Feel Free review: Zadie Smith's intelligence shines in her inquisitive essays
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Feel Free review: Zadie Smith's intelligence shines in her inquisitive essays

Essays
Feel Free
Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton, $35

In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel published an essay on the subject of consciousness, in which he posed a famous question: what it is like to be a bat? Near the end of Zadie Smith's Feel Free, there is an essay in which she ponders a related and rather more pressing question: what is it like to be Justin Bieber?

Zadie Smith's intelligence shines in her inquisitive essays.

Zadie Smith's intelligence shines in her inquisitive essays.

Photo: New York Times

What would it be like, she wonders, to be the focus of so much hysterical adulation? What would it be like to have achieved a level of celebrity that makes the kinds of ordinary human interactions we take for granted all but impossible, and to have done so at such a young and vulnerable age, when historical precedent (cf. Michael Jackson) suggests that this is not exactly conducive to a person's psychological wellbeing?

It is an indication of Smith's approach to essay writing that she not only spins her Bieber-inspired thought experiment into a substantial reflection on the nature of selfhood and the constitutive problem of our social being, but that she does so with reference to the work of the early 20th-century philosopher and mystic Martin Buber – which is to say, her argument turns on a segue that's cuter than a warehouse full of Hello Kitty stationery.

Feel Free, by Zadie Smith.

Feel Free, by Zadie Smith.

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The lure-you-with-the-Bieb, slap-you-with-the-Bube technique is very much in evidence in Feel Free. Smith's essays often use playful pop-culture references and self-deprecating humour to smooth the path for their serious concerns. The upside of this is that her writing is always lively and accessible, even at its most cerebral; the downside is that some of her conceits can come across as a little strained.

Future historians seeking to understand the weird intellectual decadence that presaged the collapse of civilisation in the middle decades of the 21st century may well turn with interest to the essay in which Smith cites Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard's treatise on the savage irrationality of religious faith, to explain her sudden realisation in her early 30s that she quite likes the music of Joni Mitchell.

Feel Free is Smith's second volume of non-fiction and it roams more widely than its predecessor, Changing My Mind. The new collection extends her range to art criticism, magazine features (there is an overlong soft-profile of comedy duo Key and Peele), and thinkpieces on topical subjects such as Brexit and urban development.

The glue that binds the volume, and the thing that grants the essays their charm, is her affable persona. Among other things, Feel Free provides regular glimpses of what it is like to be Zadie Smith. You check your diary: one-on-one lunch with Jay-Z. You go to dinner, find that you are seated opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov. You are relaxing at your in-laws' house when you get a phone call from an editor at Harper's offering you a regular column. That sort of thing.

Smith endures it all with equanimity. She positions herself as a stereotypical well-meaning but naive liberal: the kind of wishy-washy moderate who clings to the idea that it might still be possible to have a respectful evidence-based discussion when her interlocutor is busy smashing the furniture, setting fire to the curtains and stealing the silverware. Yet the measured intelligence of these essays, the notable absence of arrogance and dogmatism, keeps at arm's length the kinds of bourgeois orthodoxies to which she notionally subscribes.

Smith is interested in the highly charged issues of race and class, and the complex ways in which they interact. She is conscious of the fact that her background – she has a white father and a black mother, grew up in modest circumstances, but was lucky enough to attend Cambridge on a scholarship – allows her to see these questions from more than one angle. (She is perfectly aware that someone like her has no business delighting in a book by a toffee-nose such as Deborah Mitford, and yet …) This informs the durable spirit of cultural inquisitiveness and open-mindedness that is evident in Feel Free, which contains a few makeweight pieces, but confirms that Smith is one of the more adept contemporary practitioners of the art of the familiar essay.

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