WE LEFT NEW YORK at the end of May. Buying a pre-owned Subaru in Portland, Oregon, a few weeks later, I explained to the salesman that the move had been long planned, by which I meant that we weren’t part of the exodus from the city prompted by the plague, something I’d also explained to the handyman repairing the wall we’d waterlogged by drilling into pipes above the toilet while hanging a medicine cabinet in our new apartment.
Since March, I’d felt certain of my capacities diminished. I had not been able to write. A note I took in the middle of one spring night said, “WHY NOT WRITING?” I answered myself in my notebook in the morning: “I DON’T WANT ANY OF THESE IDEAS.” I had also not been able to read, not before bed, not on the plane west. Not the celebrated memoir on my nightstand written by a poet who’d famously dined with a tyrant, not the favorite novel I’d turned to during a farewell Zoom conference, where my colleagues all brought parting words of joy from their own favorite works, where I compared New York, the town I’d called home for two decades, to the imaginary one called Gilead: “This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town.”
The first person close enough for me to have learned he’d died was the brother of the budget administrator at work; then it was the superintendent of the building some friends of mine lived in with their daughter; the closest so far, which isn’t so close, was a writer and teacher I once worked with whose sister, a registered nurse, documented her death on Twitter: their FaceTime meetings, her ventilator settings (“fio2 100% Peep at 5”), the family’s ongoing prayers until the end and beyond.
The dean and her partner both apparently had it, and though for a week in April I seemed to have lost my senses of smell and taste, at-home antibody tests we took to reassure ourselves before the move came back unreassuringly negative for both me and my wife, and it was apparently all in my head back then. I still wasn’t reading.
The first book I finished in lockdown was Zadie Smith’s Intimations, a short collection written before 2020 was even halfway done (she dates the foreword from London May 31, the day I moved; the book was released in late July, around the time our belongings arrived, delayed by the virus). Intimations is a book of personal essays, “small by definition, short by necessity,” she says, written in “those scraps of time the year itself has allowed.” (Sort of like what you’re reading now.) In these essays, Smith remembers New York, especially, at the moment just before lockdown, when, for instance, in the crisp early spring, she encounters two other middle-aged women staring at some tulips behind the bars of Jefferson Market Garden. They are drawn there for a moment by the same “powerful instinct,” she says, though they all have somewhere else to be. The theme here, in an essay called “Peonies,” because those are the flowers she wished she had seen instead of the pedestrian tulips, is the tension between resistance and submission: controlling our experiences (through writing, impractically, in large part), versus taking the world as it comes, which results in an ambivalence she enacts in a moment on the page: “[O]ut in the field, experience has no chapter headings or paragraph breaks or ellipses in which to catch your breath … it just keeps coming at you.”
In an essay called “The American Exception,” Smith quotes the president from late March to expose the difference, in America, between “dead people” and “death absolute”: “I wish we could have our old life back,” Trump said. “We had the greatest economy that we’ve ever had, and we didn’t have death.” This distinction between death and the dead is one of several themes Smith returns to in Intimations, having dwelled on it earlier in a 2013 essay about Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, and two volumes of Knausgaard’s My Struggle. In the earlier essay, she tries imagining herself as a corpse, fails, and then, referring to the first principles observed by children, evokes a world filled with many “strange divisions”: “Up/down. Black/white. Rich/poor. Alive/dead.”
Oddest of all is the unequal distribution of corpses. We seem to come from a land where people, generally speaking, live. But those other people (often brown, often poor) come from a death-dealing place. What a misfortune to have been born in such a place!
In the new essay, she resumes. Of dead people in America, seen as “casualties” and “victims,” “more or less innocent bystanders,” she writes:
[A]ll of these involved some culpability on the part of the dead. Wrong place, wrong time. Wrong skin color. Wrong side of the tracks. Wrong Zip Code, wrong beliefs, wrong city. Wrong position of hands when asked to exit the vehicle. Wrong health insurance — or none. Wrong attitude to the police officer.
I don’t know well enough the budget administrator’s brother or the super of my friends’ building to know of their American-style culpability, but the teacher and writer, Rana Zoe Mungin, 30, died after twice being sent home from the hospital without a test. Black herself, she died in the predominately Black, predominantly poor Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, where rates of infection are five times what they are in the Manhattan neighborhood I left, and nearly eight times what they are in Greenwich Village, around Jefferson Market Garden — a fact that does not escape Smith: “The virus map of the New York boroughs turns redder along precisely the same lines as it would if the relative shade of crimson counted not infection and death but income brackets and middle-school ratings.”
Though she has referred to herself as a “sentimental humanist” — that is, Smith believes that “art is here to help, even if the help is painful — especially then” — she is sometimes seen as an alien by the students I’ve taught. When they’ve said this, they seem to be responding to the experience of having been observed, studied, actually seen in a way that’s alienating, I suppose, because they’re neither used to the careful attention nor feel themselves to be capable of such powers of observation. (If they feel this way it is our, their elders’, fault.)
That Smith will, in this collection, draw categorical distinctions between “the single human” and “the married human” is suggestive of the studious stranger-in-a-strange-land sense my students have sometimes felt as objects she’s trained her scope on: the youngs. What she would say in reply, as she does looking at the tulips and wishing for peonies, looking at herself and an assortment of city-dwellers throughout the book, is: “I am not a scientist or a sociologist. I am a novelist.” And the novelist writing these essays, this year, spends most of her time with portraiture, turning something she’s once described as “a source of daily pleasure” — other people’s faces — into the basis for the ethical argument that anchors this book and perhaps our moment.
The bulk of Intimations is called “Screengrabs (After Berger, before the virus),” six short and loving character studies from this self-professed “professional gawker”: Ben from the Greenwich Village nail place who rubs her back every other day; Myron (not his real name), the man with no legs in the wheelchair, a fan of disco in a story of hers called “Words and Music”; Barbara, the late-60s neighbor with a broad New York accent and the cigarettes and the dead dog that had been “seamlessly replaced by an identical dog with an equally bad attitude”; the “obvious auntie” at the 98 bus stop from London’s Stonebridge Estate, the elder who knows the author’s real name, Sadie; an Asian man in Washington Square Park, a “provocation,” Smith calls him in this portrait’s title, holding a sign that says, “I AM A SELF-HATING ASIAN. LET’S TALK!”
The central portrait is of Cy-the-IT-Guy, perhaps an NYU student, maybe not, it’s unclear, but he’s young, “with his inimitable energy, slightly exophthalmic, puggish eyes, and irregularly coiled, unpredictable Afro, so like my own,” Smith writes. The family resemblance only goes so far, though, and this portrait that centers on style — in Susan Sontag’s words, “a means of insisting on something” — turns toward yet another way that this moment, this virus, and the American response has caused suffering. For most young people, even in the creative economy, style can’t pay the bills.
Professors can be tenured. IT Guys cannot. The enviable style of the young is little protection against catastrophe. And the infinite promise of American youth — a promise elaborately articulated by movies and advertisements and university prospectuses — has been an empty lie for so long that I notice my students joking about it with a black humor appropriate to old men, to the veterans of war. […] When, in the classroom, they insist on their personal styles, in a manner all too easy to find obnoxious — and causing the predictable generational friction — I have to remind myself to remember this: their style is all they have.
Though twentysomething IT guys have been in high demand in recent months, troubleshooting, boosting our connectivity, Smith would have us see them and all young people better in this moment, in their supposed isolation. (Or perhaps she’s describing her isolation from them, and mine from the young people I teach, who tell me, nevertheless, of their isolation, often from behind their names in a box on a screen.) She concludes, “It should be a season full of possibility. Economic, romantic, technological, political, existential possibility.” And yet we have Cy, who the last time Smith saw him was cruising on a hoverboard, among the young sufferers, their style now “radically interrupted.”
In the months leading up to lockdown, a year ago now, Smith published an argument in defense of fiction in The New York Review of Books that I shared with students in the midst of a course dedicated to her essays. The essay was new, but its themes were familiar, just like those in Intimations. Cautiously defending a capacious fiction against those who would have the novelist stay in her lane — warning against forgetting “the mystery that lies at the heart of all selfhood” — Smith turns to Emily Dickinson, the human mystery of grief, and the poet’s presumption, like the novelist’s, that our “griefs are not entirely unrelated.”
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes —
I wonder if It weighs like Mine —
Or has an Easier size.
This is precisely the theme — indeed, the argument — that moves Intimations forward, or maybe it’s simply the theme that made it possible for me to finish the book in the midst of a year of growing griefs that didn’t have to be. (“Contingency,” the fact of being so without having to be so, is another of the ideas Smith develops across the essays.) Not that our griefs and our suffering are actually relative or measureable — not, Smith will argue, like privilege, which is both those things — but that suffering weighs on each of us individually, applying itself to our bodies and minds, Smith says, “as if uniquely shaped” for each of us. Comparison is beside the point: we all suffer; we all grieve. The women gripping the bars at Jefferson Market Garden, Ben at the nail place, Barbara with the dead dog, Cy in his presumed isolation, Zadie Smith in the isolation she describes throughout Intimations, me in mine, you in yours. “[P]rivilege and suffering,” Smith says, “have a lot in common.”
They both manifest as bubbles, containing a person and distorting their vision. But it is possible to penetrate the bubble of privilege and even pop it — whereas the bubble of suffering in impermeable. Language, logic, argument, rationale and relative perspective itself are no match for it. Suffering applies itself directly to its subject and will not be shamed out or eradicated by righteous argument, no matter how objectively correct that argument may be.
For Smith, the contrast should not soften our resolve where privilege is concerned, where systemic discrimination, rooted in contempt, refuses to fully recognize certain individuals. “Before contempt, you are simply not considered as others are, you are something less than a whole person, not quite a complete citizen. Say … three fifths of the whole.” Indeed, she’ll argue, “By comparing your relative privilege with that of others you may be able to modify both your world and the worlds outside of your world — if the will is there to do it.”
But comparing relative privilege does no good against the wildfires and destruction, the suicide and stomach cancer and other death. The empty nests, a slate of Zoom classes, divorce, and other griefs that have come to those close to me in the months of lockdown, compounding their isolation, their suffering, and mine: it just keeps coming at you. What does especially good, Smith says, as the book closes in a series of reflections is “[t]o think, reflexively, of whoever suffers.” That is everyone. Think of everyone. And, perhaps especially for the writers reading: “To tell any story just as it happened, only exaggerating for humor, but never lying, and never trying to give yourself the flattering role.”
Because for writers, or perhaps any artist, this movement between thinking and storytelling — between thinking and finding something to do — represents the ethical turn in Smith’s philosophy and in what she calls “the most powerful art.” This art, which like all art “stands in a dubious relation to necessity,” she’ll say, is produced in response to love — in fact, she’ll say this art is love enacted, like a banana bread made with love, like her portraits. Love, something we all respond to with whatever capacities we have at our disposal at any moment, the emotion at the center of grief, all this grief, which diminishes our capacities and must be the reason we fear love so much. And why we need it so much. Not just now, but especially now.
Scott Korb, director of the MFA in Writing program at Pacific University, is the author and editor of several books, including Light without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College, and the collection Gesturing Toward Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy. He lives in Portland, Oregon.