New books to try this week. Including Zadie Smith's latest...
Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays
Zadie Smith 5/5 Penguin Press Possessed of both imaginative empathy and an astringent wit, rigorously non-judgmental yet armed with a state-of-the-art bulls*** detector, Zadie Smith’s non-fiction glimmers with the same cultural and emotional acuity that illuminated her novels White Teeth and On Beauty. In Changing My Mind, a collection of criticism, essays, and reviews for outlets such as The New Yorker and UK newspaper The Guardian, her instincts are expansive, inclusive, democratic, yet fiercely personal. Her reflections on Barack Obama’s and her own multifaceted cultural identities are also an encomium of ‘the many-coloured voice, the multiple sensibility,’ which Smith illustrates using the likes of Eliza Doolittle, Cary Grant and William Shakespeare.
Her default pronoun is always we, even if her reference points are hers alone. Writing about Zora Neale Hurston, Smith self-deprecatingly catalogues how Their Eyes Were Watching God broke down her youthful prejudices (against ‘mythic’ language, against colloquial dialogue, against the ‘love tribulations of women,’ against ‘identifying’ with a novel due to race or gender…), and in the process crafts a perfect marriage of both literary criticism and the first-person essay.
Changing My Mind is open to anything: close readings of Kafka, Barthes, Nabokov, Middlemarch; a rueful snapshot of modern-day Liberia that suggests Smith’s largely untapped gifts as a reporter; a suite of candid, moving recollections of her late father (to whom the book is dedicated); an ebullient, too-brief foray into weekly movie reviewing (for The Telegraph). The last section is given over entirely to a long, searching piece on David Foster Wallace, one in which Smith is frank about the occasional agonies of the DFW reading experience but sure of its hard-earned ecstasies: ‘His reader needs to think of herself as a musician, spreading the sheet music – the gift of the work – over the music stand, electing to play.’ Idea by idea and sentence by sentence, Changing My Mind is a dazzling endorsement of reading as play, in both the theatrical and recreational senses of the word. Jessica Winter
Trinie Dalton 4/5 Madras Dalton fits neatly into the current resurgence of young indie fabulists who follow the lead of Robert Coover and Angela Carter to explore fairytales in postmodern contexts. In other words, authors who ponder unicorns, elves and mermaids in the godless, Freudian, skin-cancer-causing light of the 21st century.
In Sweet Tomb, Candy grows up in a house bedecked with liquorice and lemon drops, never realising that her mother has been luring her schoolmates to the family manse only to devour them in the backyard. For the most part, the story remains conceptual, told from the outside in. But specific, visceral language anchors the dream world of fictional narratives, and it’s the only thing lacking in this book (except for a lavish description of Death’s shoe collection). Dalton has a lightness of tone and a clear idea of what she’s trying to say about love and the passing on of familial traits. You can sense what Dalton is up to – just not feel it, not quite yet. Leigh Newman
The Interrogative Mood
Padgett Powell 5/5 Ecco Depending on how much you like being in the hot seat, reading Padgett Powell’s eccentric and well-toned new novel will either seem like a personality test gone awry, the weirdest job interview you’ve ever had, or hanging out with a brilliant uncle on a roll, who asks questions such as, ‘If you could have feathers instead of hair, would you?’ In fact, The Interrogative Mood is composed entirely of questions. There is little description of setting, no character analysis, no Chekhovian gun on the wall. In this case, the book’s stripped-down design is an asset: plot would only interfere with Powell’s cockeyed novel, which comes off like a distant, and more outgoing relative of David Foster Wallace’s unforgettable answers-only work in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Here, the narrative bounces along with assured rhythm, an inspired sense of comedy and a style that feels artful without ever becoming chilly.
The book intrigues as it entertains, leaving the reader wondering, first of all: who is this grand interrogator? One gathers, from the content of the questions, that he is male, sly, middle aged (or older), and patrician (if sometimes raunchy). He is interested in animals (‘If you could see a large-animal trainer mauled in the middle of his or her show… would you prefer to see the mauling done by a lion, a tiger, or a bear?’), etymology (watch for his dissection of the term ‘deserted island’), and a huge swath of topics that could be labelled ‘miscellaneous’ (‘Do the people you do not wish to talk to far exceed the people you do wish to talk to?’).
If there’s a frustration in reading The Interrogative Mood,it’s that no matter how much you talk back to the book, it can’t hear you. Still, this questioner is authentically curious about the specifics and quirks of human experience. His questions and nonsequiturs will have you looking at your own life with a renewed sense of observation – and a healthy appetite for the absurd. Michael Miller