The Cultural Observer 

Book Review: Changing My Mind; Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

January 1, 2010 by theculturalobserver


In “Crafty Feeling,” one of the versatile and thought-provoking essays contained in Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, the author confesses that whenever readers express admiration for White Teeth, she tries “to feel pleased, but it’s a distant, disconnected sensation,” and that the book and she “may never be reconciled.” Coming from a writer who, while still an undergraduate wunderkind at Cambridge, carved her place among the literati with such a precocious debut novel, this revelation may come as something of a surprise. Indeed, while smatters of it can read as stylistically incoherent, White Teeth displays artistic traits surely coveted by the immature novelist—there is the precise musicality of her prose, a tonally secure authorial voice that easily dispenses with unmannered verbal pyrotechnics, and, most remarkably, an artistic philosophy that embraces the medium of fiction as a means of depicting themes of religion, race, and character.
Like the many pieces in this eclectic omnibus of thoughts, this essay communicates not only the intricacies of Smith’s literary craft, but also unveils the inner workings of her dartingly gifted mind, tackling such conventionally cerebral topics like literary criticism, investigative journalism, and mini-memoir with the balances of wit and humor that charmed her critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Deeply personal and arrestingly candid, these pieces venture into the cultural and emotional waters that illuminated her previous works of fiction, for instance underscoring the influences imparted by Zora Neale Hurston’s “unerringly strong and soulful” black characters in “Their Eyes Were Watching God : What Does Soulful Mean?” or expressing admiration for Barack Obama’s polyphonic rhetoric in “Speaking in Tongues.”
On a first glance though, Changing My Mind may read like free-form exercises on a dartboard of random ideas:
recollections about her bittersweet relationship with her working-class, unread white father quickly segue into meditations on her brother’s flair for stand-up comedy. Under the section “Seeing,” Smith flexes her critical muscle and performs witty vivisections on mainstream cinema’s blockbuster titles. Adjoining this is a cleverly articulated exposé about feminism revolving around Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima, which sits beside an entertaining exegesis on Katharine Hepburn’s iconic approaches to character while examining the “essential, Platonic and unindividuated” that graces Greta Garbo’s features.
Elsewhere she writes about subjects as disparate as the power struggles pitted by Vladimir Nabokov’s “bold assertion of authorial privilege” versus Roland Barthes’ “authorial assassination”; Franz Kafka’s surreal renderings as a by-product of his collective Jewishness; reflections on the bizarreness of Oscar weekend in Los Angeles; the “middling” sincerity of E.M Forster’s writing; and the future novelistic paths paved by Joseph O’Neill’s scintillating Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s more daring experimental work, Remainder. Setting a slightly different key in this collection is the essay “One Week in Liberia,” which reads like a tapered remastering of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s artful journalistic expositions; and, in one of the more elegiac excerpts in this book, a most fitting tribute to the late David Foster Wallace.

Given the stark thematic differences explored throughout these essays, it understandably becomes difficult to find the common denominator that underlines this collection. For starters, it is apparent that Smith’s writing is coziest when she dispatches with inquiries into literature and the authors who interest her. As a perceptive reader who also happens to be a remarkable fiction writer, she expresses in “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov” her inclinations for latter’s author-biased “portrait of subjectivity” to the former’s authorial independence. Although she attempts to reconcile both of these diametrically opposing views, she in the end finds greater rewards in the Russian author’s highly involved approach. In expressing her deep affinity with Nabokov, the reader is assured that she is not merely knowledgeable about the devices behind his baroque flourishes and his playful puzzles, but that she grew and matured into Nabokov’s artistic philosophy and his religious dedication to the art of reading and rereading.
When she recounts the grim state of contemporary English fiction, Smith contrasts Joseph O’Neill’s more lyrical model with Tom McCarthy’s stark one, enticing the reader to examine them from a holistic perspective, to place them in context of the artistic tradition, and, ultimately, to take note of how these innovations “shake the novel out of its present complacency.” The essay, entitled “Two Directions for the Novel,” rends one of this collection’s most compelling reads and points to the author’s promising future in literary criticism. In homage to one of the 21st century’s most formidable prose stylists, Smith ably deconstructs the geometric complexities, the “formal, philosophical possibilities,” and the linguistic manipulations of consciousness characteristic to David Foster Wallace’s writing, highlighting his ability to shake the reader out of disbelief by inserting their psyche into the text.
But Smith also allows a bit of familiarity to penetrate the predominantly cerebral fabric of her writing, as evinced when culture and family are brought to the table. In discussing the virtues of Zora Neale Hurston, for example, Smith tells us that she initially resisted reading black authors due to the sentimentality, the “extraliterary feelings,” and the stilted theories of the “Black Female Literary Tradition,” declaring that, “I want my limits to be drawn by my own sensibilities, not by my melanin count.” She eventually comes to terms with Hurston’s work, and acknowledges the universality of that certain weltschmerz, or, as with this particular case, the soulfulness, that aligns any reader with the pathos of Hurston’s characters. And when she devotes space to three essays about her “gentle, sentimental” father, Harvey Smith, one recognizes the inspiration behind White Teeth’s Archie Jones and his daughter who, by merit of her intellectual acuity, managed to wrest herself away from England’s class limitations.
On the other hand, when Smith makes critical forays outside her element into film, one gets the feeling that she hasn’t been able to fully get under the skin of the art form. While her perspicacious insights make her blockbuster movie reviews entertaining and witty, they can sometimes come off as jerry-built and annoyingly cute displays of winded English wit. And while the Vogue magazinesque “Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend” bears similarities with the more accomplished investigative piece, “One Week in Liberia,” the self-conscious demeanor of the piece (which investigates the artifice that drenches Hollywood during the Oscars) renders something like a flat-footed imitation of a Dominic Dunne reportage.
In the end, all of these pieces do converge towards a central concept: to engage with Zadie Smith’s thoughts and to involve ourselves in the process of savoring and creating written art. Whether she is discussing the vocal multiplicity of Obama’s rhetoric, the fractal-like nature of Foster Wallace’s syntax, Nabokov’s game-master-like manipulation of prose, the pitch-perfect dialectics of black society, or the carefully constructed synthesis between body language and speech in film, these essays constantly impart Ms. Smith’s attempts to retune and refine a reader’s intuition and a writer’s wisdom. If this essay collection seems at first riddled with “ideological inconsistency,” ultimately, Changing My Mind addresses and embraces the credo of any great writer—that reading, and more importantly, reading well, is an invaluable precept to living.
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All private editorial communications, without exception, are read by both co-editors.