If nothing else, the events of 2020 have highlighted our vulnerabilities — personal, financial, societal, educational and every other kind. My mental health, already strained from the American habit of working to exhaustion, certainly took another hit in the months since lockdown. That was March 6 for my family, but who’s counting? My son. My son is counting via a tally, in orange crayon, on the desk beneath his bunk bed.
It’s something for him to do, which brings me to Zadie Smith’s “Intimations.”
Writing, she says, is something to do. Much like baking bread, taking the dog out for his umpteenth walk, or discovering just how hard it is to grow a tomato. With our usual routines stripped away, we are figuring out how to delineate days in which work, school and leisure have been ground together into a fine dust.
Smith’s slim volume is a balm during an anxious year. We have learned the meaning of essential, and Smith’s prose is correspondingly stripped down. Clear. Precise. Orderly. Though her accomplishment is making her point plain without being obvious, the literary equivalent of the Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With,” which depicts 6-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by federal marshals. You miss the racist graffiti scrawled on the wall behind her on first glance, but once you see it, you can’t unsee it. No, I won’t spoil Smith’s brilliance for you, but it’s right there in the first piece, “Peonies.”
That essay begins in the moments just before lockdown in New York City, which was soon to be the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak. It is a calm before the storm observed by someone still weathering it. Remember the good times? When you could stop and look at a flower and still consider things like its simplicity, color, symbolism for women of a certain age? That was before we got minute-to-minute updates on the death toll via clickable charts that etched ever upward. Worse, Smith observes that death is exposed not as the great equalizer, but a mobster who can be staved off by the highest bidder.
By the fourth essay, Smith has turned to our collective suffering. We are in it together, but alone. Suffering is a foe that molds to each sufferer like a bespoke suit. And who doesn’t like to show off a bespoke suit? She picks up the frayed ends of the lives we left behind in February, the indulgences we took for granted, the people who were peripheral to our lives but perhaps more essential than we realized. Then there’s the chance encounter with an elder who can drop a truth on your head as if it’s punctuation instead of a punch.
In the penultimate piece, “Postscript: Contempt as a Virus,” Smith connects the dots between covid-19 and systemic racism. The clash of a natural virus with a man-made one, both deadly, unyielding and invisible is peak 2020. Murder hornets are the least of our concerns now. The book could have ended there, but Smith has a final offering, “Intimations: Debts and Lessons.” This one more personal than the rest, and reads as something that, I hope, turns into a longer piece one day. Here we see Smith’s DNA — at least the parts she chooses us to see. She lists her mother’s charisma, her father’s ability to admit failure, learning solidarity from Muhammad Ali, and compassion from Lorraine Hansberry. The full divulgence allows us to consider how this set of ingredients help construct her perception.
By the time she finished the essays, Smith seemed to have lost hope that societal change could be realized. Though that was in the early days following George Floyd’s murder. The ongoing protests and activism, particularly by young people, may have changed her mind since “Intimations” went to print. What we are left with is an indispensable snapshot of a time when we were all scrambling to put our thoughts in order. I for one, am thankful to Smith for offering us hers.
Tracey Baptiste is the author of “Minecraft: The Crash,” the Jumbies series and other fiction and nonfiction for children and adults.
By Zadie Smith
Penguin. 112 pp. $10.95