In a new series on my blog, I will be writing essays of the texts I am currently studying for my Creative Writing MA course, including my own opinions on the piece as well as a look into the creative devices each writer employs.
In his review of Intimations for The New York Times, John Williams claims, “in Zadie Smith’s universe — meaning, for my money, the one we’re all living in — complexity is king.” This does not mean that Smith writes in impregnable modes of philosophical thought – quite the opposite, her writing celebrates the mundane, banal and accessible everyday – but rather that she encourages us to not necessarily seek and live by one “correct” dogma.
Complexity of thought and feeling are king. This is especially urgent as we live through 2020, an unprecedented year of uncertainty. She explores this in the six short essays within this collection: from a critique of Trump’s America; an exploration of the Black Lives Matter movement; the conversations surrounding privilege and suffering; and the very reason for why authors write at all (which, she concludes, is similar to why we have all been baking banana bread for months: it is something to do).
Even the title Intimations (a nod to Aurelius’ similarly titled Meditations on his theories of Stoic philosophy) indicates these essays are merely hints or clues on how to exist, not instructions. This in turn leads Smith to take on a self-deprecating, anxious voice, as if she has no right to spout her own views. This seemingly unreliable narrator becomes intensely relatable through her own admissions of why she writes (“I write because… well, the best I can say for it is it’s a psychological quirk of mine developed in response to whatever personal failings I have.”), theories that harkened to the self-critical laments of Borges and myself by Jorge Luis Borges who was intensely critical of his ‘writer’ identity.
My favourite essay was “Screengrabs”, a collection of individual character studies of various people she has interacted with throughout the year. She uses these studies to ground her philosophical, existential ideas into something accessible and tangible by narrating the everyday people surviving throughout a pandemic.
This is an aspect of her writing craft I deeply admire – her ability to discuss beauty, suffering, truth and purpose within the familiar realms of a colleague at work, a homeless man on the street and a childhood friend’s mum. In her Guardian review, Tessa Hadley states, “she writes as she thinks, and she thinks crisply and exactly, not in abstractions, but through the thick specificity of people and places, fragments of story.”
Moreover, her use of metaphor to make the concepts of death, contempt, suffering and America as a homogenous entity as imminent characters in our world makes them all the more understandable and terrifying. Hadley compared Smith’s work to London Observed by Doris Lessing, which I found interesting as a way in which Smith’s essays provide fragmented snapshots, or jigsaw pieces, of the individuals and ideologies that occupy our world as opposed to a generic, linear depiction of the events of 2020. These fragmented short stories centred on different characters present in a world are used to explore the multi-faceted nature of that setting.
She creates such vivid, vibrant characters in concise, nuanced ways through her language. Some of my favourite descriptions were, “he made baldness look like an achievement” and “mighty-bosomed in a V-neck T-shirt she had deliberately taken a pair of scissors to (in order to drastically deepen the décolletage)”. Both examples give you such clear indications of the characters’ temperaments (for the former, how his appearance exudes positivity even in an area he lacks) and their motivations (for the latter, that this woman wanted to accentuate her curves at a minimal cost!).
She manages to paint people, in few words, with such nuance and depth that her descriptions never feel judgemental. The bald-man from the first quotation, Ben, we later witness to be despondent and concerned by Covid-induced financial issues. People never become caricatures, and she is keen to not fall into that trap, subconsciously recognising the divisive effect painting people as stereotypes can have.
Smith seems to share the burden of many writers and artists during this time: it doesn’t feel right to create, or to even write about what is happening in the world. However, her essays manage to defy this in a way which doesn’t feel tedious or unnecessary. They provide a viewpoint not only into our current world, but the world we perhaps want to build after this. If anything, it reminded of the following from Amanda Boulter: “This is the power of literature, to break the moulds of habit and recapture the freshness of perception.”
 Williams, John. “In ‘Intimations,’ Zadie Smith Applies Her Even Temper to Tumultuous Times.” The New York Times, 22 July 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/22/books/review-intimations-essays-zadie-smith.html
 Hadley, Tessa. “Intimations by Zadie Smith review – a wonderful essayist on the lockdown.” The Guardian, 1 August 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/aug/01/intimations-by-zadie-smith-review-a-wonderful-essayist-on-the-lockdown
 Boulter, Amanda. Writing Fiction: Creative and Critical Approaches. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, p. 16