Zadie Smith’s Varieties of Individuality

“If I have any gift at all,” Zadie Smith admits in one of the essays in Feel Free, “it’s for dialogue—that trick of breathing what-looks-like-life into a collection of written sentences.” Smith does voices. Sometimes literally: an audio recording of her reading her story “Escape from New York,” includes the treat that is impressions of its three characters, Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando, and Elizabeth Taylor. Her fiction, of course, is full of voices, but the rendering of this familiar trio and their escape occupies that fertile gray area somewhere between entirely real and entirely fabricated. It isn’t mimicry, which leads nowhere, but a curious sort of imaginary impersonation, which leads everywhere.

Imaginary impersonation sounds like a purely fictional mode, yet it’s the way she approaches all writing, which brings together “three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self.” It is these three, she tells us in her introduction, that constitute writing “(for me)”. The parentheses are important because it’s the final category that’s the real kicker. Selfhood—other people’s—is what she returns to again and again, through what else but her own shifting and brilliant subjectivity. So it is that instead of a straight “introductory essay for a book of Billie Holiday photos,” Smith writes a bravura monologue, a virtuosic act of ventriloquism. Tellingly, it’s in the second person: Zadie-as-Billie-as-“you”.

“I did try to write an essay about Billie,” Smith admits in a glum little shrug of a footnote, “but every angle seemed too formal or cold.” When your subject presents herself to you with the intimacy of a first name, and when that “you” identifies as a “sentimental humanist” it would only be a travesty to respond with the detachment of cool appraisal.

Smith’s great fascination with selfhood rests in its contingency. In an essay on the artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who paints anonymous, elegant black figures, Smith quotes the painter Chris Ofili. Responding to the intimacy of the paintings, Ofili had marveled at, “the tightness of her bun. The size of his ear. She knew so much about so little about him. She said so little he heard so much.” “Exactly,” Smith enthuses, taking up where Ofili left off. “Here are some paintings of he and she, him and her. They say little, explicitly, but you hear so much.” Ofili, in these elliptical sentences, leaps from small, specific and personal details, to some felt, relational truth, and this is very much Smith’s mode as both fiction writer and critic.

Noting the New Museum show’s red walls, a color that strikes her as being redolent of “the calico covers of nineteenth-century novels,” Smith proposes that the color “has the effect of bringing a diverse selection of souls together, framing and containing them, much like a novel contains its people, which is to say, only partially.” It’s this partial containment, the generosity it grants, that appears to yield this next impression. The paintings “seem to have souls—that ultimate retrogressive term!—though by “soul” we need to imply nothing more metaphysical here than the sum total of one person’s affect in the mind of another.”

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