What I’m Reading: Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith

6 Jan

Reading this book of essays, I fell in love with Zadie Smith’s style.  She’s so personable and reasonable, that it’s impossible not to feel some sort of affinity toward her voice.  But I had a moment when I felt a connection I don’t feel with a writer only because her style is impeccable.

This kind of connection is the pinnacle of the reading experience.  I remember feeling it for the first time, when, as a boy, I read a passage in a novel in which the protagonist turned over her pillow to fall sleep on the cool side, something I, a hot-headed child, did every night.  I turned over and looked around to make sure the author wasn’t somewhere in my bedroom, watching me read.  Was it possible, that the author had had the same experience as me? That was the only explanation. Even in my innermost thoughts I was not alone. Thank God.

This time, I felt such a connection as I was reading Smith’s “At the Multiplex, 2006”, a series of movie reviews that were otherwise unremarkable.  In her review of Transamerica—a movie I still have yet to see—Smith writes that the film’s audience wasn’t “allowed even momentarily to consider the possibility” that sex reassignment surgery “is anything other than a necessary and correct procedure.”

After someone I knew with Gender Identity Disorder decided to switch genders, I spent way too much time thinking about the uneasiness I felt at the existence of such a procedure. But when I told a group of friends about all the deep thinking I’d been doing, they didn’t want to discuss the ethics of sex reassignment surgery.  In fact, their responses made me consider the possibility that I was a minor bigot for questioning whether such a surgery was a complete and utter good.

So, when I came to a passage in which Smith questions the wisdom of our modern society, I shouted inside.  My friends may consider me a minor bigot, but Zadie Smith has thought my same thoughts.  And she went to Cambridge. She writes, “For what did ‘women trapped in a male body’ do 300 years ago? Maybe they expanded the social category of what it is to be male so that it was expansive enough to include the ‘female’ traits they longed for.”

That was my favorite passage from the book, but my favorite essay was Smith’s dissection of David Foster Wallace’s work, “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace”.  I loved this essay in part because Smith focuses on the short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, my favorite Wallace short story collection.  She asks a question, which she is obviously concerned with herself—is it okay for a writer to ask a reader to work?

For a big portion of the essay, Smith focuses on “Forever Overhead”, probably the best story ever written about puberty. Smith pulls out things I’d never even considered, but she doesn’t talk it to death, which I found refreshing. Reading her essay was the most fun I’d ever had reading literary criticism, in part because I’d read all the stories she was writing about, but mainly because she was neither arcane or fawning, which is usually the case with smart criticism of contemporary literature.

As a final aside, I have a recommendation for consuming David Foster Wallace’s collection. Do it the way that I did. Listen to it. My friend Brooks borrowed the tapes from the library, while we were both studying English. This was my introduction to David Foster Wallace, a writer whose name our professors never uttered. Though abridged, Wallace reads the stories himself.  And, not surprisingly, he knows just how to read them. His voice is familiar and Midwestern, simultaneously wry and earnest. After college, I went out and bought the tapes and listened to the whole thing many times, often playing them—without irony—for the girls I was trying to seduce.

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