‘Feel Free,” Zadie Smith’s second collection of essays, reflects a time that feels both familiar and remote, before our political divisions caused so many to recede deeper into tribes and prejudices. Written during the years of the Obama presidency, they are, she writes in a preface dated Jan. 18, 2017, “the product of a bygone world.” There was still space for Smith’s fertile mind to contemplate falling in love with Joni Mitchell’s music, David Byrne’s herky-jerky dance moves, and comparing Jay-Z to a 1960s French experimental literary group.
This is not to say “Feel Free” is a relic. These essays, reviews, and columns bristle with Smith’s probing desire to understand the world and share her own obsessions with humor and insight. One gravitates to her words, as you would if she were holding court with a group of really astute friends. Save for an odd moment when she references comedian Louis C.K. — the essay was written long before the public learned of his admitted propensity for sexual harassment or the #MeToo movement — there’s nothing stale about what Smith, one of the great writers and thinkers of her generation, has to say.
If anything, her essay, “Fences: A Brexit Diary,” evokes a gathering storm portending when racism and xenophobia (masquerading as economic nationalism) resulted in a headlong plunge into the abyss. Of the United Kingdom’s upending June 2016 vote to leave the European Union, London-born Smith writes, “ ‘Conservative’ is not the right term for either of them anymore: that word has at least an implication of care and preservation for the legacy.” She is referring to former British prime minister David Cameron and former London mayor Boris Johnson, both of whom carelessly set the stage for a potentially catastrophic outcome. “ ‘Arsonist’ feels like the more accurate term.”
It doesn’t matter whether readers on this side of the pond don’t know all the political players Smith mentions. You don’t have to live in the UK to understand what it means to have careless leaders with an appetite for destruction. That kind of concision gives Smith’s writing, including her acclaimed novels, potency and depth.
Smith writes with such clarity, it’s a reminder of how beautiful unfussy writing can be. She trusts herself enough to let her thoughts breathe. In “Brother from Another Mother,” she writes about the former comedy duo Key and Peele. (Jordan Peele would go on to write and direct the multiple Academy-Award nominated “Get Out,” which Smith writes about in a separate piece.) In describing Keegan-Michael Key she says he “looks forty-three the way Will Smith looked forty-three, which is not much.” In referencing the ever-youthful actor, she also conjures the old adage, “Black don’t crack,” without needing to utter the phrase.
Reading these essays, some might conclude that Smith is equally comfortable dissecting what is ungenerously called “high” and “low” culture. Such an observation would miss the point entirely. Smith is interested in all culture, how it shapes the people who make it as well as those who consume it. This becomes a confessional in “Some Notes on Attunement.” It’s Smith’s poignant recollection of her journey from Joni Mitchell hater to hard-core fangirl. Growing up in a house filled with music, she and her family listened to Joan Armatrading, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. “What did we need with white women?” she writes.
This is more than an exploration of Mitchell’s discography, and as with so much here, Smith is digging deeper than one singer she finally came to revere. “How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably? How does such a change occur?” Smith poses questions she can’t fully answer, and that’s fine. There’s something to not over analyzing what brings you to a higher place. “I hated Joni Mitchell — then I loved her,” Smith writes. “Her voice did nothing for me — until the day it undid me completely.”
For six months, Smith reviewed books for Harper’s magazine, but her Mitchell piece made me wish she had reviewed music instead. This isn’t a slight on her book criticism, but her writing about music sparkles with humanity. In “Joy,” Smith captures, in a way recognizable to anyone who has ever found church in a club, feeling the spirit when a DJ mixes A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (Please let this live somewhere in the bowels of the Internet.) She writes, “[T]he top of my head flew away. We danced and danced. We gave ourselves up to joy.”
“Feel Free” is joy — and ferocity, sharp wit, longing, even despair. This might explain the mixed reading I got from its cover with its alternating blue and yellow circles. It’s either a breezy psychedelic throwback summoning the wide-open possibilities of decades past or it’s a bull’s-eye disguised in bright colors so we don’t realize we’re in the crosshairs. With Smith, it may well be both.
By Zadie Smith
Penguin Press, 439 pp., $28Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham