Nabokov, Meet 50 Cent: Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind
Those who have been paying attention to Zadie Smith since her White Teeth debut likely already know about her affinities for E.M. Forster, Lil Wayne, George Eliot, Kafka, and Fawlty Towers. She's one of probably three working writers capable of smuggling a riff on the perils of "keeping it real" into The New York Review of Books. And who else is near versatile enough to credibly compare the oratorical tics of novelist-philosophers Tom McCarthy and Simon Critchley to those of Morrissey, circa the Smiths? Like her rhetorical comrade Barack Obama, Smith doesn't just speak for her variegated experience as a 34-year-old critic, rap fan, global citizen, comedy connoisseur, cinema dilettante, black woman, reluctant professor, and, lest we forget, virtuoso novelist—she speaks the experience itself.
The last novel Smith published, On Beauty, made explicit homage to Forster and gave a main character the name Zora, as in Neale Hurston. And so in Changing My Mind, Smith's new book of occasional essays, both writers get critical evaluations. In an appraisal of her own first novel, Smith once copped to some "inspired thieving" from Nabokov—he, too, receives extended consideration in Changing My Mind. "This book was written without my knowledge," the author admits in the foreword, meaning it was written piecemeal, unintentionally. In a drawer somewhere still sits "a solemn, theoretical book about writing," entitled Fail Better. The next novel, which would be Smith's fourth, remains unfinished. This is what was written instead, along the way.
The epigraph is from David Foster Wallace: "You get to decide what to worship." That sentiment (and its author) lurks throughout Changing My Mind, which combines literary criticism—mostly first published in The New York Review of Books and The Guardian—with memoir, writerly advice, light reportage, and a season's worth of pithy film reviews of flicks like Date Movie, done for some genius editor at The Sunday Telegraph.
Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays
By Zadie Smith
The Penguin Press
306 pp., $26.95
Wallace did this type of book, too, twice—no coincidence. Like Wallace, Smith works in a critical universe in which a home-run literary mission statement ("Two Directions for the Novel," a less sprawling version of Wallace's own "E Unibus Pluram") gets no pride of place over a visit to a monumentally tacky awards show ("Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend," kin to Wallace's "Big Red Son" sojourn at the Adult Video News Awards). The common denominator? An unwavering surety of voice and an alert subjectivity. Changing My Mind hangs together.
"Zebra cocktail!" That's the kicker to "Rereading Barthes and Nabokov," a Pnin quote repurposed here to express pure delight at Nabokov's way with an image—in this case, the sight of a comb sheltering behind a glass of water. One of the collection's finer experiences is watching a writer with a good ear pick out the details in books she admires. In an essay on Kafka, Smith notes apropos of very little that for both the Czech fabulist and Philip Larkin, "modern heating appliances appear to have served as synecdoche for what one might call the Feminine Mundane"—central heating, in other words, posited as the great through line bisecting 50 years and two continental variations on casual misogyny.
In Forster, Smith finds a certain "honesty and flexibility" in the author's reading of other writers—say, his line on Jane Austen, "She's English, I'm English, and my fondness for her may well be a family affair"—then appropriates the trick as her own. Regarding Hurston: "She is my sister and I love her." Creative thievery is just what artists do, of course, and one of the great thrills of Changing My Mind is watching Smith operate in real-time.
"Despite having spent years at the grindstone of comedy appreciation," Smith writes in "Dead Man Laughing," a far-ranging remembrance of her father and his exacting sense of humor, "I wasn't funny. Not even slightly." Au contraire. After her father's death, Smith correctly recalls his desire to have "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" played at the funeral, but, in her grief, botches the version—"jeering, postbreakup Dylan" gets the nod over valedictory Joan Baez. Hence a memorial ceremony saddled with the unfortunate suggestion that Smith's mild-mannered father had gathered his friends and family "with the particular aim of telling them all to fuck off from beyond the grave." Too morbid? Try instead the writer's take on the act of rapper self-mortification that was Get Rich or Die Tryin': "Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson. My brain is giving you one star, but my heart wants to give you five."
Elsewhere, she suggests various possible scaffoldings for novels in progress—chapters divided after sections of the Bhagavad Gita, the songs of Public Enemy, "the twenty-seven speeches Donald Rumsfeld gave to the press corps during his tenure"—and describes in detail the magical thinking that takes over in the middle of writing a book. "Even as your wife tells you she's sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semicolon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better word than rifle."
Right—you get to decide what to worship. Elsewhere in Changing My Mind is Smith's K.O. of Joseph O'Neill in "Two Directions for the Novel," a Salvador-inspired week in Liberia for The Observer, and a heartfelt appreciation of the actress Katharine Hepburn, whose throwaway aside in The Philadelphia Story—"The time to make your mind up about people is never!"—supplies Smith's other epigraph. Me, I'll always like "Speaking in Tongues," a lecture I saw the writer deliver at the New York Public Library in the immediate aftermath of Obama's election victory, in which she coined a new name for our future president—"The Man from Dream City," a phrase borrowed from Pauline Kael. Dream City, she said then, "is a place of many voices, where the unified singular self is an illusion. Naturally, Obama was born there. So was I."
To prove it, Smith did what amounted to a series of impressions—Eliza Doolittle; college-era Obama; Frank O'Hara; and, finally, the German voice at the other end of the phone that reached the author at a posh, "white, liberal, highly educated" election-night party: "Zadie! Come to Harlem. It's vild here. I'm in za middle of a crazy reggae bar—it's so vonderful. Vy not come now!" Flexibility of voice, in "Speaking in Tongues"—as in the rest of Changing My Mind—leads inexorably to flexibility in all things. One guess as to whether or not she went.
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