In “Changing My Mind,” her 2009 essay collection, Zadie Smith reflects on the byproducts of early success. “When you are first published at a young age,” she says, “your writing grows with you — and in public.” “White Teeth,” her close-to-perfect debut novel, came out in 2000, when Smith was 24. As she remembers it, some of her subsequent work revealed an “ideological inconsistency” that “I don’t think I’m going to grow out of.”
Put another way, Smith is a nimble thinker, allergic to dogma. Her new book is titled “Feel Free,” which is just right for a set of charmingly digressive essays about politics, the arts and personal subjects.
Although the book’s first four essays are weighty — they explore what the state owes its citizens, and vice versa — Smith sets an unpretentious tone. “I recognize myself to be an intensely naïve person,” she writes. “Most novelists are, despite frequent pretensions to deep sociopolitical insight.” At first, this rings of false modesty. But as the pages pass, there’s a palpable absence of self-certainty. In its place are ample reserves of curiosity and empathy.
In the northwest London neighborhood where she grew up, Smith learns of a divisive proposal to replace a library with condos. She laments the intrusion of partisanship on every aspect of life: “I thought a library was one of the few sites where the urge to conserve and the desire to improve — twin poles of our political mind — were easily and naturally united.”
Another essay uses a new security fence at her daughter’s school as a starting point for a discussion of Brexit. She disagrees with voters who want out of the European Union but sympathizes with those on the losing end of “extreme inequality,” particularly “the white working classes. … The left is thoroughly ashamed of them. The right sees them only as a useful tool for its own personal ambitions.” This piece complements two others that touch on her working-class father’s “core optimism”; her essay about his death is especially beautiful.
Not all of “Feel Free” is quite so heavy. Her profile of Jay Z poses an interesting question: Could his artistic evolution foster a “severing of this link, in hip-hop, between material riches and true freedom”? Elsewhere, in the book’s one glaring misstep, she considers another performer’s fame through an unlikely prism: “Imagine a meeting: between Justin Bieber, global pop star, and Martin Buber, long-dead Jewish philosopher.” It’s a contrived, unenlightening piece.
Smith has her favorites — British novelist Hanif Kureishi appears in two pieces, as does American filmmaker Jordan Peele. She also has interesting thoughts about Facebook (Isn’t it “a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?”) and underappreciated novelists such as Paula Fox: “Sometimes the books you’re dreaming of have already been written.”
In her most personal essay, she reflects on our era of heightened racial consciousness. Smith and her children are biracial; she wonders how others might try to define or constrain them in these “ ‘us’ and ‘them’ ” times. “Like it or not,” adds the part-time New Yorker, “Americans are one people.” It may not be her most original observation, but at this moment in history, it’s worth remembering.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.
By: Zadie Smith.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 452 pages, $28.