Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  I have to confess to an earlier comic embellishment: my father is no longer in a Tupperware sandwich box. He was, for a year, but then I bought a pretty Italian art deco vase for him, completely see-through, so I can see through to him. The vase is posh, and not funny like the sandwich box, but I decided that what Harvey didn’t have much of in life he would get in death. In life, he found Britain hard. It was a nation divided by postcodes and accents, schools and last names. The humor of its people helped make it bearable. You don’t have to be funny to live here, but it helps. Hancock, Fawlty, Partridge, Brent: in my mind, they’re all clinging to the middle rungs of England’s class ladder. That, in large part, is the comedy of their situations.

  For eighty-one years, my father was up to the same game, though his situation wasn’t so comical; at least, the living of it wasn’t. Listen, I’ll tell you a joke: his mother had been in service, his father worked on the buses; he passed the grammar-school exam, but the cost of the uniform for the secondary school was outside the family’s budget. No, wait, it gets better: at thirteen, he left school to fill the inkwells in a lawyer’s office, to set the fire in the grate. At seventeen, he went to fight in the Second World War. In the fifties, he got married, started a family and, finding that he had a good eye, tried commercial photography. His pictures were good, he set up a little studio, but then his business partner stiffed him in some dark plot of which he would never speak. His marriage ended. And here’s the kicker: in the sixties, he had to start all over again, as a salesman. In the seventies, he married for the second time. A new lot of children arrived. The high point was the late eighties, a senior salesman now at a direct-mail company—selling paper, just like David Brent. Finally, the (lower) middle rung! A maisonette, half a garden, a sweet deal with a local piano teacher who taught Ben and me together, two bums squeezed onto the piano stool. But it didn’t last, and the second marriage didn’t last, and he ended up with little more than he had started with. Listening to my first novel on tape, and hearing the rough arc of his life in the character Archie Jones, he took it well, seeing the parallels but also the difference: “He had better luck than me!” The novel was billed as comic fiction. To Harvey, it sat firmly in the laugh-or-you’ll-cry genre. And when that Fawlty Towers boxed set came back to me as my only inheritance (along with a cardigan, several atlases, and a photograph of Venice), I did a little of both.




  I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourish ing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple. But now realize that TV and popular film and most kinds of “low” art— which just means art whose primary aim is to make money—is lucrative pre cisely because it recognizes that audiences prefer 100 percent pleasure to the reality that tends to be 49 percent pleasure and 51 percent pain. Whereas “serious” art, which is not primarily about getting money out of you, is more apt to make you uncomfortable, or to force you to work hard to access its pleasures, the same way that in real life true pleasure is usually a by-product of hard work and discomfort. So it’s hard for an art audience, especially a young one that’s been raised to expect art to be 100 percent pleasurable and to make that pleasure effortless, to read and appreciate serious fiction. That’s not good. The problem isn’t that today’s readership is “dumb,” I don’t think. Just that TV and the commercial-art culture’s trained it to be sort of lazy and childish in its expectations. But it makes trying to engage today’s readers both imaginatively and intellectually unprecedentedly hard.



  David Foster Wallace was clever about gifts: our inability to give freely or to accept what is freely given. A farmer can’t give away an old tiller for free; he has to charge five bucks before someone will come and take it. A depressed person wants to receive attention but can’t bring herself to give it. Normal social relations are only preserved because “one never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.” In these stories, the act of giving is in crisis; the logic of the market seeps into every aspect of life.

  These tales are found in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a collection that was itself the response to two enormous gifts. The first was practical: the awarding of the MacArthur.66 A gift on that scale frees a writer from the harsh logic of the literary market, and maybe also from that bind Wallace himself defined as postindustrial: the need always to be liked. The second gift was more difficult; it was Wallace’s own talent, the bedrock of which was a formidable intellect. That he ended up a fiction writer at all speaks to the radical way Wallace saw his own gifts—not as a natural resource to be exploited but as a suspicious facility to be interrogated. Certainly that unusual triune skill set—encyclopedic knowledge, mathematical prowess, complex dialectical thought—would have had an easier passage to approval within the academic world from which he hailed than in the literary world he joined. Instead, in his twenties, Wallace chose the path of most resistance. He turned from a career in math and philosophy to pursue a vocation in what he called “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction.” For the next twenty years, the two sides of that chiasmus would be in constant tension. On the one side, his writing sought the emotive force of fiction; on the other, its formal, philosophical possibilities. These elements attracted him equally but his virtuosity (and his training) was in the latter, and there was always the risk that the philosophy would overwhelm the passion. But Wallace was clever enough to realize that cleverness alone wasn’t enough (“I’ll catch myself thinking up gags or trying formal stunt-pilotry and see that none of this stuff is really in the service of the story itself; it’s serving the rather darker purpose of communicating to the reader ‘Hey! Look at me! Have a look at what a good writer I am! Like me!’ ”) He battled to share his gifts rather than simply display them, seeming to seek the solution in a principle of self-mortification. What do you do with a great gift? You give it away:I’ve gotten convinced that there’s something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn’t have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent . . . .Talent’s just an instrument. It’s like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn’t. I’m not saying I’m able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved. I know this doesn’t sound hip at all. . . . But it seems like one of the things really great fiction-writers do—from Carver to Chekhov to Flannery O’Connor, or like the Tolstoy of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” or the Pynchon of Gravity’s Rainbow—is “give” the reader something. The reader walks away from the real art heavier than she came into it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out.

  When Wallace wrote he offered everything he had to his readers, including the kitchen sink. His cultish fans were always ready and willing t
o come away from his work a little heavier—it was his complexity that they loved. For many of us, though, what Wallace had to give looked simply too heavy, too much like hard work. And while Brief Interviews had its passionate defenders, I remember that the pair of reviews it received in the New York Times were bad (in both senses), opening with paragraphs of nervous ridicule:How to describe David Foster Wallace’s new collection of stories? You might say it’s like being a therapist and being forced to listen to one narcissistic patient after the next prattle on—and on and on—about their neuroses and their explanations for those neuroses and the rationaliza tions behind the explanations for those neuroses. Or you might say it’s like being locked in a room with a bunch of speed freaks babbling to themselves nonstop on a Benzedrine-fueled high as they clip their toenails or cut the split ends out of their hair.

  You know the old story about how if you set a billion monkeys to work on a billion typewriters, one of them would eventually compose the complete works of Shakespeare? David Foster Wallace often writes the way I imagine that billionth monkey would: in mad cadenzas of simian gibberish that break suddenly into glorious soliloquies, then plunge again into nonsense.

  Perhaps it was easy, when you read Wallace, to distrust “the agenda of the consciousness behind the text.” Did he truly want to give you a gift? Or only to demonstrate his own? For why should we be expected to tease out references to De Chirico and logotherapy, or know what happens during an eclipse, or what polymerase does, or the many nuances of the word prone? Why go through the pain if this is to be all we get in return: “Discursive portraits of relentlessly self-absorbed whiners, set down in an unappetizing mix of psychobabble, scholarly jargon and stream-of-consciousness riffs”? It’s my recollection that this sort of thing had become, in the early noughties, the common “line” on Wallace, especially in England; something to say whether you’d actually read him or not. Postmodern type? Swallowed a dictionary? Bad reviews serve many purposes, not least of which is the gift of freedom: they release you from the obligation of having to read the book.

  At the time of writing, Brief Interviews marks its tenth anniversary and its author is no longer with us. Now might be the time to think of the literary gift economy the other way around. To do this we have to recognize that a difficult gift like Brief Interviews merits the equally difficult gift of our close attention and effort. For this reason, the newspaper review was never going to be an easy fit for Wallace. He can’t be read and understood and enjoyed at that speed any more than I can get the hang of the Goldberg Variations over a weekend. His reader needs to think of herself as a musician, spreading the sheet music—the gift of the work—over the music stand, electing to play. First there is practice, then competency at the instrument, then spending time with the sheet music, then playing it over and over.

  Of course, the arguments that might be employed w/r/t reading in this way are deeply unreasonable, entirely experiential, and impossible to objectively defend.67 In the end, all that can be said is that the difficult gift is its own defense, the deep rewarding pleasure of which is something you can only know by undergoing it. To appreciate Wallace, you need to really read him—and then you need to reread him. For this reason—among many others—he was my favorite living writer, and I wrote this piece to remember him by, which, in my case, is best done by reading him once again.


  The story “Forever Overhead” is Brief Interviews at its most open, and for many readers, its most beautiful. Wallace disliked it, thinking it juvenilia—maybe it was its very openness he suspected. So many of the dense themes of the book are here laid out with an unexpected directness. At first glance, it’s simple: a boy on his thirteenth birthday in an “old public pool on the western edge of Tucson,” resolving to try the diving tank for the first time. The voice is as blank as a video game, as an instruction manual,68 and yet, within it, Wallace finds something tender: “Get out now and go past your parents, who are sunning and reading, not looking up. Forget your towel. Stopping for the towel means talking and talking means thinking. You have decided being scared is caused mostly by thinking. Go right by, toward the tank at the deep end.” To this he then adds a layer of complication: a sparsely punctuated, synesthetic compression, like a painter placing another shade atop his base. A remembered wet dream does not yet know its own name, it is “spasms of a deep sweet hurt”; the pool is “five-o’clock warm,” its distinctive odor “a flower with chemical petals.” The noise of the radio overhead is “jangle flat and tinny thin,” and a dive is “a white that plumes and falls” until once more “blue clean comes up in the middle of the white.” Throughout, the expected verb—is—is generally omitted: sensations present themselves directly on the page, as they present themselves to the boy. The unmediated sensory overload of puberty overlaps here with a dream of language: that words might become things, that there would exist no false gap between the verbal representation of something and the something itself.69

  Then, with the base coat down, and the wash laid on top, comes another layer. Concrete details so finely rendered they seem to have been drawn from the well of our own memories: your sister’s swim cap with the “raised rubber flowers . . . limp old pink petals” and the “thin cruel hint of very dark Pepsi in paper cups”; that SN CK BAR with the letter missing and the concrete deck “rough and hot against your bleached feet.” Isn’t everything just as you remember it? The big lady in front of you on the ladder: “Her suit is full of her. The backs of her thighs are squeezed by the suit and look like cheese. The legs have abrupt little squiggles of cold blue shattered vein under the white skin.” The ladder itself: “The rungs are very thin. It’s unexpected. Thin round iron rungs laced in slick wet Safe-T felt.” And now, fueled by nostalgia, by the pressing in of times past, the concrete seems to mix with the existential: “Each of your footprints is thinner and fainter. Each shrinks behind you on the hot stone and disappears.” And again, on that ladder: “You have real weight. . . . The ground wants you back.” Haven’t you been in this terrible queue? Aren’t you in it now? A queue from which there is no exit, in which everyone looks bored and “seems by himself,” in which all dive freely and yet have no real freedom, for “it is a machine that moves only forward.”

  The difference is awareness (this is always the difference in Wallace). The boy seems to see clearly what we, all those years ago, felt only faintly. He sees that “the pool is a system of movement,” in which all experience is systematized (“There is a rhythm to it. Like breathing. Like a machine.”) and into which, as the woman in front of him dives, he must now insert himself:Listen. It does not seem good, the way she disappears into a time that passes before she sounds. Like a stone down a well. But you think she did not think so. She was part of a rhythm that excludes thinking. And now you have made yourself part of it, too. The rhythm seems blind. Like ants. Like a machine.

  You decide this needs to be thought about. It may, after all, be all right to do something scary without thinking, but not when the scariness is the not thinking itself. Not when not thinking turns out to be wrong. At some point the wrongnesses have piled up blind: pretend-boredom, weight, thin rungs, hurt feet, space cut into laddered parts that melt together only in a disappearance that takes time. The wind on the ladder not what anyone would have expected. The way the board protrudes from shadow into light and you can’t see past the end. When it all turns out to be different you should get to think. It should be required.

  Now we see what the board is and feel our own predicament: sentient beings encased in these flesh envelopes, moving always in one inexorable direction (the end of which we cannot see). Bound by time. Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you. This, Sartre’s dictum, hangs over these passive people who “let their legs take them to the end” before coming down “heavy on the edge of the board and mak[ing] it throw them up and out.” Thrown into the world, condemned to be free—and hideously responsible for that freedom.
  It strikes me when I reread this beautiful story how poor we are at tracing literary antecedents, how often we assume too much and miss obvious echoes. Lazily we gather writers by nations, decades and fashions; we imagine Wallace the only son of DeLillo and Pynchon. In fact, Wallace had catholic tastes, and it shouldn’t surprise us to find, along with Sartre, traces of Philip Larkin, a great favorite of his.70 Wallace’s fear of automatism is acutely Larkinesque (“a style/ Our lives bring with them: habit for a while/Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got”71), as is his attention to that singular point in our lives when we realize we are closer to our end than our beginning. When Wallace writes, “At some point there has gotten to be more line behind you than in front of you,” he lends an indelible image to an existential fear, as Larkin did memorably in “The Old Fools:” “The peak that stays in view wherever we go / For them is rising ground.” Then there’s the title itself, “Forever Overhead”: a perfectly accurate description, when you think about it, of how the poems “High Windows” and “Water” close.72 That mix of the concrete and the existential, of air and water, of the eternal submerged in the banal. And boredom was the great theme of both. But in the great theme there is a great difference. Wallace wanted to interrogate boredom as a deadly postmodern attitude, an attempt to bypass experience on the part of a people who have become habituated to a mediated reality. “It seems impossible,” the boy thinks, arranging his face in fake boredom to match the rest, “that everybody could really be this bored.” In this story, the counterweight to automatism is sensation, expressed here as human reality in its most direct and redemptive form: “Your feet are hurt from the thin rungs and have a great ability to feel.” It’s no accident that we are in a swimming pool, at fiery sunset, with a high wind blowing and the ground hot enough to remind of us of its solidity. The four elements are intended to work upon “you”; for no matter how many times this queue has formed, no matter how many people have dived before, or have watched other people dive, in life or on TV, this is you, diving now, and it should be thought about, and there should be a wonder in it. For Larkin, on the other hand, boredom was real (“Life is first boredom, then fear./Whether or not we use it, it goes”73), and the inexorability of time made all human effort faintly ludicrous. There is some of this despair in Wallace, too (whatever splash the divers make, the tank “heals itself” each time, as if each dive had never been), but much less than is popularly ascribed to him. Time has its horrors in Wallace but it’s also the thing that binds us most closely to the real and to one another: without it we would lose ourselves in solipsism (which, for him, was the true horror.) When the boy, in a meditative state, dares to hope that “no time is passing outside,” he is soon proven wrong:Hey kid. They want to know. Do your plans up here involve the whole day or what exactly is the story. Hey kid are you okay.

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