Review: Zadie Smith’s Intimations Offers Honesty and Moral Clarity in a Moment of Crisis

An honest and morally clear collection of essays, Zadie Smith’s Intimations grasps at how this unprecedented moment in time peels back the layers to reveal our relationships to the world around us. 

Happy autumn, fell book lovers! My latest read, Zadie Smith’s Intimations, is one of my favorite quarantine books so far. “Intimations” is quite apt as a name — according to Merriam-Webster, an intimation is “an indirect, usually subtle suggestion, indication, or hint.” The short book — it’s only 100 pages or so — is a lovely and eye-opening collection of essays where Smith reflects on life during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The essays are wistful and incisive, but Smith doesn’t force upon us any bombastic, prescriptive truths. I love her soft approach, where she’s simply recording her immediate reactions to this moment in time instead of declaring anything. Her style is warm and accessible, a choice that feels necessary because honestly? We’re all trying to figure out what’s going on in the world right now. 

Smith gives us a lot to think about. The fact that she’s gathered all of these thoughts together in quarantine is nothing short of a miracle. And listen, I might be demonized for saying this, but this book brought me to a similar emotional space as Taylor Swift’s folklore. Both explore this intense longing for love and intimacy in a time where those things may feel far from reach. Literally.

My favorite essays are “Peonies” and “Something to Do.”  In “Peonies,” Smith contemplates the nature of writing. While writers often consider their craft “creative,” she conceptualizes the act as something different. For her, putting words on paper (or a document) is really about control. When you plant a bulb, you can create flowers. But with writing, narrative is about controlling memory and experience. You don’t really create anything new.

“Something to Do” is in conversation with this particular essay. Noble defenders of art, Smith contends, usually overstate its political efficacy. Here, she takes on the loneliness, the artificial limits that writers, who spend most of their time alone hunched over a desk, impose on themselves to get their work done. And with quarantine, this lifestyle is exposed, and it’s quite sad, much less noble and glamorous than one might think. 

Work passes the time. Writing passes the time. But it’s no substitute for love. According to Smith, “Love is not something to do, but something to be experienced, and something to go through —that must be why it frightens so many of us and why we so often approach it indirectly.” What a passage, right? It startled me to my core, and I promptly called someone I love immediately after reading it. Because that’s what I often do as a writer — approach feeling indirectly. 

Smith also reflects on the social and racial crises that have been amplified because of the pandemic. In “The American Exception,” she recalls Governor Andrew Cuomo’s infamous quote about states “bidding” on PPE as though they were getting goods on eBay. While there’s this idea that the virus can spread to anyone, she posits that death has seldom been random but always had “a precise physiognomy, location, and bottom line.” Delaying death has always been a stronger possibility for the highest bidder. 

We return to the economic structures of death in “Postscript: Contempt as a Virus.” With intense clarity and no intentions of easy resolve, Smith illustrates how contempt has been weaponized against Black lives. She no longer believes that there is a vaccine against the virulence of racism. For her, the questions have become: “Has America metabolized contempt? Has it lived with the virus so long that it no longer fears it? Is there a strong enough desire for a different America?” The virus of racism has mutated over history and it has been structurally bolstered. 

For her, “Real change would involve a broad recognition that the fatalist, essentialist race discourse we often employ as a superficial cure for the symptoms of this virus manages, in practice, to smoothly obscure the fact that the DNA of this virus is economic at base.” We can only confront the virus once we act in solidarity with each other and recognize that it infects entire power structures, not only individuals. Law and order hold people “in contempt” because they believe that they have no recourse and no power. And, “the time has long passed when only one community’s work would be required to cure what ails us.” 

Intimations is a collection that is easy and, in fact, necessary, for the reader to revisit to extract its greatest potential. At its core, the book emphasizes the urgency of love and solidarity in a time where, ironically, we can’t be close to each other. 

Published: 2020

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