In new essay collection, Zadie Smith finds truth in philosophers and pop stars

Monday, February 5, 2018 - 9:22pm

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Zadie Smith writes essays like a novelist. Best known for her lauded novels like “White Teeth” and “Swing Time,” the British author channels this sensibility into a compelling range of subjects in her new nonfiction collection “Feel Free,” from contemporary art to Harlem, her childhood bathroom to Justin Bieber.

Smith’s authoritative yet ambiguous style reminded me of last year’s eclipse: You could only see it clearly (and safely) through just the right filter, rather than staring at it head-on (as our President did). By taking a circuitous, indirect and deeply personal approach to her subject matter, Smith often hits essential truths about human nature or society. In doing so, she inverts the traditional essayist’s conventions. Rather than addressing her subject directly and her readers indirectly, she does the opposite. Smith arrives at the truth of her subject matter in a roundabout fashion, as skillfully as she draws out universal feelings and experiences from the everyday in her novels. But she addresses us directly, striving for an audience connection that often involves telling us to Google something, listen to a certain song or look up a YouTube video in order to understand what she’s talking about.

But all this talk of “truth” makes Smith sound stiff or philosophical when, actually, she’s pretty fun — an entertaining, relatable voice from across the pond. Like Roxane Gay here in the States, Smith deftly interweaves high and lowbrow topics, often in the same essay, shifting from comedians to philosophers to pop stars without rambling or trying too hard. Her essays are best when she has gotten very excited about something — she just read a thought-provoking book or saw a movie she can’t get out of her head — and needs to talk about it, to work through it. In trying to get to the bottom of something she’s come across, whether that’s Key & Peele’s comedy, Jay-Z’s music or an old photograph her father took, Smith delves deeper and deeper into the wormhole of her fascination, and we come out on the other side with her, clutching some gem of knowledge or insight.

In one of the last essays in the collection “Meet Justin Bieber!” Smith finds improbable, somehow inevitable connections between the famous singer and the dead Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. (Their names, she points out, are not just similar but derivatives of the same Germanic surname). Bieber and other celebrities struggle to be truly known, she says, because while they are “known” to millions, it’s only in the most superficial way: Even when they “meet” people, it is a shallow encounter, a selfie, an autograph, an experience already relegated to the past tense. Buber, the philosopher, criticized these superficial encounters, emphasizing the rarity and great effort involved in truly meeting someone, knowing them — something that may happen only a few times in a life.

In “Feel Free,” Smith seems to be trying to reach Buber’s ideal, constantly reaching toward a deeper understanding of her subject and a richer connection with her readers. Novelists are often intensely curious about the human condition in all its bounty and ugliness. In these essays, Smith is intensely curious about everything she comes across: What does it feel like to be Justin Bieber, signing thousands of autographs in a packed Tokyo stadium? What was it like to be Billie Holiday, on stage in her prime, in her decline? How is it to grow up biracial in Detroit? On the Upper West Side of New York? In London in the ‘80s, as Smith herself did?

Smith is a nuanced, wonderful observer of humanity in all its complexity, and she often lands on key insights about our present time or political situation — in her roundabout, indirect way — in these essays. But when she approaches this material directly, somehow it doesn’t hold the same unique charm or insight; she winds up sounding a little like every other “think piece” writer without the layered, labyrinthine originality of her best work. For this reason, a few of the book’s earliest essays on topical issues like Brexit, global warming and the perils of social media fall flat compared to her more textured pieces. When the point of her essay is to make a point, it’s just not as interesting or complex to read. These essays, which represent only a handful of Smith’s excellent collection, read like remarkably eloquent versions of conversations we’ve all had before. Maybe I’m just tired of reading about politics, or so-called “think pieces,” or both. In this overcrowded space, even Smith occasionally struggles to say something wholly new.

It seems a waste to spend time discussing a few so-so essays. This isn’t a book to read from page one, from start to finish — there’s nothing chronological about it. Rifle through the pages until you find a perfect sentence gleaming at you; it won’t take long. After all, that’s how Smith herself would do it. We’re all just passing through, unthinking, until we find an idea that arrests us, consumes us. Let Smith lead you down her rabbit hole.