A Review of Zadie Smith’s Intimations
Words By Thomas Chisholm
Published July 28, 2020 by Penguin Books
Intimations is Zadie Smith’s latest essay collection. It’s slim, less than one hundred pages, and marketed as her pandemic piece. Or, as she so eloquently refers to it, “the global humbling.” The collection is divided into six sections. There are four main essays, then a “Screen Grabs” subsection (containing pieces that are more like seven literary sketches), and finally, a few pages of shout-outs eponymously titled “Intimations.” Each essay is brief, yet as dense as a Borges short story, offering a nugget of wisdom or ending on an especially poignant note. At such a short length, nothing is extraneous. Though each piece offers an interesting take on our new normal, the collection feels a little too sparse. There’s a noticeable narrative arc missing in a lot of the material here that leaves the reader wondering, what should I do with this information?
In the first essay, “Peonies,” a patch of tulips growing in New York City catch Smith’s eye. They draw her in despite her lack of interest in horticulture. The pink and orange tulips, a symbol of spring and beauty juxtaposed with a “downtown aesthetic,” strike her with awe. Yet she wishes the flowers were peonies. She goes on to describe writers as having an “obsession with control.” According to Smith, creative writing is an act of controlling an experience:
Experience—mystifying, overwhelming, conscious, subconscious—rolls over everybody. We try to adapt, to learn, to accommodate, sometimes resisting, other times submitting to, whatever confronts us. But writers go further: they take this largely shapeless bewilderment and pour it into a mold of their own devising. Writing is all resistance.
In describing writing as an act of exerting control over an experience, she creates a helpful dichotomy of resistance and submission. Neither condition is all good or all bad, just dependent on its circumstance.
Sometimes it is right to submit to love, and wrong to resist affection. Sometimes it is wrong to resist disease and right to submit to the inevitable. And vice versa.
If she were writing fiction, the flowers would be peonies. But because this is real life she’s attempting to dictate, they must be tulips. She was forced to submit to the joy of a “garish” tulip just as she is forced to submit to the daily conditions of quarantine. In hindsight, the peonies were her prelude to the quarantine. The moment when spring collided with a “season of death.”
“Something to Do,” the third essay, distills writing and art-making down to just something to do. Unless you’re an essential worker, you’ve probably come up against what Smith describes as “the perennial problem of artists and prisoners: time, and what to do with it.” We busy ourselves with careers to give us something to do, to take up our time. But Smith describes that business not as living, just as doing time. Love, she says, is what makes time feel like living, and “busyness will not disguise its lack.” It’s a helpful reminder that sometimes a love cliché is a cliché for a reason: it’s meaningful.
Smith finds the ways in which she previously spent her time embarrassing. Suddenly her family, the people she loves most, are seeing how she does time, how she’s always done it. She recognizes old habits die hard and desires for new ways of doing time. “There is no great difference between novels and banana bread,” she declares. They’re both just something to do and no substitute for love.
In the postscript of the “Screen Grabs” section, Smith comments on the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests:
In theory, [the] principles of slavery were eradicated from the laws of the land—not to mention the hearts and minds of the people—long ago. In theory. In practice, they pass like a virus through churches and schools, adverts and movies, books and political parties, courtrooms and prison systems and, of course, police departments. Like a virus, they work invisibly within your body until you grow sick with them.
Smith goes on to say she once thought vaccines for racism were possible by revealing how shamefully Americans pass this virus to each other. But she no longer thinks a vaccine is possible. Not when racism is so deeply entrenched in every facet of American society.
The collection isn’t free of blunders, though. A homeless man Smith saw in a park inspired one of the “Screen Grabs.” She can’t help asking herself if homeless people feel like the world has come to them after being rendered unrecognizable. It comes off as cheap to compare the locked-down nation to a homeless person’s trauma, trivializing their lived experience. This “screen grab” seems like a half-baked thought experiment of Smith’s that boils down to a blithe statement of “It’s pretty crazy out here, huh?”
As New York City became one of the world’s worst COVID-19 hotspots, Zadie Smith prepared to leave the city for a friend’s cabin two hours away. A few hours before leaving, she bumps into an elderly neighbor. The old woman expresses optimism because everyone in the building will take care of each other. Smith agrees with her, knowing she’ll be gone in a matter of hours. At the end of the “Intimations” section, where she thanks loved ones, dead greats like Virginia Woolf, and the concept of contingency, Smith states: “my physical and moral cowardice have never really been tested, until now.”
I used to have a writing mentor who would profess the merits of writing that “snapped shut”—a story, an essay, a poem, that “snaps shut” is one that ties its theme and motifs together in a simple yet genius way at the conclusion. Zadie Smith is a master of her craft and a sucker for a good conclusion: every piece in this collection snaps shut.