'Changing My Mind': Zadie Smith ponders the mad, mad world
In "Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays," British novelist Zadie Smith holds her own as a thinker, writing on topics that include rapper Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's cinematic star turn, modern Anglo literature and the wretched excess of the Oscars.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays'
by Zadie Smith
Penguin Press, 320 pp., $26.95
The British novelist Zadie Smith once told an interviewer that writing is the "exact opposite" of therapy.
But in her new collection of nonfiction, "Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays," it's clear she doesn't feel the same way about reading, or pondering the mad world around her.
Nine years after her debut novel "White Teeth" prompted The Guardian of London's headline, "She's young, black, British — and the first publishing sensation of the millennium," Smith returns with a scattered set of previously published works that is brilliant for what she calls its "ideological inconsistency."
With a charming, erudite crankiness — Smith described herself as a "young fogey" at the dawn of her fame — she tries to sort out a world that is complicated, confounding and utterly more textured than the oversimplified version we sometimes choose to see.
"Speaking in Tongues," for example, offers an eloquent, damning rebuttal to the often-nonsensical claim in certain corners that President Obama, because of his mixed heritage and audience-tailored speaking styles, isn't authentically American. Quintessentially American is more like it, just as Smith's background as the daughter of a Jamaican mother and a white, English father makes her quintessentially British, if one considers the many-hued, multilingual throngs strolling down London's high streets, or Smith's own novels.
The Cambridge-taught Smith, a still-young 34, has had a lot of expectations to live up to. Her sophomore novel "The Autograph Man" didn't set critics' hearts ablaze, but 2006's "On Beauty" redeemed her.
It must be maddening to live with comparisons to greats like Salman Rushdie and her beloved E.M. Forster (Seattle Times critic Michael Upchurch dubbed "On Beauty" "Howards End: The Remake"). But as a thinker, Smith holds her own.
At times she veers into learned but plodding ruminations on modern Anglo literature. More fulfilling, though, are rigorously nuanced observations based on her own experiences, such as growing up in a household of "comedy snobs" in "Dead Man Laughing."
Smith is such a smart observer and caretaker of ground-level humanity that even something as dusted with artifice as the Oscars, which she was sent to cover a few years ago, sparkles with genuine wonder and empathy, with only flashes of memorably snooty indignation that feel so very English. There, in "Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend," and in other selections, Smith can be quite funny, often at her own expense.
Her take on rapper Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's cinematic star turn: "My brain is giving you one star, but my heart wants to give five. I want you to know that "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " is to ghetto movies what "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot" was to Mafia movies, and I love, love, love it."
Whether her gaze is set on sunny Hollywood, sopping London or searing Liberia, Smith is always peering at the gears shifting behind reality's facade.
Contrary to the conventions of criticism and reportage, she allows herself to be touched and sometimes changed by her subjects, as in her reassessment of Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God."
The self-deprecating Smith has said her fiction can come off as "essay-like." By contrast, her essays share one quality with good fiction. They reveal truths that facts alone can't quite explain.
Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.
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