‘Intimations’ Book Review: Zadie Smith Applies Her Even Temper to Tumultuous Times


Anxiety lurks through these few pages. This is a work of minor dimensions at — and about — a major time. (Royalties from the book will go to two charities, The Equal Justice Initiative and The COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York.)

Smith herself left New York early on in the pandemic’s course, and she expresses guilt about this without over-performing it. She bemoans, when thinking about the apocalypse or anything even approaching it, her lack of a survival instinct. “A book like ‘The Road’ is as incomprehensible to me as a Norse myth cycle in the original language,” she writes. “Suicide would hold out its quiet hand to me on the first day — the first hour.”

In an essay called “Suffering Like Mel Gibson” (its title is a play on a popular meme), she writes provocatively of Christ on the cross, looking at those crucified beside him and wondering “whether his agonies, when all was said and done, were relatively speaking in fact better than those of the thieves and beggars to his left and right whose sufferings long predated their present crucifixions and who had no hope (unlike Christ) of an improved post-cross situation.” This thought comes in a passage addressing the word of this century so far, “privilege,” which she does with her usual many-sidedness: She notes her own advantages; parses the stubbornness of inequality; and outlines the explanatory (and experiential) limitations of privilege, including its ultimate inability to shield anyone from suffering, sometimes to the point of suicide. In Zadie Smith’s universe — meaning, for my money, the one we’re all living in — complexity is king.

She sympathizes with the generations coming up behind her, born into a beleaguered century and now living through the current crises with worried eyes on a deeply tenuous future. In one of the finest lines in “Intimations,” Smith writes: “The infinite promise of American youth — a promise elaborately articulated by movies and advertisements and university prospectuses — has been an empty lie for so long that I notice my students joking about it with a black humor more appropriate to old men, to the veterans of wars.”

It might be engrossing to hear Smith in conversation with those she now teaches, to see where their ideas overlap and diverge. Toward the end of the book, she writes elliptically of identity as an “area of interest.” Elsewhere she argues for solidarity among “the plague class — that is, all economically exploited people, whatever their race.”

Interested in what she once called “coalition across difference,” Smith has some opinions that she defines as commonplace but that she must know are now hotly debated.

She resists, for instance, the idea of “hate crime” as a desirable distinction, calling it “an elevation of importance in what strikes me as the wrong direction,” lending an undeserved power to the bigotry that inspires the term.

“The hatred of a group qua group is, after all, the most debased and irrational of hatreds, the weakest, the most banal,” she writes. “It shouldn’t radiate a special aura, lifting it into a separate epistemological category. For this is exactly what the killer believes.”

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