‘Now More Than Ever’ by Zadie Smith

Looking at the wider world, there is no shortage of things to be worried about. Real, incontrovertible things, murder, cruelty, abuse of many kinds, each uglier than the last. Yet we are increasingly caught up with how we are seen in relation to our response to symbolic issues. “There is an urge to be good,” the narrator begins. “To be seen to be good.”

It is a disturbing possibility that we worry about the wrong things, or worry about the right things in the wrong way, with an eye to self-congratulation and branding rather than justice or fairness. Sometimes, resilience requires finding a place to put those anxieties: having something to pin uneasiness on is a great gift that a story can give (that and making you feel smarter for having read it). This is one such story. 

First published in The New Yorker in July 2018 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Grand Union, Hamish Hamilton, 2019

‘The Lazy River’ by Zadie Smith

I read this right after breakfast during a MacDowell residency, and it blew my mind at the time. There is such skill in how the anger and moral outrage is contained, such a careful, precise and measured approach to how and when that anger is expressed – but it is there, I did feel it. Maybe in the lines: 

Down below, the Lazy River runs, a neon blue, a crazy blue, a Facebook blue. In it stands a fully clothed man armed with a long mop—he is being held in place by another man, who grips him by the waist, so that the first man may angle his mop and position himself against the strong yet somniferous current and clean whatever scum we have left of ourselves off the sides. 

From this story, I feel I really learned from how to keep the reader’s attention to submerged meanings, awareness of ostensibly peripheral experiences, actually right at the forefront – to keep the reader tense and vigilant. I also was more aware of the language of the story, its old-fashioned elocution and elegance, in comparison with a lot of other work I read, and was glad for it. 

First published in The New Yorker, Dec 11 2017, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Grand Union, Hamish Hamilton, 2019