bad journalist to my father, short-tempered, bullying. He never said what I wanted him to. Each week we struggled as I tried to force his story into my mold--territory previously covered by Saving Private Ryan or The Great Escape--and he tried to stop me. He only wanted to explain what had happened to him. And his war, as he sees it, was an accidental thing, ambivalent, unplanned, an ordinary man's experience of extremity. It's not Private Ryan's war or Steve McQueen's war or Bert Scaife's war (of whom more later). It's [her father] Harvey Smith's war. If it embodies anything (Harvey's not much into things embodying other things), it is the fact that when wars are fought, perfectly normal people fight them. Alongside the heroes and martyrs, sergeants and generals, there are millions of average young people who simply stumble into it, their childhood barely behind them (Smith 232)."
The section of "Remembering" is composed of one piece, a remembrance and analysis of the writing of David Foster Wallace (easily the first name I would have mentioned if I had included examples in my opening thoughts on writers of both fiction and non-fiction). In the two years since Wallace's suicide, the reflections on him as a writer and a human being have been emotional, but haven't been much more than typical obituaries. Smith, however, pays tribute to him in the best way, offering analysis of the stories in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, and actively hypothesizing about how Wallace's views on fiction interacted with his actual output. Even with just a small sample of his work being discussed, Smith ruminates on Wallace's mission in beautiful ways, and in the process, struck me about how much the world of literature lost two years ago.
"There is a weird ambient sameness to Wallace's work. He was always asking essentially the same question. How do I recognize that other people are real, as I am? And the strange, quasi-mystical answer was always the same, too. You may have to give up your attachment to the 'self.' I don't mean that Wallace 'preached' this moral in his work; when I think of a moralist I don't think of a preacher. On the contrary, he was a writer who placed himself 'in the hazard' of his own terms, undergoing them as real problems, both in life and on the page (Smith 289)."
So maybe with this review of Smith, I'm essentially asking questions that I already know the answers to, in a way. I have rarely found fault with the essay collections that I've reviewed here, since there have been more than a few that I stopped reading out of frustration or lack of interest, therefore not being in a position to effectively write about them; I at least do my best to see novels through to the end. However, Changing My Mind was a complete surprise in the best of ways. Hopefully in the next year I'll return to White Teeth and reconnect with her fiction, with more memories and evocations than my first reading. Going into this work, essentially knowing nothing but her name and face, I'm going to be much more attuned to Smith's writings. The empty designation to pin on her would be an "accomplished essayist," but in reality, that's true in the best of ways. She never overshadows her subjects, and provides much-needed personal distance when necessary, especially when the subject is not about her. It's a rare objectivity that's often lacking in contemporary non-fiction, but when she does pull herself back into a piece, it's never distracting. And I am applying the labels of 'writing' and 'criticism' to this piece, with their original intentions in mind.
Smith, Zadie. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. Copyright 2009 by Zadie Smith.