Zadie Smith’s latest collection of personal essays, written in the spring and published this summer, is pandemic art in media res. It is a diary’s middle pages and the note of a shipwrecked survivor still awaiting rescue. It is Wednesday’s home-cooked dinner and the washing machine paused between cycles. It is the second, purple candle in the Advent wreath—not yet the pink relief of Gaudete Sunday’s third flame.
Comprised of six essays written in the “scraps of time the year itself has allowed” (xi), the book is thin, only ninety-seven pages long. It could fit in the back pocket of yoga pants if yoga pants had back pockets. Because it is a slim book, it can be read in its entirety in that space between the children climbing into bed and your own body collapsing into sleep. Smith says the book is “small” by definition of the personal essays it contains, but personal essays are not small and these are certainly not. They are about time and art and work and the U.S.-president-she-will-not-name and suffering and fear and racism and privilege and healthcare disparities.
If you sleep on the heavy topics of Intimations, you may even dream them—but hopefully not the kind of frantic dreams that came in mid-September when you were too sick to move and opening your eyes consumed so much energy that you just kept them shut for three whole days other than to make sure, when you tipped the bottle of hot sauce to your tongue to see if you had lost your taste (you hadn’t), it didn’t spill all over your face. In “Suffering Like Mel Gibson,” Smith writes that “misery is very precisely designed, and different for each person” (29). The despair that comes from waking each morning drenched in the night’s fever sweats does not compare to the misery of declining alone in a hospital room.
The pandemic’s miseries create contradictory silos of suffering, Smith writes: the relentless togetherness for some; the painful isolation for others. She zeroes in on the challenges of pandemic parenting, from the “single mother with the single child” to the “night-shift worker with three children under the age of six” (31) to the “artists with children—who treasured isolation as the most precious thing they owned—find[ing] out what it is to live without privacy and time” (29). Oh, the guilt, the ropes we throw ourselves to climb out of the pit of self-pity, knowing that someone, somewhere, is suffering more than we are in our lonely, chaotic house, no longer able to escape to work to avoid conflict. “Her face, her face, her face. Your face, your face, your face” (30). Smith distinguishes, though, between the “bubble” of privilege, which must be acknowledged, and that of suffering (32). The former, she argues, can be popped. Suffering, on the other hand, is “impermeable” (32). Suffering, uniquely ours, can kill us. She gives us permission to concede our miseries: “when your sufferings, as puny as they may be in the wider scheme of things, direct themselves absolutely and only to you, as if precisely designed to destroy you and only you . . . it might be worth allowing yourself the admission of the reality of suffering” (36). Notably, she does not say for every misery, we must follow Newton’s third law and name a joy.
Intimations is 2020’s calling card of complexities and contradictions, left on the front hall table at the house of writers, some who are hiding from their children in the bathroom for thirty minutes while they try to write something, anything, this essay. Intimations is an ache. It is the thoughts that we might think if we had time to think them, or if we risked the pain of letting them into our heads. In “Something to Do,” Smith explores the way that time broke down in the early months of the pandemic. She is especially interested in doing time as a writer: “It seems it would follow that writers—so familiar with empty time and with being alone—should manage this situation better than most” (24). But Smith, “[c]onfronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure” struggles to re-order her present days and face how she managed the past ones (24). With soccer and theatre and cross country and every blooming thing canceled, we schedule game nights and family movie nights and Saturday hikes. We make everything from scratch, down to the vegan andouille sausages with one and a quarter cups of vital wheat gluten that have been in the freezer for six years awaiting the calendar to clear. Intimations is proof that Smith found a way to be productive in the “playpen” (24)—in part because that is what she knows to do: to write. Why does Smith write? Why does any of us write? We trip over ourselves in explanation, Smith says, but for her, it’s simply “something to do.” Even then, she concludes, “it can’t ever meaningfully fill the time. There is no great difference between novels and banana bread” (26).
And yet, there is a difference in what the process demands. When there are no words in the house, there are always bananas turning brown on the kitchen counter, awaiting a transformation, a next life. Banana bread still manages to rise amid distractions, the tomatoes that need tending in the garden, the face masks sewn from old T-shirts, spelling lists chalked out on the driveway, piano tunes readied for virtual recitals, back skin soothed with rhythmic scratches. In “Peonies,” Smith writes about her early resistance to what she thought of as the “the cage” of her “circumstance,” her gender (4). As a growing child, she hated the idea of being “tied to my ‘nature,’ to my animal body—to the whole simian realm of instinct” (4). She has not entirely grown out of these burdens, not now on the edge of peri-menopause, not in “this strange and overwhelming season of death that collides outside my window, with the emergence of dandelions” (10). After all, when the light is right on both sides of a window, it becomes a mirror.
In the title essay, “Intimations,” Smith complies a series of “Debts and Lessons” by the twenty-six family and friends, teachers and artists, who have shaped her. These are the people who walk through our last dreams when the end times slow enough for contemplation. There is both a strength and a fragility to Smith’s lessons, the fragility coming in the peeling back that reveals layers of truth. “18. Zulfi: To have one layer of skin less than the others, and therefore to feel it all: the good and the bad, the beautiful and the abject” (92). “19. Virginia Woolf. To replace that missing layer with language. For as long as it works” (92).
2020 is a year of layers, of putting on and taking off in a season that is in between, and Intimations captures both the discomfort and the moments of relief when everything is just right: the light jacket is warm enough, the shorts ward off heat. Relief. When you return to your office from teaching, tear off your mask and sink into your chair with a long gulp of untainted air. When the fever finally breaks. When your children in virtual learning finish their homework and leave you, for the first time in eight hours, in a silent womb where you must decide whether to be born or simply wait things out. When you manage to write it all down.
Jenny Spinner is a professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia where she teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. She received her MA and PhD in English from the University of Connecticut and her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Penn State University. She is the author of Of Women and the Essay: An Anthology from 1600 to 2000 (U of Georgia P, 2018). She last appeared in Essay Daily on Jan. 16, 2020 as part of the “What Happened on 12/21/19” series.