It looks like Harper’s has continually upped the space for space for Zadie Smith’s book column to the point that in May she covers just two books in four pages. That’s actually a fair amount of real estate for a “roundup,” so perhaps this new gig might not be a waste of her and our time.
However, that will only be if she manages to write some better criticism than what we see in her unilluminating and annoyingly hip thoughts on Suicide, which she seems to think is some kind of book of adolescent angst:
That mixture of thoughtfulness and self-regard, honest interrogation and mere posing—if I were fifteen, Autoportrait would be my bible. As an adult, I still find Levé hard to resist, perhaps because his adolescent aesthetic reminds us of the kind of writing that got us reading in the first place.
She both takes the book as some kind of suicide note and considers the book’s suicide victim as an obvious stand-in for Leve, two readings that are rather lazy and mundane. This is the way the whole review is. It’s not insightful at all, just kind of engagingly written and superficial.
Mysteriously enough, despite trashing Suicide as fatuous, adolescent, and cheaply philosophical, she then arrives at a positive verdict on the book:
Now, is all of this about you or Levé? Does the difference matter? It is as if Levé has found an existential way to depict a friendship: two souls intermingled in a pronoun. The sadness of this book is overwhelming. Yet at the same time it’s a cause for happiness, because it’s the final record of a writer who found, in the end, the correct vessel for his talents. In Suicide Levé’s fragments become wonderfully sharp, conjuring tragedy in a few sentences: “You kept a tape of the messages left on your answering machine by mistake. One of them went: ‘We’ve arrived fine. We’ve arrived fine. We’ve arrived fine.’ Uttered slowly by an old lady in despair.”
For her other book, Seven Years by Peter Stamm (cheers; two books in translation published by small presses), Smith delivers a fairly mundane plot summary and commits the unpardonable sin of parenthetically patting a translator on the head: “Stamm’s prose (beautifully translated by Michael Hofmann) is plain but not so simple . . .”
As with the review of the Leve, it takes on a chatty tone that strains for coolness:
A thin volume from Other Press ($15.95), it has a bewitching cover: a photograph of an antique bedstead with stylish contemporary sheets, set against a tasteful gray wall. I took one look at it and thought: God, I wish I lived like that. This bourgeois response proved thematically important, as we shall see. It gets under your skin, this novel. It welcomes you into a clean, modern space as appealing as that room—and then it really fucks with you, if you’ll excuse my Swiss-German.
Maybe one of Smith’s friends will tell her how this kind of writing sounds, since it seems that whoever edits her at Harper’s is willing to let it go.
Judging by Smith’s criticism that has been published previously elsewhere, she has much better work in her than this. I look forward to seeing it.