Zadie Smith does not refer to the coronavirus pandemic by name. She mentions lockdown, PPE shortages, leaving New York City for London. It’s springtime. Everyone seems to be baking bread. Smith dulls the immense force of the pandemic with her sharp-edged, searching prose. It’s the “global humbling.” Or when “global shit hit the fan.” The pandemic is transmuted into the silent disaster underwriting the anxiety coursing through her discussion of tulips, memes, and contempt.
Begun at the start of lockdown in the United States and finished days after George Floyd’s murder, Intimations, Smith’s third essay collection, breezes by at under 100 pages, perfect for our roving and scattered attentions. The six essays are crisp and vaguely personal, avoiding definitive conclusions for quieter moments of introspection and wonder. For Smith, cooped up at home with her family and confronted with the reality of filling time, writing provides a raft through stormy currents, her way of eking out a semblance of narrative during our moment of destabilizing upheavals.
Unencumbered with busyness and schedules, unceremoniously granted free time to do as she pleases, Smith finds herself at a loss over what to do, exactly. Writing, she explains in her essay “Something To Do,” is no different from baking or sewing or gardening. All these activities try to mold time into something recognizable. In their particular ways, they are all monuments to productivity. In the early days of lockdown, Smith thought she would distract herself in the “playpen” of creation, but instead she uncovered her spectacular need for routine: “I found out how much of my old life was about hiding from life,” in the form of arbitrary limits and deadlines. And now “this crisis” has forced her to sit with the compulsion towards doing. What happens if time isn’t filled by capitalistic pressures? Smith blames her puritan upbringing, but she doesn’t linger on the revolutionary possibilities of rest and refusal. “Do we know how to stop?” She asks provocatively before speeding on to her next glittering thought.
Most of the essays operate in the same way. Smith picks up familiar preoccupations (collective grief, the meaning of suffering, class disparities), examining all angles as if they are rare, infinitely sided crystals. She’s a big proponent of contingency, allergic to our climate of strict, unyielding ideologies. In “The American Exception,” she considers our careless capacity for death, another expression of our violently unequal society: “Death comes to us all — but in America it has long been considered reasonable to offer the best chance of delay to the highest bidder.” One essay made up of brief character sketches, “Screengrabs (After John Berger, before the virus),” could be read as a furtive elegy to New York City, as Smith applies her narrative magic to portraits of the masseur, homeless man, and elderly neighbor animating her old life.
“Postscript: Contempt as a Virus” responds obliquely to George Floyd’s murder through an extended, often-used metaphor: racism as a lethal virus, spread by asymptomatic carriers, infecting everything from individuals to communities to systems. I understand the pull of the comparison for some, but the essay failed to capture the fury and exhaustion set off in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. It reads as too neat and tidy, even though Smith ends the piece on doubt, revealing she’s no longer hopeful for a miraculous vaccine that will end all prejudice.
This neatness afflicts all of the essays in one manner or another. I shouldn’t be surprised. Smith admits from the beginning that, for her, “writing is control.” You see the control in her staccato sentences and sleek lists. While bewitching at times, that structuring impulse feels out of tune with the chaotic realities of life under the pandemic. Corona is a time of meanings unmade and reimagined. For all her talk on the importance of reveling in society’s complexities, I wish Smith spent more time wading in the mess of our times, rather than sculpting our uncertainties into expertly assembled jewels.