Much like a phantom limb can plague the amputee, a Zadie Smith essay not included in this collection haunted my reading of Changing My Mind. Not in a spooky way, but an itchy way.
Fail Better, published in the Guardian in January, 2007, was an essay about, among other things, what makes for great fiction, the value of individuality über alles and the "duty" of both the writer and the reader. And it caused not a little consternation in people I knew who were working toward being published writers, mainly because of Smith pointing out that writing well is not simply a matter of skill and craft, but "of character" (of the writer) and of "authenticity" (ditto).
Oh, and there was also her contention that too many books today look like literature, smell like literature and are rewarded as literature, but are in fact sad simulacrums of the real thing.
Another frequent complaint was that she was "showing off." But Zadie, being Zadie, can't help tap dancing on the ceiling with cartoon mice.
Smith writes with preternatural wisdom (the first of her three novels, the fat, happy and fiercely intelligent White Teeth, was published in 2000 when she was just 25) and exuberance. (If you ever want to witness a feeding frenzy, just let a bunch of creative-writing students loose on a sentence like this [a sentence I happen to like a great deal] "Austen's prose will make you attentive in a different way and to different things than Wharton's; the dream Philip Roth wishes to wake us from still counts as sleep if Pynchon is the dream-catcher.")
In all fairness, there were students of mine who did relish Fail Better (whose title, unacknowledged by Smith, comes from Beckett's Worstward Ho.) "The most succulent byproduct of this refreshing read is that she invites me to (re)welcome my self … back into my own work," one of them wrote. "Like she's gardening in her pyjamas, mud on forehead, saying, 'What the hell are you doing trying to do? Be unobtrusive? Kid, you're already in your fiction, whether you like it or not. So knock yourself out. Swing from the rafters …'")
Smith is an at-times-brilliant writer who does swing from the rafters. Not every novel has been successful - The Autograph Man was a bit of a mess, but a mess with frisson and verve. Although her fictional reach can exceed her grasp, her books take big bites of the world in its chaotic, multiracial, class-ridden, pop-culture-soaked glory.
In Changing My Mind, Smith's trademark insouciance (an epigraph in The Autograph Man identified Walter Benjamin as "the popular wise guy") has been tamped down, but the irreverent wit is on display, alongside a penetrating sonar-depth understanding of the fictional enterprise. Shuffle on over, James Wood, there's a new maestro of the literary essay in town.
Smith reads with both "brain and spine," as one of her heroes, Nabokov, exhorted his students to, and the results here are often thrilling. The final 40-page essay, a remembrance of the late David Foster Wallace and his "difficult gifts," focusing on his 1999 fiction collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, is a singular achievement in a year that has been filled with tributes to DFW's genius. Smith interrogates and celebrates the meaning and methodology of the man who was her "favourite living writer" with a lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity that Italo Calvino himself would have found pleasing.
She makes a case for Wallace's gift for turning stories outward, "towards us. It's our character that's being investigated. … What's recursive about Wallace's short stories is not Wallace's narrative voice but the way these stories run, like verbal versions of mathematical procedures, in which at least one of the steps of the procedure involves rerunning the whole procedure. And it's we who run them. Wallace places us inside the process of recursion, and this is why reading him is so often emotionally and intellectually exhausting."
What follows is a virtuosic parsing of DFW's " real innovation," the "virtuosic use of the recursive sentence, a weird and wonderful beast that needs quoting at length to be appreciated." And needless to say, that left this sentence nerd in near ecstasy.
The essay is also studded with generous quotations from Wallace himself, taken from interviews. For Smith - a British, biracial, movie-loving, comedy nerd - the author is so not dead, as another essay, Rereading Barthes and Nabokov, makes clear. Like many students, Smith fell for the "new" French criticism (no longer new even then) in university. But, a lifelong "Nabokov nerd," she has changed her mind, perhaps because of "a vocational need to believe in Pnin's author's vision of total control." Still, she gives Barthes his due: "Maybe every author needs to keep faith with Nabokov, and every reader with Barthes?"
Each of Smith's literary essays here is both a conversation and debate with herself and with the reader, whether it's her 14-year-old self versus her adult self reading and rereading Zora Neale Hurston, or making the case for E.M. Forster against those who view him as a middling, middle-class novelist (Smith's latest novel, On Beauty, is a homage to Howards End), or positing that if George Eliot were writing today, she might be Mary Gaitskill or A.L. Kennedy, or on whither literary realism, the "Balzac-Flaubert model."
Smith, who herself writes in the tradition, albeit in a postmodern manner, asks, "Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us the most?"
Not all the essays in Changing My Mind are about books (there are strong pieces on actresses Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo and Anna Magnani; Speaking in Tongues, an inspiring riff on language, biracial realities and her hopes for Barack Obama that began life as a lecture at the New York Public Library; more than a dozen newspaper movie reviews, although entertaining, mainly ephemera; three personal essays; and one complete misfire - a dry account of a week in Liberia in which Smith's characteristic confidence in her subject matter deserts her. It's the literary essays, though, that are the brains and spine of the book.
Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner tries to fail better daily and is the editor of the upcoming collection Darwin's Bastards: Astounding Tales From Tomorrow.