By Musa Sunusi Ahmad
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Zadie Smith, whose short book of essays was written at the height of lockdown, is the first major author to address the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on our lives.
In her scrapbook-like collection of observations and thoughts, she captures how the last few months have felt to live through, and suggests some ideas that we may wish to preserve and carry in to our post-crisis future. But she also provides what we’ve grown accustomed to in confinement: space to think. There’s something endearingly old-fashioned about her resolve not to be rushed. These are not flashy hot takes for social media, but slow, thoughtful reflections.
Her six essays begin with an acknowledgement of the book’s smallness. “There will be many books written about the year 2020: historical, analytical, political as well as comprehensive accounts. This is not any of those,” she writes in the foreword. But across just 82 pages, her range is broad, with discussions of Donald Trump, Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle trip and the death of George Floyd, sitting alongside thoughts on banana bread and internet memes.
The first two essays are the weakest. Peonies its most pensive. Just before lockdown, Smith’s carefully plotted day is disrupted by the appearance of flowers growing in a New York public garden, an unexpected humbling by nature which foreshadows a much bigger one. It’s a chewy few pages, where Nabokov, Kierkegaard and theories of female biology and zoology all come along for the ride. Next is The American Exception, where Smith challenges Trump’s child-like play for nostalgia. He called himself a wartime president, but “war transforms its participants,” she writes, quoting Clement Attlee’s post-war call to put the nation before private interests. It’s nice to think of a time when an elected politician said things like that, but it’s not a fresh insight.
But in Something To Do, Smith lucidly captures the see-saw of hysteria and banality that has marked our days, freed from their ordinary scaffolding. “Confronted with the problem of life served neat…I had almost no idea of what to do with it,” she writes. There’s not really much difference between making banana bread and writing novels, she continues – “they are both just something to do. They are no substitute for love.” Her compassion continues in Suffering Like Mel Gibson, inspired by a meme where the actor is talking to a bloodied Jesus Christ with the caption ‘Explaining to my friends with kids under six what it’s been like to be isolating alone’. Who wasn’t at pains during lockdown to point out how incredibly lucky they knew they were, even if 24/7 access to your children made you wish they’d never been born, or you only had human contact with Deliveroo drivers for three months? She suggests that the ongoing conversation around privilege has made us rush to deny our own experience of suffering.
But the highlight essay is Screengrabs, a series of vignettes about people Smith knows in New York. Her skill as a novelist comes to the fore as she describes the man who runs a nail salon, who allows her to “maintain symmetry” by pretending school closures will have the same impact on them both; the heavy-smoking neighbour who says “We’ll get through this together”, as Smith is about to leave New York. Each small life has the shadow of destruction hanging over it. Many will doubtless quote from Contempt as a Virus, where, with clear-eyed dismay, Smith uses an extended metaphor to describe how the behaviour of men like Dominic Cummings and Derek Chauvin has infected public life. But the final line of the final essay, a free, eclectic list of the people to whom she owes a debt, from her parents to Virginia Woolf, has the most startling sentence, indicating what it all adds up to. As well as offering a new guide to living in a wild, messy and unfair world, Smith provides a reminder that we can use this crisis to imagine a better one, and that might inspire future conversations with our grandchildren.