Joanna Biggs writes:
‘The ends of great fiction do not change, much,’ Zadie Smith wrote eight years ago in an essay about David Foster Wallace. ‘But the means do.’ She was between novels: three years had passed since her most traditional, On Beauty, was published; NW, her most experimental, wouldn’t appear for another four. But, as sometimes happens, the changes on the surface only served to emphasise what was already there. James Wood coined the term ‘hysterical realism’ to describe her first novel, White Teeth, but it only really applied to what was most on display – the foisonning, punning, teasing, literary surface. The surface changed for each of Smith’s novels, but the underlying message, about compassion, warmth, strength, forgiveness, the Forsterian-by-way-of-the-Beatles one about love being all you need, persisted, and even grew louder. It was a message with considerable political force, especially coming from someone who has crossed the boundaries Smith has crossed (Willesden-Cambridge-Rome-Greenwich Village), but it wasn’t necessarily original or grown-up. I think of a moment from one of her more recent personal essays in the New York Review of Books, when she is trying to define joy by thinking about pleasure:
The persistent anxiety that fills the rest of my life is calmed for as long as I have the flavour of something good in my mouth. And though it’s true that when the flavour is finished the anxiety returns, we do not have so many reliable sources of pleasure in this life as to turn our nose up at one that is so readily available, especially here in America. A pineapple popsicle. Even the great anxiety of writing can be stilled for the eight minutes it takes to eat a pineapple popsicle.