“A considered, thoughtful, sweeping collation of work from a madly smart writer” – Feel Free by Zadie Smith

Have you read Changing My Mind? Well, then, you know what you’re in for: Zadie Smith’s latest collection of non-fiction is as, if not more, extensive than her first; it showcases Smith’s academic and philosophical erudition alongside her pop-and-high-culture fan-girl enthusiasm, her book geekery, her love for rap and hip-hop, her keen eye for that very British obsession, class, not to mention her thoughts on her own identity as a biracial woman and writer. It is – not entirely, but largely – a political book, but, as she remarks in the preface, all the pieces assembled here were written during the Obama administration (Smith spends a good portion of her time in Manhattan, and many of these pieces were commissioned by American publications, so there’s a distinctly transatlantic slant to much of the book in terms of the intended reader and associated reference points), which means that the political outlook she’s espoused is, as she says, ‘the product of a bygone era’: an era that took, to some extent, the idea of the continuing and inevitable emancipation of oppressed groups and peoples for granted – an assumption that we can’t quite cling to in the age of Trump. Smith urges her audience, nonetheless, to keep reading: she asks that we continue to use, ignore or destroy her work as we see fit, ‘in the face of what we now confront’. Well! Onwards, then!

The book is split into five sections: writings on the world, on the screen, on art, on books, and, more broadly, on the general concept of ‘freedom’. Like Changing My Mind, this isn’t a purpose-built book; it’s a gathering and a loose categorisation of pre-existent writings, and that comes with some drawbacks – collated reviews, years after the fact, of movie and book reviews can sometimes have limited appeal (confession: I skipped the review of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa as I’m only getting round to watching it now, and Smith – to her credit, probably – isn’t in the game of avoiding spoilers) and there isn’t, naturally enough, any aggregated point or emergent argument to be spied out as we move through the book: you’re not going to hit any singular narrative crescendo. Wide-ranging as it is, though, Smith’s humour, excitement, energy and knowledge is enough carry the reader through. The opening section has, perhaps, the broadest appeal, composed as it is mostly of what I’d loosely call ‘opinion pieces’, or feature articles, rather than reviews or discourses on quite specific material (prior knowledge of which wouldn’t go amiss for full appreciation of Smith’s interpretations) – her opening elegies on the environment and the climate are savagely indignant and compassionate, as is her fury for the people of Northern Ireland living in the shadow of Brexit (‘the extraordinary act of solipsism that has allowed this long-brutalised little country to become the collateral damage of an internal rift within the Conservative Party’).

The book’s closing section is less outward-looking, more concerned with Smith’s personal experiences, and includes meditations on journal-keeping (the self-consciousness of the writer; the issue of audience as it relates to the private diary), on bathrooms (class, architecture, families and emotional violence, time, and, of course, toilets), on corpsehood and existential boredom (Luca Signorelli, Warhol, Knausgaard, Tao Lin, Louis CK and iPhones), on travel, love and mourning, on joy, and on pleasure: they’re almost invariably captivating – intricately structured, lightly humorous but deeply engaged with their topics, eminently convincing. Bookended by these sections, then, are the more clearly delineated subject matters: film reviews, art reviews, book reviews, and several more expansive essays, highlights of which include a long (and fascinating) feature/interview with Jay-Z and another with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele of Key & Peele. Later, in a piece that feels retrospectively like a canny sequel, she’s delighted by Peele’s feature film, Get Out; this second piece is particularly strong, as she looks, too, more broadly at ideas of ‘ownership’ or appropriation (or otherwise) of (black) suffering, and at biracial identity. In the ‘On The Bookshelf’ section, amidst the reviews and write-ups of Ballard, Kureishi and Dyer, there’s a meditation on autobiography and the first person as narrative techniques, and another, far too short, set of notes on the writing of NW (her best book: defy me on this and I’ll take you out with a left hook, Zadie-style).

As you’d expect in this kind of exercise – a sweeping-together of years of diverse work – it’s not all going to appeal to everyone. The Facebook article, ‘Generation Why?’ though it still rings depressingly true, has dated less effectively than the others (it’s all way worse now than she describes); her writing on dance is interesting mostly as a companion piece to Swing Time. The section on art, by and large – with the massive exceptions of that look at Peele and race, and her essay on, amongst other things, the Mona Lisa, John Berger and the male gaze (‘Is it possible that what men consider enigmatic in women is actually agency? As in: If she does not want me, what the hell does she want?’) – felt less sure-footed than that on books, or the essays on her own environment (Willesden Green, Rome, Manhattan). There’s a moment in the ‘audience’ section, though – ‘Some Notes On Attunement’ – that speaks to these dips: Smith bemoans the fact that time is limited, that expertise in one field (novels) can necessarily curtail similar depths of knowledge and attainment in others (music); even as you really like the other fields, are fascinated by them, want to dig deeper into them, how can you aspire to that old Renaissance ideal of connoisseurship when you’re just…busy and exhausted? Well, Smith’s surely busy, and I’ve no doubt that she’s exhausted (her descriptions of parenthood ring extremely true), and she may not be a bone fide expert on everything in here, but – to nick her own appraisal of Geoff Dyer’s work – the simplicity, accessibility and erudition of her style is ‘a trick few British writers ever pull off’.

Any Cop?: I’d love to see Smith tackle a more deliberate book of essays – something (unlike, say, her columns for Harpers as reproduced here, entertaining as they are) written to a theme and as a book, but in the meanwhile, this is an excellent placeholder: it’s a considered, thoughtful, sweeping collation of work from a madly smart writer, a great one for fans and newcomers alike.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

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