The author of White Teeth and Grand Union offers timely meditations on life during the covid-19 pandemic, considering subjects from the creative process to the characters who populate her New York neighborhood to racism in the United States.
I think this collection of little pieces by Zadie Smith will endure as a beautiful thing. Although it’s born out of the pandemic and the lockdown, it feels like a doorway into a new space for thought ... Smith is a wonderful essayist; she’s a natural. 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. She doesn’t lay down the law, she argues with herself, so that the movement of her writing feels like the zigzag passage of perception inside a quick mind, not in love with its own opinions, uneasy with certainty ... The book’s leanness feels like part of its aesthetic; its thought-space is uncluttered and unfussy, and everything is lightly, delicately done ... There isn’t all that much explicitly about the pandemic, or the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and yet everything feels conceived under the pressure of those things happening, pushing out new meanings from old subjects ... One of the endearing characteristics of Intimations is how much time Smith spends feeling uncomfortable, or confessing her own timidity or passivity, even treachery ... This is a generously grateful book. And all of her royalties, incidentally, go to charity.
A novelist at heart, Smith writes essays that scarcely abide by the current understanding of the form. She doesn’t buttonhole her reader with fervent arguments and rarely brandishes a suitable object for blame. And while one of the pieces in Intimations concerns suffering, Smith seems allergic to the notion of testifying to her own in any detail. She’s ambivalent, sometimes rueful, often self-deprecating. Her first inclination is to laugh at herself ... That’s the scale of Intimations: the human comedy ... To read Zadie Smith is to recognize how few writers seem to genuinely love human beings the way she does, with such infinite curiosity and attention, even when they are behaving monstrously. Or, for that matter, how few are able to do justice to what, for want of a better term, we’ll call common decency.
... ultra-timely essays (several written in the past few momentous months), showcases her trademark levelheadedness ... This cast of mind doesn’t mean that Smith avoids moral stances. In Intimations, she speaks clearly and forcefully about the murder of George Floyd and the legacy of slavery and the systemic sins revealed by Covid-19 ... most withering, on the subject of race ... But despite these jabs, Smith remains unmistakably noncombative. This spirit appears born not of a fear of confrontation but a genuine perplexity (of a searching, brilliant kind) at the nature of experience and people, including herself ... Smith’s gifts as a novelist animate her essays ... In Zadie Smith’s universe—meaning, for my money, the one we’re all living in—complexity is king.