Changing My Mind

I think I love Zadie Smith, even if I don’t completely understand her.

A friend of mine lent me Changing My Mind, perhaps sensing I’d appreciate it, and she was correct. Knowing Smith is out there — and wishing I’d known sooner — is an extremely comforting thought. She goes about the world with the eyes and mind that, ideally, I covet. I have to settle with what I’ve got, but I can attempt to glean inspiration from what she’s got in the meantime. “Other people’s words are so important. And then without warning they stop being important, along with all those words of yours that their words prompted you to write” (p. 102). See, she gets me. Right?

This book is a collection of “occasional essays,” as she puts it. It’s stuff she already wrote and re-assembled under the admittedly transparent oh-shit-book-deal theme laid out in the title. And yet it’s a perfect theme, because it owns up to the fact that humans aren’t actually consistent about their opinions (shout out to R.W. Emerson), and observing one’s work grow and change over time is a great way of demonstrating that fact. People need to uphold this fact — nay, tenet — and shout it from the rooftops occasionally. Props to Smith for doing just that — the title is a literary neon sign.

So, the lack of understanding I mentioned before. Since this is variety of essays on very disparate topics, a few of them were bound to go over my head. This isn’t a bad thing, but I am in the unfortunate habit of reading all the exaggerated critic quotes at the start of best-sellers, and there were so many pull-quotes that claimed how clear and easygoing her writing was, how she could make the most obscure topic jump right off the page and into your brain. I found this to be only partially true. “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov” was a pretty tough text, because I know absolutely nothing about either author, and “Notes on Visconti’s Bellissima” made me feel downright stupid. I actually started to question the point of criticism — and of my own blog — because if a critic can’t make the work inclusive and decipherable, who can?

Yet when she wrote about Zora Neal Hurston, she drew me right in, so I guess I have to forgive her. (Besides, I’m sure there are plenty of readers who found the following excerpts extremely boring. To them, I say, “I get it” and “Go fuck yourself.”) “I had to admit that mythic language is startling when it’s good,” Smith says on p. 5 in “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?”. Her essay “E.M. Forster, Middle Manager” made me change my own mind halfway about something I thought was completely uninteresting when I started reading it. And in “Middlemarch and Everybody,” she gives a description of reading George Eliot that made me consider pausing her essay and picking up Eliot’s work instead. I didn’t, but I plan to. From p. 30: “… like the two hands of a piece for the piano, a contrapuntal structure is set in motion, in which many melodic lines make equal claim on our attention. The result is that famous Eliot effect, the narrative equivalent of surround sound.” Smith also let Eliot’s writing speak for itself on p. 32, which I found incredibly accurate and inspiring: “The first impulse of a young and ingenuous mind is to withhold the slightest sanction from that contains even a mixture of supposed error. When the soul is just liberated from the wretched giant’s bed of dogmas on which it has been racked and stretched ever since it began to think there is a feeling of exultation and strong hope.”

Her film criticism is pretty spot-on, too — an impressive feat for someone who doesn’t consider herself a film critic. Skewering actor Jason Schwartzman in Shopgirl, Smith notes, “He cannot say a line without mentally enclosing it in quotation marks” (p. 183). And in describing Felicity Huffman’s performance in Transamerica, Smith says she “has exactly the careful, over stylized physical movements used by those who aspire to the feminine and feel they do not naturally possess it” (p. 209), an interesting observation especially considering Huffman herself has been very public about her own insecurities with her appearance. As for the movie itself, Smith sums it up well: “To watch this film go through its paces is a reminder that all cultures, no matter how alternative, petrify into cliche in the end” (p. 208).

She covers broader cinematic topics as well. “Hepburn and Garbo” reveres both women equally, but I was particularly struck by the portion on Hepburn. Smith’s observations about how Hepburn carried herself and moved through Hollywood with an impenetrable, undeniable masculine femininity are so unique and flattering that I wish the subject could be around to read them herself. “Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend” is pretty amusing, too — Smith is unapologetic about her very removed, very British perspective, and I found myself identifying with its apathy very strongly.

Actually, I identified with her British perspective basically any time she mentioned it. On the movie Brief Encounter: “It’s not that the English don’t want true love or self-knowledge. Rather, unlike our European cousins, we will not easily give up the real for the dream” (p. 193). Amen! And comedian Russell Kane, who had “a typically British ressentiment for those very people his sensibilities have moved him toward,” she elaborated, “You start out wanting people to laugh in exactly the places you mean them to laugh, then they always laugh where you want them to laugh — then you start to hate them for it” (p. 247).

Her most touching piece, undoubtedly, was “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace,” someone whom she clearly loved and understood better than most people — which, sadly, still isn’t much. “Wallace saw his own gifts — not as a natural resource to be exploited but as a suspicious facility to be interrogated,” she notes on p. 256. What an ethereal awareness he had, then, and what accomplishments he amassed despite of it. She writes the whole essay in his lengthily-claused, heavily-footnoted, severly-self-conscious style, a true tribute if ever there was one. And she peppers it with his sorts of rhetorical questions: “What is confession worth if what we want from it is not absolution but admiration for having confessed?” (p. 271). That kind of writing should make us all the more thankful that she’s around to ask them, even if he isn’t anymore.