The Peculiar Power of a Zadie Smith Sentence

Dissecting a line from the author’s story “The Embassy of Cambodia,” Jonathan Lee questions his own myopia as a novelist.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.

Doug McLean

Literature is the freedom to say anything, the authority to combine words any way you wish. But that infinite license has a flip side: The page is very blank, and the endless number of possible choices can overwhelm a writer. When I spoke to Jonathan Lee, the author of High Dive, for this series, he explained how he became lost inside his novel, intoxicated by the temptation to endlessly describe—until lines by Zadie Smith reminded him that no writer can say it all, and inspired him to make some tough choices. We spoke about the personal, artistic, and political implications of determining one’s scope of focus, and the difficulty of deciding where to draw the line.

High Dive revolves around a real-life event, the Brighton Hotel bombing, which took place in 1984. A member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) used a homemade bomb (cobbled together out of camcorder parts, a kitchen timer, and 20 pounds of blasting jelly) in an attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet. At first, the novel primarily concerns itself with the the daily duties and private longings of the hotel staff. But when nitroglycerine blows a hole in the roof, the wider world comes into view.

High Dive, which was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, is now out in paperback; it was named a best book of 2016 by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and others, and has been translated into a dozen languages. Jonathan Lee lives in New York, where he is a senior editor at Catapult. He spoke to me by phone.

Jonathan Lee: There is a quote I kept above my desk as I wrote my novel High Dive. It’s from a Zadie Smith story called “The Embassy of Cambodia,” which I first read in the New Yorker. I read it with a pen in my hand (I always read with a pen in hand, or a pencil, if I’m feeling insecure) and I remember underlining lots of sentences, these included:

Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?

The real significance of these lines didn’t strike me until later; in the moment, I only knew I liked them. Looking back, they seem to summarize the exact question I wanted to explore in High Dive: To what extent do any of us, as artists, as people, have an obligation to focus our attention on events beyond our own individual experience?

My novel is about the moments when the private, intimate lives of characters rub up against history and public events—a bombing by the IRA—but I didn’t quite realize that then. I tacked the Zadie Smith lines up above my writing desk. At that time, I was lost. I was so deep into the writing of my own novel that I had stopped questioning the narrative around me, and the life around me. I’d created these characters, and I was writing hundreds and hundreds of pages about their lives, adding more every day.

The freedom to wander and be aimless can be a great thing in fiction. I think it’s often how you stumble upon what you really want to write about. But I was a few years into High Dive, and I started to worry that I’d fallen into a complacent space where infinite detail was crowding out ideas and my own freedom to create. I think there are micro writers and macro writers, and that I’m a micro writer: If I write out a single conversation or minor scene, it will come out to 20 pages in its first draft, every tiny sensation and smell and taste and pause described, even if the event itself would only last five minutes in the so-called real world. A macro writer, in the space of a few pages, can do the opposite—ease us through 20 or 30 years of a character’s life. Think of Denis Johnson’s beautiful Train Dreams.

The Zadie Smith quote reminded me to ask questions of myself, each time I sat down at my desk—about what I wanted to do with the novel I was writing, beyond the task of simply keeping up with it. And what I wanted to do was what I understand Smith to be describing when her narrator asks, in "The Embassy of Cambodia," how large the circle around a given person’s attention should be.  I wanted to explore what we focus on within the privacy of our own well-guarded lives, and that which often lies outside the circle. In the case of my novel, what lay outside the circle of attention of several characters was rather large: politics itself. History. Government. Oppression.

I’d decided very early on that I wanted High Dive to explore the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, in 1984—an attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet. I was interested in setting the book mainly within the hotel, because I think hotels are such interesting instances of closed, private spaces. Everything—from the flowers, to the arrangement of furniture, to the rugs, the pressed bed-sheets, the rich curtains, right down to the staff behind the reception desk—is carefully curated to put you, the guest, in a private domain—one that will keep you away from the struggles and stresses and noise of the outside, of history happening, of the world of actual events.

The central moment of my book—an Irish Republican Army man walking into the hotel and planting a bomb in room 629—is, I began to realize, about the outside world coming in.

I grew up seeing photos of the hotel after the bomb went off. People would still talk about it in the decade that followed, the way the bomb ate this huge chunk out of the hotel. In the most memorable photos, smoke seems to be escaping from the missing chunk of the Grand Hotel’s roofline, this huge gash in the building. But it turned out to be mostly dust, the imperceptible dust you would never notice, the dust that had lived behind and beneath the carefully polished surfaces of the hotel, its hidden spaces, for decades. The bomb blew it all out and up into the night sky.

Before the bombing happens, most of the characters in High Dive are fixated on the daily details of their lives—as we all are, every day. The deputy general manager of the hotel is worried about his promotion, and thinks Thatcher’s visit will be an opportunity for him to be promoted and improve his family’s life. His daughter is worried about her love life and what she’s going to do after university. These characters are trapped in their own world, and that myopia we all share seemed, every time I glanced up at Zadie’s lines, to reflect my own myopia as a writer: The characters worried endlessly about the details of their own lives, and I worried endlessly about the details of my novel. When was the last time I’d joined a political protest? When was the last time I’d even listened to more than 10 minutes of the news on NPR?

My gut instinct is that writers don’t have any obligations, other than to what they put on the page, their own characters and their sentences. The idea that a writer should be obligated to deal in politics, or to raise questions about the political environment in which they live or their characters live, seems absurd to me. I feel the same when it comes to the question of whether artists should be activists. Surely the answer is each to their own.

At the same time, I have this nagging question in my mind: Why is it that so few novels published in the last few years in Britain and America—the two countries I call home—have addressed politics, or freedom of expression, or civil liberties, or protest, in any meaningful way? Not every novel should engage with political ideas, or politically fraught moments in history—that much we can all agree on. But isn’t it surprising that hardly any contemporary novels published in the western world seem interested in doing so? So many novels arrive on my doorstep every day bearing blurbs declaring that they are “universal love stories,” or “timeless explorations” of X or Y. Those novels are often excellent, but does every novel have to be like this? It’s as if there is something shameful in a story being tied to a particular time or place or political climate.

When my book mail includes a novel by Mohsin Hamid or Yaa Gyasi or Sunil Yapa or Hari Kunzru it’s a thrill—a great surprise—because they are part of such a very small group of writers published in America (and published to wide audiences) who seem to want to explore what Zadie Smith’s narrator, in those lines above my writing desk, seems to speak of as the world beyond our own mostly comfortable, middle-class lives. Hamid and Gyasi and Yapa and Kunzru are writers who, I think, mingle the personal with the political in interesting ways. They raise questions about the world without forcing answers upon us. I wish I read more books like theirs.

There’s a disparity, it seems to me, between the way we talk about literature from other countries and the way we talk about and judge our own. When a writer like Mo Yan wins the Nobel Prize, many U.S. writers, U.S. readers, and U.S. journalists seemed to be up in arms that the prize had gone to a writer who hadn’t used his work, the actual pages of his fiction, to criticize the Chinese regime he lives within. The underlying assumption seemed to be that we—Americans, westerners— are writing from a democracy, therefore we can write about whatever we like, because (what a smug, misguided position) politics is not a problem for us. Politics does not touch us in the same way. Does someone who is writing within a more obvious regime of censorship somehow have more obligation to engage, in their art, with political issues?  That seemed to be the implication, and it’s a strange one.

In the age of Trump, maybe there’ll be a whole new generation of American fiction writers addressing politics in their work. Maybe we’ve been politically complacent in the last ten or twenty years in England and in America—an America under Obama didn’t seem to cry out for politically engaged art in quite the same way it does now. There are things we can learn, I think, from the fiction of writers like Damon Galgut in South Africa—writers who’ve spent the last ten or twenty years investigating moments in history and blending the personal and the political without every getting preachy.

There’s another aspect of the Zadie Smith lines I’ve been thinking about lately: Are there certain subjects that should remain off-limits for a given writer? Is there certain subject matter—for example, slavery, in a historical narrative; or the killing of young black lives in police custody in a more contemporary one—that a white writer doesn’t have the right to seek to deal with in his or her work? Does an American writer ever have the right to inhabit the mind of a Syrian refugee? What is outside the circle or scope of a given writer’s artistic attention—“how large should this circle be?"

The argument that writers should, in their art, stick within the circle of their direct experience, or class, or gender, or race, feels like an argument against empathy to me. Surely, we don’t want all of our writers to limit themselves to their own experience, and yet there are areas where advocating complete artistic freedom also seems un-nuanced. I have written from the perspective of a woman, and I have written from the perspective of an octogenarian, and I have written from the perspective of a young Belfast man with a bag of Semtex slung over his back. And yet I don’t think, if I’m honest, that I would ever seek to write a novel that inhabited, say, a Syrian refugee’s perspective. Why? A failure of expertise, for sure. A failure of confidence, too. There are questions of power—of where the power dynamic lies between a storyteller and his or her subject. The material is too far beyond me. It is outside my circle. I am not the right person to reach for it.

It isn’t just Zadie Smith who’s lived above my desk. For a while there was Don DeLillo, a line from Libra, one of my favorite of his books: “The purpose of history is to climb out of your own skin.”

I can’t help thinking that’s the purpose of fiction, too. Good fiction is often about connection, about feeling less alone, about imagining yourself into other people’s shoes and finding your own imaginative limits, as a writer and a reader. And in moments in history where communities come under threat, or are being be blasted apart, the written word has an even greater power to connect people: through a story, through a single sentence, through jokes, through anecdote, through the words painted on a protest sign. Words are one of the means we have to leave our private circle and discover something else: other people’s experiences, struggles, private and political histories. Words are, among other things, a form of transport.

People often talk about books as facilitating “escapism.” But I don’t want to escape into vacuous nothingness. I have bad TV for that. I want to escape into other lives, their complexities. I turn to the writers who can do that for me.

Lately I’ve also been thinking of Joy Williams’s “Uncanny the Singing that Comes From Certain Husks,” a wonderful essay about the writing process.  She says that writers start out their careers wanting to be a transfiguring agent of some kind—but in the end, at best, they only manage to make contact with other human beings. Maybe that’s enough. In the essay, Williams talks about Don DeLillo, one of America’s greatest observers of personal and political nuance, as “a great shark moving hidden in our midst, beneath the din and wreck of the moment.” She ends her essay like this: “Why do I write? Because I wanna be a great shark too. Another shark. A different shark, in a different part of the ocean.” Amen to that, and to the ocean being big.