Time has been doing wild things over the past few months, but in some ways it’s easier to mark the passage of it since the pandemic began. This is because there are landmarks. One landmark is the Day You Started Using Your Shirtsleeve to Cover Your Thumb Before Pressing an ATM Button. Another is the Day That a Majority of People Started Wearing Masks. Maybe there is the Day That Someone You Know Got Sick. Or worse, You Got Sick. Or worse, Someone You Know Died. Time speeds up and slows down, but it is divided into discrete stages, so our experience of it is both psychedelic and delineated. This is the ruling aesthetic of Zadie Smith’s small book of essays, all written in the spring and zipped into publication just as COVID hits an all-time high in the U.S.
The book begins at the Jefferson Market Garden, a space in Greenwich Village that is exactly the shape of Georgia State but in miniature. Smith is struck by some tulips blooming in the garden. She finds them vulgar: their simple shape, their gauche colors, like something a kid would draw in Magic Marker. The “predatory way” she ogles them reminds her of Lolita. (The word choices make sense; never forget, after all, that flowers are plant genitals.) Smith notices two other women of roughly her age that are also mesmerized by the flowers, and they exchange smiles. “I didn’t need a Freudian to tell me that three middle-aged women, teetering at the brink of perimenopause, had been drawn to a gaudy symbol of fertility and renewal in the middle of a barren concrete metropolis,” she writes. That was a few days before what she calls the “global humbling” — before the garden closed, before a sad note was posted on the garden’s website that currently tells people they can’t penetrate the space’s perimeter but should “take a moment to look through the fence.”
So, tulips. Staring at them outside the garden, Smith notes that her inner production designer would have preferred if the flowers were peonies; that peonies would have made a better scene, somehow. More tasteful in their complexity. But Smith’s inner Smith is powerless before the blobby splendor of the tulips. She submits, and in the submission finds a preview of the next several months of submission at every level: societal, personal, physiological, floral. Writing is a process of wrangling control over experience. It can be disorienting for an individual like Smith to go outside, into a medium that is not a Word document, and undergo a minor loss of attentional control at the hands of a flower she considers kind of wack. But because she is a writer, she leaves the garden and composes an essay about the experience, whipping it into shape. And then she goes back outside. And so on, back and forth, control and its loss, until the essay is finished. At all of 2,000 words, it is a brief but scenic route through the author’s brain.
This — “brief but scenic route” — is probably as good a synonym as any for the intimations of the book’s title. Some of the six pieces collected here are less essay than episode. Smith will pick up an idea, check it out, put it down, pick up another. This is an author best known for writing fiction that she has described as “worming itself into many different bodies, many different lives,” and though you wouldn’t think the habit would carry over into minuscule personal episodes/essays, it does. Smith writes both like Zadie Smith and an extraterrestrial imitating Zadie Smith. She’s an omniscient narrator of her own experiences, most of which are intensely outward-facing; she’s an inveterate people-watcher. (The people-watching part is probably the one quality that is a rock-solid prerequisite for a novelist, by the way, though not an essayist.)
The second piece diagrams a short statement from Donald Trump about the pandemic: “I wish we could have our old life back. We had the greatest economy that we’ve ever had, and we didn’t have death.” That’s from a set of remarks delivered on March 29 from the Rose Garden. In the same way that a fern leaflet mimics the shape of the larger frond, the shape of the statement’s idiocy fully replicates the larger idiocy that produced it. It is beautiful, almost, this example of what you could call Trump’s Fractal, where the deficits of a man’s mind are reproduced at the sentence level of magnification. Smith’s piece begins with her observing the president’s dawning suspicion that his own country is the shithole now; it continues as a lament for the state of health care and a question about why many Americans — the ones at bars, the ones without masks — cannot conceive of a public interest that could possibly supersede a private one.
Then there’s an essay about the ancient phenomenon of essays on the topic of “why I write.” Smith’s answer is that writing is, merely … something to do. Having “something to do” is why a lot of people do a lot of things. Especially now, stranded at home; especially those who aren’t essential workers; and especially, especially those without children (because those with children always have “something to do”; it might in fact be the defining quality of parenthood). Now, Smith writes, the world is divided between those whose task is “vital and unrelenting” and “the rest of us, all with a certain amount of time on our hands.” You’d think that writers, who are accustomed to unstructured time and solitude, might thrive in a pandemic. But Smith’s habit of self-imposed schedules begins to look paltry, dry, and sad to her. So, again, why write? “The best I can say for it is it’s a psychological quirk of mine developed in response to whatever personal failings I have.” She sees no difference between writing and making banana bread.
This is a revision of her previous thoughts on writing. “I used to stand at podiums or in front of my own students and have that answer on the tip of my tongue, but knew if I said it aloud it would be mistaken for a joke or fake humility or perhaps plain stupidity,” Smith writes, of her humble “something to do” defense of writing. This is a minor instance of a turn that happens in every piece — a moment when Smith revises herself or catches herself in a mistake; when the pinball of her thinking hits a bumper and rockets off in a new direction. In one anecdote she eavesdrops on a pair of women (to her ear, “obviously working class”) talking with astonishment about watching a lady push a stroller containing a 9-month-old kid gripping an iPad. Smith thinks their incredulity is rooted in the notion of rich people, too lazy or busy to parent, fobbing off their children to mind-altering technology. Then it becomes clear that the women are actually talking about the derangement of entrusting an infant with a $900 device. “In my privilege,” Smith realizes, “I had mistaken one kind of ethical argument for another.” It is, she writes, “an especially bracing experience for me, as only a few years earlier I would not have made such a mistake.”
The pleasure of reading an essay is watching a mind at work and at play; the form is a tricky balance of discipline and discursiveness, of entertaining self-doubt and showing it the door. For Smith, doubt is part of the discipline. She wrote in an earlier essay that “I’ve always been aware of being an inconsistent personality” — the crux of which is not the inconsistency, which describes everybody on earth, but her acceptance of it. It’s a peculiar quality of our era that people increasingly conflate intellectual flexibility and hypocrisy. Smith’s first collection of nonfiction was called Changing My Mind, a naturally occurring human habit that has since become vilified. It is inconceivable to a broad swath of commentators that a person who, for example, tweeted an offensive joke seven years ago might have evolved into a person who is disgusted by that same offensive joke, and that perhaps this person should reckon with her past rather than be fed into a digital wood chipper. Of course, there are degrees. Some people belong in the wood chipper. But it’s also true that consistency is for machines, and this collection — cooked up quickly, with a few lumps left in the batter — makes a joyful case for its opposite.
*A version of this article appears in the August 3, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!