My first encounter with Zadie Smith was not a fortuitous instance of chance or coincidence. It was the summer before senior year, and the AP Literature gods decreed that students must swap their Netflixing and beach frolicking for a required reading assignment. Enter “NW,” Smith’s 2012 novel.
The first 50 pages felt like normal summer work — just as fun as getting a cavity drilled without novocaine — and I found myself lost in a book I couldn’t understand. Narrators seemed to enter and exit the story without reason, statues talked and the text on the page randomly broke into poetry. What I expected from Smith was a “typical,” linear novel like the others I read in high school. The book I ended up reading, however, treaded in an uncertain space where people and plotlines were untrustworthy.
Why, one might ask, would I then return to Smith’s writing in a pandemic, where uncertainty is inescapable, existing like droplets in the air we breathe?
Perhaps I was looking for diversion in the form of self-improvement. My experience with “NW” felt like a failure that needed remedying, and, like the masses who took to baking or musical instruments during lockdown, reading “On Beauty,” Smith’s 2005 novel, was an attempt to prove that I could understand Smith after all. The story of a dysfunctional family in a Massachusetts college town, “On Beauty” was impossible to put down. Like “NW,” the novel jumps between narrators and geography at warp speed.
“What makes Smith especially suited for pandemic reading, beyond the realm of politics, is her talent for interspersing deep philosophical questions in the fabric of a saga.”
Conflict is at the center of “On Beauty,” yet unlike other tales of feud and spite, Smith never reveals one character as the clear hero; she doesn’t so much ask the audience to empathize with her characters as much as she suggests that different people can be right and wrong at the same time, blurring the lines between “good” and “bad.”
This kind of storytelling — where our conceptions of morality are unstable — is important during periods of isolation. With so much time alone, our reality can collapse, and the story of ourselves becomes the only story. Smith’s books resist this tendency to center a single character with whom the audience is meant to relate and sympathize. To understand this kind of writing, the reader must abandon any notion that their interpretation of right and wrong is opaque or unchangeable.
As I arrived home for winter break, picking up Smith’s first novel, “White Teeth,” jolted me with the same ego dissolution I previously experienced in the pages of “On Beauty” and “NW.” Only this time — a few months after a polarizing election — Smith’s mode seemed far more politically important. After a summer plagued by “I can never understand” messages, Smith’s writing detailed the exact opposite. To read any of her novels is to attempt to understand others, often crossing the boundaries of our own identity.
Smith is explicit in her intention to disrupt the “I can never understand” attitude; it’s a stance she elaborated on in a 2019 essay in The New York Review of Books.
“What insults my soul is the idea — popular in the culture just now, and presented in widely variant degrees of complexity — that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally ‘like’ us: racially, sexually, genetically, nationally, politically, personally. That only an intimate authorial autobiographical connection with a character can be the rightful basis of fiction,” Smith wrote.
Maybe it’s our own misconception of fiction that impacts our political interpretation of “understanding.” In a culture that questions authors who create narrators with lives incongruent to their own, it makes sense that “understanding” is constructed as sameness. To understand someone becomes the same as actually being that person, a definition with obvious limits, especially as quarantine continues.
What makes Smith especially suited for pandemic reading, beyond the realm of politics, is her talent for interspersing deep philosophical questions in the fabric of a saga. Even with all their difficulties, Smith’s books are just as bingeable as this season’s hottest Netflix series, with casts of colorful characters, warring families, prehistoric conflicts and surprising climaxes. They’re the perfect blend of good fun and sharp wit, an ideal concoction to distract from month 11 of our year from hell.
It’s been nearly a year of “Zadie Smith thinking” — almost 12 months since her words started populating my mind with regular frequency — and we’ve had quite the run. Sharing laughs, tears and gasps, Smith’s books are a solvent for my own loneliness. Her writing also serves a radical political purpose as our country attempts to confront racism and polarization from the confines of quarantine. Lest we forget about the lives existing down the street, next door or across the ocean, Smith encourages us to examine the flexibility of our own perspective. Despite our different identities, distinguished even more by physical distance and isolation, we are never completely unrelated.
Anna Solomon PZ ’23 is TSL’s book columnist. An aspiring thinker in the political sciences, she is passionate about breakfast cereal, long runs and defending the honor of listening to the radio.