Zadie Smith opens Intimations, which contains six short, beautifully structured essays written largely in her characteristically gleaming prose, by acknowledging, “There will be many books written about the year 2020: historical, analytical, political, as well as comprehensive accounts. This is not any of those—the year isn’t halfway done. What I’ve tried to do is organize some of the feelings and thoughts that events, so far, have provoked in me.” So, instead of social insight, which Smith admits is not yet available, she chooses self-organization. The turn inward is entirely logical, but the structuring impulse does not bode well.
To be fair, Smith’s opting for order is unsurprising. In fiction, she’s a master of structure and form. Traditionally, she has allowed greater looseness in her essays and criticism—I am thinking, for instance, of Feel Free’s shaggy, implausibly delightful “Meet Justin Bieber!,” which uses a pop-star meet and greet as an occasion to revisit Martin Buber’s I and Thou—but not in Intimations. Its essays are short, tight, and glossy: pleasurable to read, but coy and cagey with their fundamental subject, which is death.
Read: The peculiar power of a Zadie Smith sentence
Take “Peonies,” in which a startling, lush garden sets Smith thinking about human vulnerability to biology. In theory, “Peonies” acknowledges the creative and destructive primacy of nature over determination—which includes its primacy over art. To Smith, art and determination are nearly synonymous: “Writing,” she explains, “is control. The part of the university in which I teach should properly be called the Controlling Experience Department. Experience … rolls over everybody. We try to adapt, to learn, to accommodate … But writers go further: they take this largely shapeless bewilderment and pour it into a mold of their own devising. Writing is all resistance” to experience.
Of course, this is not true for all writers. Some seek to portray bewilderment rather than shape it into reason. Smith attempts to do the former in “Peonies,” but when it comes time for her to wrangle with the crushing confusion and helplessness that disease generates, she bails on her project. The coronavirus appears explicitly in “Peonies” only once, not named but described as our “strange and overwhelming season of death”—and the moment Smith mentions it, she arrives at her argument’s end. “Peonies” is a conventionally structured literary essay, which means, as we learn in high school, that its conclusion recapitulates its beginning. Rather than continue thinking about overwhelming death, Smith returns to the place where “Peonies” began: a flower garden, and the stifled yearning for disorder that it provokes.
“Peonies” is not the only essay in which structure helps Smith turn from death. “The American Exception,” a linear, op-ed-style argument, addresses death as a mass phenomenon, but never as a personal one. “Something to Do,” a reflection on why writers write even in crisis, reads like the first portion of a writing-workshop lecture. In “Screengrabs (after Berger, before the virus),” Smith returns to the section-heavy style of her 2012 novel, NW, in which neat, titled chunks of narrative replicate the unwillingness of her hyper-controlled protagonist, Natalie, to engage with emotion. But here, Smith is the one unwilling to engage.