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Zadie Smith’s Intimations reads like notes for a later, better project

In six essays, Smith wrestles with quarantine, survivor’s guilt, and American exceptionalism.

Zadie Smith at the International Center of Photography’s 35th Annual Infinity Awards at the Ziegfeld Ballroom on April 2, 2019, in New York City.
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for International Center of Photography
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Zadie Smith wrote and published her new collection of essays, the slim and polished Intimations, entirely during the pandemic. And as I read it, I couldn’t help but wish she’d waited five years to do so.

“The year isn’t halfway done,” Smith allows in her brief foreword. So she isn’t trying to write a “comprehensive account” of 2020. Instead, the six essays that make up Intimations are her attempt to “organize some of the feelings and thoughts that events, so far, have provoked in me, in those scraps of time the year itself has allowed.”

Organize them Smith has, with her characteristic lucidity and novelistic sense of character. And when the subject is her own interiority, the essays fairly gleam with precision.

In “Suffering Like Mel Gibson,” Smith riffs ably on the familiar meme of Mel Gibson talking to Jesus to grapple with how to talk about personal suffering during this time of universal anguish. “Suffering is not relative,” she writes. “Suffering has an absolute relation to the suffering individual — it cannot be easily mediated by a third term like ‘privilege.’”

In the guilt-laced “Screencrabs (After Berger, before the virus),” she develops precise and loving sketches of some of the characters of the New York City neighborhood she is leaving behind to shelter in London. “I myself have no ‘survival instinct,’” Smith writes, but nevertheless she has, “in my passive way,” decided to leave the city. But as she makes her arrangements to leave, she crosses the street before passing her local nail place so the masseuse she visits every other day won’t see her. And when her neighborhood’s Woman With the Little Dog (every neighborhood has one) tells her, “You’ll be there for me, and I’ll be there for you, and we’ll all be there for each other, the whole building,” Smith can only whisper back, “Yes, we will,” and walk away.

These essays have an attractive shine of relatability to them: Certainly most people feel guilty right now, if only because they are not suffering as much as other people; certainly also most people care with a particular singularity about their own suffering, regardless of how it ranks relative to those around them. But the enormous insight Smith is capable of marshaling toward her own thought process is not quite there on the page yet. There is something of the journal entry to these essays, a sense of taking notes and observing for a bigger project that has not yet arrived. Of putting down details from a close view to use when enough time has passed for perspective.

And when Smith turns her gaze to current events, to the politics of the pandemic, the results can feel downright facile. In “The American Exception,” she attempts to reckon with why America’s response to the pandemic has been so lacking on every level. Smith’s sentences in this essay can sometimes sing — “We are great with death,” she writes, devastatingly; “we are mighty with it” — but this question has been turned over and over and over so often by so many different thinkers over the past few months that by the time Smith takes her turn, the result feels almost empty. I know by now that my country’s elected officials have failed the country. I know that they are using the rhetoric of American exceptionalism to justify their failure. I know that people are dying as a result. What else you got?

Far richer is “Postscript: The Virus as Contempt,” in which Smith turns to the death of George Floyd and systemic racism in both Britain and America. Here is a subject that Smith has already thought about deeply, and which she can rhetorically tie to the pandemic. The concept of “herd immunity,” in this essay, becomes the credo by which the ruling class has always lived: “Immunity. From the herd.”

But what Zadie Smith knows best is the form of the novel itself, and Intimations is at its liveliest and most provocative when she turns her attention to the question of what it means during this moment in time to write. She writes, she confesses in “Something to Do,” because it is, well — “There is no great difference between novels and banana bread,” she writes. “They are both just something to do. They are no substitute for love.”

“Something to Do” sounds comic, but it is not. It is an act of self-flagellation in essay form, a blast of nihilism. Under quarantine Smith is, like all of us who are not essential workers, “confronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure.” And she concludes that her life’s work, the thing she does better than nearly anyone in the world, has left her with “a dry, sad, small idea of a life.”

Art is not useless, Smith allows. It can be a way of understanding what really matters, which is love. But it is not essential work. And it is not, she suggests, politically meaningful. “The people sometimes demand change,” she notes. “They almost never demand art.”

Still, Smith continues to fill her days with writing, on the grounds that she must fill them with something, after all. (“It’s nice to have company,” she notes, nodding toward the frantic production of sourdough loaves and banana bread that populated social media all spring.)

And that gentle shrug is, more or less, the animating ethos of Intimations. Well, we have to have something to do, don’t we? It might as well be this book as anything else.