One may as well begin with my response to Zadie Smith's White Teeth (2000): I didn't love it as much as many others seemed to. Perhaps my expectations were too high: the novel had been showered with prizes, including the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize, among others.
I did think that for a first novel, it was a remarkable performance. Many first novels are coming of age stories with a small number of basically similar characters and a narrow time frame. Not White Teeth: Smith peopled the book with characters of many classes, ethnicities, belief systems, professions, and generations. The book opens in the mid-1970s, with the narrative following the intertwined fates of two families into the present and delving back into a shared secret from the last days of World War II. Smith clearly had a gift for limning vivid, highly individual characters, and the book touched on many contemporary issues in a lightly comic way.
But that bemused tone also seemed somewhat limiting. Everything from suicidal despair to the devastation of war to the delusions of fanaticism to the potential catastrophes of science was treated with an ironically raised eyebrow. That tone and Smith's theme of cultural displacement seemed to owe something to the example of Salman Rushdie, but White Teeth lacked the emotional and narrative range of, say, Midnight's Children (1981) or The Satanic Verses (1989). Still, few first novels even dare to invite those kinds of comparisons.
So while I enjoyed White Teeth, I wondered a bit at the extravagance of the praise that had been heaped on it. But then the somewhat less enthusiastic reviews of her next two novels scared me off. (I can't be pleased, apparently.) The Autograph Man (2002) seemed to revisit some of the same concerns of identity and belonging as White Teeth, only this time the main target seemed to be modern celebrity culture. Not only is that target excessively soft, hadn't it already been exhaustively punctured by writers like Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace? And speaking of tired subjects, then came a campus novel, On Beauty (2005). Can it be news to anyone that academics use specialized jargon as a defense mechanism, both to reaffirm their own expertise and to intellectualize their encounters with art? Not only that, but On Beauty's widely quoted first sentence was "One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father"--an allusion to the first sentence of E. M. Forster's Howard's End, "One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister." It seemed a weak joke, and perhaps a too-explicit signaling of her narrative model.
So thanks to my hesitations and doubts--admittedly based on information gleaned second-hand from reviews rather than direct experience--and a life that suddenly had a lot less time for reading for pleasure, both novels kept getting pushed down my reading list: I'm embarrassed to say that a copy of The Autograph Man has been sitting unread on a shelf in my house for five years now. In any case, for good reasons and (mostly) bad I lost touch with Zadie Smith for a while.
Until the last year or two, when I started noticing her byline on essays published in The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. There was her appreciation of the "humane and charming" BBC broadcasts of E. M. Forster, for example, and her remarkable meditation on multivocalism and Barack Obama (drawing parallels ranging from Shakespeare and Cary Grant to, well, Zadie Smith). But most impressive was her New Yorker essay "Dead Man Laughing", which affectingly describes her relationship with her father and her inherited love of British comedy (The Goon Show, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and a name new to me, Tony Hancock--"a comic wedded to despair"). As her father lies dying in a hospital,
"I did all the usual, banal things. I brought a Dictaphone to his bedside, in order to collect the narrative of his life (this perplexed him--he couldn’t see the through line). I grew furious with overworked nurses. I refused to countenance any morbidity from my father, or any despair. The funniest thing about dying is how much we, the living, ask of the dying; how we beg them to make it easy on us."
"Dead Man Laughing" is gently but keenly observed, sad, and very funny. And encountering (or re-encountering) this brilliant piece is by itself reason enough to pick up Smith's Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin, 2009), which collects not only "Dead Man Laughing" and the essays on Forster and Obama, but many more.
Given her range of subjects--Kafka, movies, David Foster Wallace, Roland Barthes--I was surprised to find that the essay after "Dead Man Laughing" that I found most involving was her appreciation of George Eliot's Middlemarch. Smith writes of the importance for Eliot of the moment "the scales fall from our eyes": how we can achieve what we think we most want, only to realize that we've mistaken our own desires--or, at least, have deceived ourselves about their objects. Perhaps the highest praise I can give this essay is that it made me urgently want to read Middlemarch.
And right after Middlemarch, I've clearly got to make up for lost time and read The Autograph Man and On Beauty. Now, though, I have the opposite dilemma. Before I avoided these books for fear of disappointment; after reading her smart, insightful and beautifully written essays, I fear my expectations for her fiction may now once again be too high.