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Zadie Smith Hopscotches From The Personal To The Political In 'Intimations'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The English writer Zadie Smith is best known for novels such as "White Teeth" and "Swing Time," but she's also widely admired for her nonfiction. In her new book, "Intimations: Six Essays," which will be published next week, Smith writes about what's been going on over the last few months. Our critic-at-large John Powers says it's a book as bracingly deep as it is refreshingly slim.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Fiction writers spend much of their lives creating made-up worlds, which may be why they can't resist writing about the real one. Yet when they do weigh in on current events, like the pandemic or the racial reckoning triggered by the George Floyd killing, they're often eloquent but rarely say anything new or valuable. There are, of course, exceptions. Over the years, I've read and reread Grace Paley and James Baldwin and never failed to learn from them, whether they were writing about Vietnam, racism or feminism. Even when I disagreed, I trusted them because they were principled yet open to the many-sidedness of experience. They were voices of wisdom.

A current writer I trust is Zadie Smith. And before going any further, I should add that when she first hit big 20 years ago with her debut novel "White Teeth," I was officially a Zadie skeptic, not because of anything she'd done. "White Teeth" is a terrific first novel, but because as a mixed race London woman in her early 20s, Smith too perfectly fit the media's need for a writer who could embody the fantasy of a fun, attractive, multicultural new millennium. In fact, I was totally wrong.

Smith herself seemed to rebel against the cultural role she'd been assigned. And these days, I find in her work what I once found in Paley and Baldwin - a clarifying lucidity wedded to big-hearted moral awareness. These virtues shine through her powerful new collection, "Intimations: Six Essays," which she began at the onset of the pandemic and finished shortly after Floyd's killing. Although only 100 pages, it made me think more than most books five times that length. There's something worth quoting on virtually every page.

As its title intimates, "Intimations" isn't a tome with the grand thesis. Instead, Smith presents a series of elegant short essays about living with and maybe resisting what we're going through right now. In The American Exception, she begins with President Trump saying that he wishes we could have our old life back, when we had a great economy and, quote, "we didn't have death," unquote. She doesn't cite this to bash him - heck, I wanted that, too - but to reflect on everything from our desire to turn back the clock to our nation's inegalitarian health care. Death comes to all, she notes wryly, but in America, it has always been considered reasonable to offer the best chance of delay to the highest bidder.

The essay Something To Do addresses an issue that many of us have faced during the lockdown - how do we fill our time? Smith uses the idea of obsessive doing - the endless baking of banana bread, for instance - to touch on Puritan ideas of achievement, middle-class anxiety about self-improvement and in a brilliant pivot, the hollowness of mere doing compared to the fullness of loving. In another essay, she invokes the idea of social privilege, yet doesn't use it punitively to diminish other people's pain. Suffering, she writes, has an absolute relation to the suffering individual. It cannot easily be mediated by a third term, like privilege. If it could, the CEO's daughter would never starve herself, nor the movie idol ever put a bullet in his own brain.

Smith is interested in people as well as ideas. And in the chapter called Screengrabs, she tells us about the hoverboarding tech guy from work, whose devotion to style reveals a social truth. For many young adults, style is all they have as a counterweight to economic insecurity and untenable debt. In the most devastating of these grabs, Smith examines the look on the face of the officer who killed George Floyd and explains why she dislikes the label hate crimes. The term reinforces the perpetrator's belief that the slaughter of, say, innocent churchgoers possesses a special, almost philosophical grandeur.

Smith has a mind that I just love watching work, and I could go on and on discussing the great bits in this slim volume - from her analysis of how Zooming leads us to aestheticize our conversations, to the book's quietly galvanizing final line. As she hopscotches from the personal to the political, the topical to the eternal - "Intimations" begins with a discussion of peonies - Smith does more than illuminate what we're going through right now. She offers a model of how to think ourselves through a fraught historical moment without getting hysterical or sanctimonious, without losing our compassion or our appreciation for what's good in other people. She teaches us how to be better at being human.

GROSS: John Powers reviews Zadie Smith's new book called "Intimations: Six Essays." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Mary Trump, who's written a new memoir about life in the Trump family. She says she's written this family history in part to get a complete picture of her uncle Donald Trump's psychopathologies and dysfunctional behavior. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.

We'll end today's show with a recording featuring singer Annie Ross. She died yesterday at the age of 89. She became famous as a member of the jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. They were known for their vocalese style with lyrics set to previously recorded jazz solos. This is their version of "Twisted," a classic bebop tune by the tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, spotlighting Annie Ross. She also wrote the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWISTED")

ANNIE ROSS: (Singing) My analyst told me that I was right out of my head. The way he described it, he said I'd be better dead than live. I didn't listen to his jive. I knew all along he was all wrong. And I knew that he thought I was crazy, but I'm not. Oh, no.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Oh, no.

ROSS: (Singing) My analyst told me that I was right out of my head. He said I need treatment, but I'm not that easily led. He said I was the type that was most inclined when out of his sight to be out of my mind. And he thought I was nuts, no more ifs or ands or buts. Oh, no.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Oh, no.

ROSS: (Singing) They say as a child I appeared a little bit wild with all my crazy ideas. But I knew what was happening. I knew I was a genius. What's so strange when you know that you're a wizard at 3? I knew that this was meant to be. But I heard little children were supposed to sleep tight. That's why I drank a fifth of vodka one night. My parents got frantic, didn't know what to do. But I saw some crazy scenes before I came to. Now, do you think I was crazy? I may have been only three but I was swinging.

They all laughed at Al Graham Bell. They all laughed at Edison, and also at Einstein. So why should I feel sorry if they just couldn't understand the litany and the logic that went on in my head. I had a brain. It was insane, so don't you let them laugh at me when I refused to ride on all those double-decker buses all because there was no driver on the top.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: No driver on the top? This chick is twisted. What's the matter with her?

ROSS: (Singing) My analyst told me that I was right out of my head. The way he described it, he said I'd be better dead than live. I didn't listen to his jive. I knew all along he was all wrong. And I knew that he thought I was crazy, but I'm not. Oh, no.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Oh, no.

ROSS: (Singing) My analyst told me that I was right out of my head. But I said, dear doctor, I think that it's you instead 'cause I have got a thing that's unique and new. It proves that I'll have the last laugh on you 'cause instead of one head I got two. And you know two heads are better than one. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.