Wednesday, August 1, 2012
July 30, 2012 Issue
Zadie Smith has a beautiful tone – deep, rich, rhythmic, bluesy. She’s the Cassandra Wilson of the essay. Her “Dead Man Laughing” (The New Yorker, December 22, 2008; included in her 2009 collection Changing My Mind) is brilliant, and her recent “North West London Blues” (The New York Review of Books, July 12, 2012), a passionate defense of Willesden Library, is excellent. Now, in this week’s New Yorker, comes her short story, “Permission to Enter.” It’s the first fiction by her that I’ve read. I approached it a bit warily, mindful of James Wood’s criticism of her novel White Teeth: “This style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality – the usual charge – but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself” (“Hysterical Realism,” collected in his 2004 The Irresponsible Self). “Permission to Enter” is interestingly structured – bits and pieces, each numbered and tagged like fragments of artifacts found in a dig, a memory dig. The pieces are set down chronologically, starting with “These Red Pigtails,” in which four-year old Keisha Blake’s saving of Leah Hanwell (also four year’s old) from drowning is fleetingly, retrospectively recounted by Keisha’s mother, Marcia, while Keisha (now age ten) is trying on shoes in a shoe store. It ends with a fragment (#67), titled “Mixed Metaphors,” showing Keisha (now known as Natalie) studying for the bar. In between, all kinds of material are introduced [e.g., brief scenes, slices of conversation, lists, observations, quotations, bright dabs of precise detail (“She had to wear regulation flat black shoes with rounded toes and chunky soles, and a brown-and-white striped outfit topped off by a baker’s hat, with an elastic rim, under which every last strand of her hair was to be placed”), even a menu (see #53)]. Use of rapid takes is a cool way to tell a story. One precedent that comes to mind is Donald Barthelme’s “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning” (included in his 1968 collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts). But Barthelme’s story is surrealist; Smith’s is gloriously realist. In “Hysterical Realism,” Wood says, “When Smith is writing well, she seems capable of almost anything.” “Permission to Enter” confirms his opinion.