BOOKS: Zadie Smith’s Feel Free. Heather Mor­ris’s The Tat­tooist of Auschwitz. Dan Shee­han’s Rest­less Souls.

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Given the plots of her nov­els and the range of her es­says, what is it about Zadie Smith, of all the noughties whiz-kid writ­ers, that makes her read­ers feel as if they know her per­son­ally?

She’s not par­tic­u­larly con­fes­sional; if any­thing, she’s par­tic­u­larly not. In this sec­ond book of non­fic­tion, Feel Free, and the first one, Chang­ing My Mind (2009), she uses her ex­pe­ri­ences a bit like echolo­ca­tion, in so far as it helps her il­lu­mi­nate a piece (or two) of cul­ture.

But her re­sponses to ideas, news and books are al­ways so de­pen­dent on po­si­tion­al­ity – the po­si­tion of the au­thor, what’s caused her to take that po­si­tion, what keeps that po­si­tion sta­ble, and how the po­si­tion af­fects her judge­ments. She man­ages to be per­sonal without be­ing au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, or rather – be­cause some of the writ­ing builds on sto­ries from her life – she shows us that the life of thought is in­sep­a­ra­ble from the work of life. Her ex­pe­ri­ences of cul­ture are con­tin­gent and pro­vi­sional. Where she is in­forms her re­sponse to a given topic, as does her gen­der, race, class, na­tion­al­ity, mar­i­tal sta­tus, and she nei­ther hides their in­flu­ences nor pre­tends they in­flu­ence her re­sponse un­duly.

Smith writes in sen­tences that sit eas­ily with the reader, build­ing a re­la­tion­ship as if through mea­sured speech. It’s also like a par­tic­u­larly in­ge­nious Wikipedia binge, rest­ing less on what we learn about Joni Mitchell or Hanif Kureishi than in the in­spired read­ings she makes of them, al­ways brainy and rea­son­able, per­haps E. B. White-ish.

The re­sults can be de­li­cious. Many of the es­says here are bona-fide in­ter­net hits, es­pe­cially the ones writ­ten for The New

York Re­view of Books, such as the good one about Face­book that spawned other good ones about Face­book, and the one about the Corona bill­board that says “Find your beach”, and is re­ally about artists be­ing priced out of Man­hat­tan. Peo­ple will be read­ing these for years.

So much of it is char­ac­ter. These es­says were first pub­lished in the Obama years, so the edge of dark­ness that gives a bite to most of them can’t wholly be due to the darker times they’ve been re­pub­lished in – although the few that were writ­ten in the brief months between the Brexit vote and the as­cent of Don­ald Trump are charged and fraught, even as the tone stays level. They’re se­quenced early in the book and colour what comes af­ter, even when those pieces are about web­sites and bill­boards.

When Smith writes in a di­ary-es­say shortly af­ter Brexit that “fences are be­ing raised ev­ery­where in Lon­don”, there are echoes of Sir Ed­ward Grey circa World

War I – “the lamps are go­ing out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”. It doesn’t feel dra­matic; it feels se­ri­ous.

Be­cause Feel Free can be read as an en­counter with char­ac­ter, it can also be read as an es­say col­lec­tion about a per­son grow­ing up, if not yet grow­ing old (de­spite some com­ments to the con­trary – Smith was born in 1975). “The art of midlife is surely al­ways cloudier than the art of youth, as life it­self gets cloudier,” she writes.

“But it would be disin­gen­u­ous to pre­tend it is only that. I am a ci­ti­zen as well as an in­di­vid­ual soul and one of the things ci­ti­zen­ship teaches us, over the long stretch, is that there is no per­fectibil­ity in hu­man af­fairs.”

What makes these sec­tions feel dark, rather than shocked and an­gry, is the ac­knowl­edge­ment that left and right are all in the same soup: “Hav­ing one’s own his­tory so sud­denly and abruptly made un­real is an ex­pe­ri­ence of a whole gen­er­a­tion of Bri­tish peo­ple, who must now wan­der around like so many an­cient mariners bor­ing for­eign­ers about how they went to univer­sity for free and could once find a Na­tional Health den­tist on their high street.” This, in a piece about li­braries.

Although Smith is from Lon­don, has lived in Rome and teaches at NYU, her con­cerns feel schol­arly and in­ter­na­tion­al­ist without feel­ing un­fixed from the places she writes in. Li­brary en­thu­si­asts and Brexit vot­ers may not all live with the same is­sues, but they share re­la­tion­ships to na­tion­hood, time, the past.

Not all the es­says are as grave as this, but they are the ones that lend struc­ture and sup­port to the book, and are likely the ones that will strike read­ers, along with a range of thor­ough, con­sid­ered es­says about black art and artists. There’s one on Jor­dan Peele from back when he was half of a re­ally good sketch com­edy team, and another about Peele af­ter his film Get Out set the agenda for pop­u­lar en­gage­ment with race in 2017. There’s a story about ac­ci­den­tally burn­ing down a build­ing in Italy that is ac­tu­ally a sweet es­say about Smith’s mar­riage. There’s a col­lec­tion of new books columns she wrote for Harper’s Mag­a­zine, a job she had for six months just af­ter hav­ing a kid.

And oh, all the oth­ers – about the film The Clock by Chris­tian Mar­clay, about pub­lic gar­dens, about her dad, about Crash by J. G. Bal­lard, one ex­plic­itly about joy, and the oth­ers all about joy along with that dark trou­bled qual­ity, which may be the nat­u­ral ef­fect of per­spec­tive and time.

It’s a bit of a grab bag, and some of it can be skipped. But the ap­proach means a big book such as this, nearly 500 pages and cov­er­ing nearly 10 years, at least matches the idea of her­self that Smith builds up for the reader: she’s an om­niv­o­rous char­ac­ter who’s in­ter­ested in every­thing, and the state of be­ing in­ter­ested has an eth­i­cal di­men­sion.

A prin­ci­ple that un­der­pins many of the es­says is that who we are is in­formed by what we watch and read and think, as well as what we stum­ble upon, and what peo­ple show us, and what books hap­pen to come across the Harper’s desk that month. In this way, in these es­says, the crit­i­cal re­ally is per­sonal: the least likely ma­te­rial be­comes vi­tal sta­tis­tics. CR

Hamish Hamil­ton, 480pp, $35

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