Zadie Smith’s Radical Empathy

The author’s new collection of essays was written entirely during lockdown. It’s optimistic.

A cutout of Zadie Smiths' face is seen over a photo of a road featuring a sign that says "Stay Home. Limit Travel. Save Lives."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images for BAM.

The only comprehensible way to view 2020 is month by month. Intimations, Zadie Smith’s slender, solacing new personal essay collection about life during the COVID-19 crisis, is a May book. In March, quarantine had just begun and people, steeped in the many post-apocalyptic yarns of our pop culture, frantically bought up toilet paper and dried beans. April began with photos of homemade sourdough loaves posted to social media, TikTok dance challenges, and people with office jobs discovering how hard it is to get work done at home, even when you don’t have kids. Parents started out game, but by the end of the month, the only grins left were looking pretty forced. The daily death toll in New York City peaked in April, but by May the grim reality of the rest of the year came into focus: an indefinite confinement that could only hope to moderate the carnage and economic devastation. Then, at the end of the month, the lurching horror of George Floyd’s death. This is the territory Intimations covers.

A novelist at heart, Smith writes essays that scarcely abide by the current understanding of the form. She doesn’t buttonhole her reader with fervent arguments and rarely brandishes a suitable object for blame. And while one of the pieces in Intimations concerns suffering, Smith seems allergic to the notion of testifying to her own in any detail. She’s ambivalent, sometimes rueful, often self-deprecating. Her first inclination is to laugh at herself. In the essay on suffering, she describes a conversation she once overheard while waiting for a sandwich at Subway. Two women, whom she took “to be African-American and South Asian respectively” as well as working class, stood in line in front of her, shaking their heads over something one of them had seen on the street earlier: a white woman pushing a stroller with an infant in it who was playing with an iPad. Smith almost butted in to share her own disapproval of parents who expose their children to “damaging, mind-altering technology,” when one of the women remarked, “Imagine giving something worth nine hundred dollars to a baby.” Smith jokes that “The profligate fool behind them hung her head in relative shame,” realizing that “I had mistaken one kind of ethical argument for another. An especially bracing experience for me, as only a few years earlier I would not have made such a mistake.”

That’s the scale of Intimations: the human comedy. It’s about neighborhood characters: a legless panhandler whom Smith once worked into a short story and the elegant, chain-smoking old lady with a scrappy little dog and more interesting plans for the holidays than Smith has herself. Both are die-hard New Yorkers Smith spoke with as she and her family prepared to flee the city for a friend’s cabin in the Catskills, and once again, the writer feels sheepish about it. “What they running from? A COLD?” she hears the homeless man shouting into his phone. “Nothing to be afraid of—we’ll get through this, all of us, together,” says the old lady. Smith may be missing New York even before she leaves it, but she insists that she is no fighter. She has no “strong desire to survive, especially if what lies on the other side of survival is just me. A book like The Road is as incomprehensible to me as a Norse myth cycle in the original language.”

Then there’s Ben, the owner of the nail salon where Smith gets the kinks massaged out of her writer’s spine a couple of times per week. She lays out the parameters of their once-regular conversations, for which there are “two reliable subjects: the weather and public school ‘days off,’ ” which throw a different kind of kink into both of their schedules. These holidays present a far greater challenge for Ben, who can’t work from home, and, Smith writes, “I know Ben knows this, but out of what I interpret as his customary optimism and civility and desire to maintain symmetry, he allows me to complain with him.” This is Smith’s element, the everyday interactions that negotiate complex issues of class, gender, and culture. (Ben, who is Asian, once queried Smith, who is the child of a Jamaican mother and a British father, where her hair “comes from,” and when she told him, he replied, “Ho ho ho! Interesting mix!”) She appreciates the effervescent art of such conversations, the way they float on an invisible layer of goodwill, courtesy, forbearance, and humor. This is the stuff civilizations are made of, every bit as much as architecture, trade, and religion. And when Smith finds herself, during the quarantine, crossing the street to avoid the worried eye of Ben as he stands in the doorway of his half-empty salon, she makes the reader feel the loss of this precious sliver of camaraderie.

In an essay critical of the term cultural appropriation,  written last year for the New York Review of Books, Smith wrote that in her youth, she was “an equal-opportunity voyeur. I wanted to know what it was like to be everybody. Above all, I wondered what it would be like to believe the sorts of things I didn’t believe.” This is still her operative principle: wondering what it’s like to be Ben, or the bouncing young IT guy from the university where she is a professor of creative writing, or some of her more annoying students. Or even the committer of a hate crime, a categorization of violence that Smith balks at because “I find it hard to distinguish between forms of hate that have the same consequence” and because she thinks the classification lends to these crimes exactly the sort of dark glamour their stunted perpetrators long for. “He,” she writes of such a killer, “believes he did not walk into the church and murder a circle of innocent people, like a murderer, no, he went in there to express his ‘ideology’ through the medium of violence, to commit his ‘act,’ girded by what he flatters himself is a comprehensive philosophy. Why do we take him at his word?”

The forcefulness of this argument is rare in Intimations, but it works in large part because of Smith’s unquenchable interest in what makes people feel and think and behave the way they do. To satisfy it, she must often reserve judgment and its slammed door against further inquiry. When, after the pandemic arrived, a man with mental illness who described himself as a “self-hating Asian” sent troubling mass emails to the entire faculty of her university, Smith was grateful she didn’t have to figure out what to do about it. “Instead of the complex judgment such a decision requires,” she writes that she was “left with the useless thoughts of a novelist: what is it like to have a mind-on-fire at such a moment? Do you feel ever more distant from the world? Or has the world, in its new extremity, finally come to you?”

It’s a paradox of the novelist’s trade that, while your subject is other people, the work itself is obsessively solitary, and misanthropes are often drawn to it. To read Zadie Smith is to recognize how few writers seem to genuinely love human beings the way she does, with such infinite curiosity and attention, even when they are behaving monstrously. Or, for that matter, how few are able to do justice to what, for want of a better term, we’ll call common decency. So while the “postscript” to Intimations concerns the killing of George Floyd and Smith’s own despair that the “virus” of “contempt” (a word she prefers to “hate”) that has so deeply infected America may never be overcome by Black activism, it is not in fact the book’s final piece. (It’s also not clear whether this collection went to press before anti–police brutality protests swept the United States.) As a sort of post-postscript, Smith includes a numbered list of names, beginning with her parents and brothers and running through friends, lovers, her husband, her children, and such role models as Muhammad Ali, Lorraine Hansberry, and Virginia Woolf. Each name comes with description of the debts Smith owes that individual, from her father’s “readiness to admit failure and weakness” (so that’s where that came from) to “Sistahood” and the “practical morality” of remembering and honoring everybody’s birthday. These are people too, she’s telling us, and look at the strength and love of which we are capable.