Monday, December 9, 2013

ADVENT 12/9: Aurelie Sheehan on Zadie Smith

On Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

Aurelie Sheehan

As a reader, I want to claim fellowship with ‘good writing’ without limits; to be able to say that Hurston is my sister and Baldwin is my brother, and so is Kafka my brother, and Nabokov, and Woolf my sister, and Eliot and Ozick. (Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind)

Let’s face it: I’m a lonely person. Lonely, lonely, lonely. Always looking for company. The company I seek is a rare, rather drug-atastic kind, a seemingly-secret-because-it’s-so-private kind. It is the company of fake people I meet in books. I really get into the story. There is nothing I’d rather be doing right now than sitting in some La-Z-Boy recliner, or sprawling on a couch under a chenille throw of purple and turquoise, with a fireplace, and with a window overlooking a twilight snow-scape with potential fearsome creatures close but not too close, and a chilly slender moon, and a beverage and snack, and a book that is a story that is a person that is a life that is an imagined world that is imagined even if it did happen, who really cares? But it is true and must be said, certainly in Essay Daily, that I am almost always attracted first and foremost to fiction, or failing that, the fictesspoem, or the poetictessay, or—. 

The Book of My Imagination. You know what I mean. The keen feeling of being held by a rope attached to your waist to a story. Addiction to what happens next, the deep crafty savoring of phrase or image. This is real to me. It is a kind of achievement or culmination of perfection, an exquisiteness, private and with no good use or societal relevance except for it changes me internally. All art is quite useless, says the man of the hour.

The very privacy of it all—the intimacy. Something that could only happen under a blanket or a poncho, or at least an airline throw. It is, unless ruined by school, pure luxury, a sensual still pool of deepening feeling, of deepening intent, of nothing can get in the way of this, of stay away, of I am here, and something rather unusual is happening, out of thin air.

I feel at home here. They understand me, these fake people and their minions, the writers who brought them to me. Little cab drivers. Little maids with suitcases and paperwork.
Nowadays I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own. To this end I find myself placing cautious faith in the difficult partnership between reader and writer, that discrete struggle to reveal an individual’s experience of the world through the unstable medium of language. Not a refusal of meaning, then, but a quest for it. (Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind)
I am writing to tell you about Zadie Smith’s book, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (The Penguin Press 2009). Zadie Smith has written four novels (White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW). I enjoy her fiction as I enjoy many good books (see above—serial lover under the blanket, snow outside, etc.). Until I read NW, I considered her novels mostly work of exquisite pacing, clarity, and characterization. Since NW, which is a masterpiece, my considerations have grown a little more breathless and indeterminate. Put it like this: she rethinks the structure of the novel in a way I find exciting in terms of piecing together what is possible using the reliable pleasures of the traditional narrative, yet also foregrounding or gaining from the anatomy of inspiration, instinct, improvisation.

A book of occasional essays. Well, the form itself can be jarring, and in this case there is not exactly a jarring sense as a sense of variety—this is a slice of life, a compendium of Smith’s nonfiction. Places of origin include magazine assignments, film reviews, lectures. Subjects range from the consideration of authors and literary matters, to an on-the-ground reporter’s report from Liberia, to Christmas to comedy to the Oscars. She’s got talent. She can write about anything.

What stands out for me in this collection is the homage to writers and books and Smith’s investment in writing and reading. She writes with persuasive conviction about Zora Neale Hurston, E.M. Forster, George Eliot, Nabokov, Barthes, Kafka, and David Foster Wallace. She compares two recent novels (Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and Remainder by Tom McCarthy), considering the artificiality of realism, the expression of authenticity, the role of political discourse and identity. She allows an advisory aside to writers, with “That Crafty Feeling,” a list of observations about writing (the working habits of macro planners and micro managers, the role of inspiration and reading, the search for voice and tone, the dismantling of a project’s initial scaffolding).

I can think of no better beginning for my New Year’s Resolution-style book of lists for next year, than to transport, if not to a La-Z-Boy, than to an Island of the Mind, to think through these threads she calls to mind as she contemplates contemporary novels:
The literary economy sets up its stall on the road that leads to Netherland, along which one might wave to Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow. Rarely has it been less aware (or less interested) in seeing what’s new on the route to Remainder, that skewed side road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard. Friction, fear and outright hatred spring up often between these two traditions—yet they have revealing points of connection. At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov. For though manifestoes feed on rupture, artworks themselves bear the trace of their own continuity. (Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind)
Writers need to write about books. Writers need to call forth one another. When I picked up this book, I was lonely. Not for people, but for fake people. I didn’t get fake people here, but what I got was as good—better even—because it struck me with force how powerful it is to engage intellectually with, not one’s readers—we’ve been over that—but with one’s writers.

Reading Smith, the Flaming Fire of Undying Love (of reading) came to me, purely as a reader, as the story lover, and only secondarily as a writer. Of course there is magnificence in reading and rereading and thinking about icons of my literary past. When did I last re-read Kafka’s most significant works? I haven’t read Their Eyes Were Watching God since college. I am completely certain my experience of it would be different now. And it is out there. Out in the world, on some dusty last shelf of my local library, given away for free like a slutty hardware store flyer, free as some kind of e-book, free as kindling—or maybe it will cost a hefty fifty cents at the Salvation Army.

She likes Henry James—though with enough discretion and equivocation that she doesn’t seem like a fangirl.

She seems, now that I think about it, a tender reader, an appreciator par excellence for David Foster Wallace, her contemporary, also giving a go to finding traction between the intellectual and the artistic and the humanly meaningful. It is with her piece on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men that she breaks out of a recognizable and traditional essay structure, if there is such a thing, and allows her meaning to spill out as form.

It is with appreciation I read Smith, witness her excitement and close reading. It’s not that she reads like a writer—of course she does, we read with our whole selves—but that she respects and fosters the quenching tradition of using words to make meaning out of our lives, to ask questions, to create characters out of characters on the page.

Any writer can feel like a narcissist—in the lazy form of that word. Me, me, me—as mentioned—I’m tired, I’m sad, I’m lonely. And yet, as Smith asserts, we’re in this game to connect. Connection is all. I feel rested, refreshed, and reinvigorated after reading her essays on the writers that have spoken to her, that she has, in these pages and in her own work, spoken back to. She has reminded me that I’m not alone. “My writing desk is covered in open novels,” Smith writes, and I believe her. All our desks are covered in novels, invisible cities filled with friends and foes.


Aurelie Sheehan is the author of four books of fiction, most recently Jewelry Box: A Collection of Histories (BOA Editions, Ltd.). Her work has appeared in journals including Conjunctions, Epoch, Fence, New England Review, Ploughshares, and The Southern Review. She teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

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