Sunday, October 23, 2005

Discovering Zadie Smith.

It is a gloriously damp, slightly drizzly Sunday.
I am a lover of the threat of precipitation, and actually prefer grey skies to blue. I have been sitting at Chapters for quite a few hours, drinking inordinate amounts of coffee and browsing books and whatnot else. Now that there is internet access here, I don’t even need to go home to post my Puddles.
I am just going to stay here, I think, and go to sleep in a corner when they start flicking the lights off....
I happened upon a fantastically interesting article in the October Harper’s magazine. It’s by contributing editor, Wyatt Mason, and entitled “White Knees: Zadie Smith’s novel problem.”
Prior to reading this article, the only thing I have known about Zadie Smith (pictured here) is that she appeared on the literary scene rather meteorically in 2000 with her debut novel White Teeth [1.5 million English copies sold, and the thing is translated into 30 other languages] and since I live in bookstores, I’ve seen her stuff everywhere. But have never read it. Then she came out with The Autograph Man which was also quite a visible event. Never read that one either.
Now in 2005 she was among the elite half-dozen shortlisted for the Booker prize with her latest book, On Beauty. Haven’t read it, but I want to. It is sitting here, right in front of me, and after reading Mason’s article on the subject, I want to tear into this book, even though his comments regarding On Beauty are not entirely favorable.
His main criticism revolves around the idea that Smith relies too heavily on mimicry of other authors.

In the case of this latest work he repeatedly points out how undeniably E.M. Forster-ish it is. At one point, he describes her style as “the literary equivalent of karaoke.”
He points out (quite forcefully) the specific reasons why such a talent (as Smith obviously possesses) is beneficial, while at the same time, very limiting. He claims that her characters end up acting in the final pages in ways inconsistent with what the reader has learned of them up to that point. He says, “The trouble is that Smith’s borrowings do not liberate her story but bind it. By book’s end, as Smith gathers her many seized threads together and ties them fiercely into knots, all circulation is cut off to her once warm-blooded beings. We are left with clever machination, little of it meaningful.”
And furthermore... “As of now, Zadie Smith has yet to sit down and show us what she can do. Instead she has shown who she can do – pretty much anyone.”
Were I a published author, those comments levelled at me (especially the thing about inconsistency), would probably find me warbling in the wind, standing atop a bridge somewhere white-knuckling the girders and wondering why this whole suicide thing is not nearly as theatrically pleasing in reality as when imagined in the mind..... (when you picture it, cars are not supposed to be heedlessly whizzing by, or occasionally slowing down long enough for someone to roll down their window and yell “Jump, you idiot...”).
But, [and here is the thing about Zadie Smith that has me rather intrigued.....] is she suicidal about such things?

Hell no.
None of this is news to her. In fact, she is quoted in the same article as saying, “My largest structural debt should be obvious to any E.M. Forster fan; suffice it to say he gave me a classy old frame, which I covered with new material as best I could.”
In other words.... you don’t like it? Don’t buy the book.
Which... makes me want to buy the book.

Reading more and more about her, (online articles aplenty) I have discovered that she is very averse to the accoutrements and accolades of fame, and is very nearly Salingeresque in her preference for even dimmer light than limelight. She has a royal disdain for the star-status of the accomplished author. She is neither caught up in the hype surrounding her own “success” nor is she bent-out-of-shape by vehement criticism occasionally levelled at her.
For a prime example of this latter thing take a gander at the following diatribe. This, written again, along the lines of her work not being particularly original, and in this case, in reference to her first book, White Teeth:

“A twenty-three year old first time novelist is fortunate indeed if one out of every fifty sentences is truly their own. And by this I mean not only its subject, but its rhythm, syntax, punctuation, and, should it aspire towards comedy, its punchline. To her credit, there are moments when Smith manages this.... but often she doesn’t and what we get in its place is some truly inspired thieving... Smith doing Amis, Smith doing Rushdie, Smith doing Kureishi, Winterson, Barnes, Auster, Viginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Nabokov.... White Teeth is the literary equivalent of a hyperactive ginger-haired tap dancing ten year old; all the writing is ornamental in the extreme.... There is a damn good writer here struggling to escape the influence of the big, baggy English novels of the Eighties; a little too eager to prove she can write herself out of, back into and around a paper bag.”



Spiteful, it seems.
An excuse to climb up on a bridge if ever I have read one.

And now.... for the good part. The part I love to death, already, prior to reading this author at all...... (drum roll, please.....).....
The person who wrote the above critique.... the critic who took issue with Zadie Smith, was, in fact, Zadie Smith herself.

As Wyatt Mason comments, “With Nabokovian cheek and intellectual bite, Smith had written [the above] review of her own book for the short-lived magazine Butterfly. And for those who might think to dismiss Smith’s mixed assessment of White Teeth as a mere stunt, a self-effacing pirouette on the runway of self-promotion, subsequent evidence accumulated to suggest that Smith wasn’t buying into the hype around her.”

Hey, she had me at “Hello!”
I like this kind of anti-narcissism, or whatever else it is.
So... I may just have to leave here today with this book in tow.
Oh, wait a minute.... that’s right... I’m not leaving.
All the better!

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