Is it sacrilege to admit that I prefer Zadie Smith’s essays to her fiction? If you asked me to identify Smith’s most admirable qualities, the clear and precise thinking of her non-fiction work would be at the top of the list.
Given her trademark thoughtfulness, it shouldn’t have surprised me that Intimations, the short book of essays that Smith wrote and published in the first four months of the pandemic, is light on apocalyptic sentiment. I’m so used to recognizing the end of the world every time I open a news or opinion website that I expected Smith to join in on the doomsaying.
Thankfully, there’s very little end-of-the-world-ism in Intimations. Instead, Smith does what she does best, reflecting on the smallest details of the world remade by coronavirus: the way people interact, the noises that have disappeared, the language that people use. The closest Smith gets to End Times squalor is an essay hinging on President Trump’s March statement that “I wish we could have our old life back.”
Instead of blood and thunder, we get nuance and delight. Smith compares our willingness to keep working through the early days of the lockdown “like pugs who have been lifted out of a body of water, our little limbs keep pumping on.”
Smith compares the thought of carrying on small talk in the middle of all this to a meme of Mel Gibson talking normally to a hyper-gory Jim Caviezel in full costume for the bloodiest moment of The Passion of the Christ. She wonders how “all that prior abundance fit[s] into this new habitat.” She doesn’t make grand proclamations for the human race, just notices how we settle in the dust of this weird new world.
Intimations isn’t a heavy lift or a shocker. Most of its essays will likely be repurposed and absorbed into future editions of Smith’s essay collections. But for right now, it’s a visit from a friend a time when you most need it—a calming acknowledgement that, yes, the world has gone sideways, but we’re still here.