Hear the essayist and novelist in conversation in advance of her forthcoming short story collection, “Grand Union”
“Writing exists (for me) at the intersection of three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self,” Zadie Smith writes in the foreword of her 2018 essay collection, Feel Free. Ever since her best-selling debut novel, 2000’s White Teeth, Smith has been tying those three elements together in her writing, at times meticulously and dramatically untangling one thread to display more prominently than the others before knotting them all together again.
On Thursday, Sept. 19, Westerville Public Library will host an onstage conversation with Smith followed by a Q&A and book signing at Westerville South High School. Smith visits in advance of the October publication of Grand Union, which collects her short fiction work from The New Yorker and elsewhere, along with 11 previously unpublished pieces. In “The Lazy River,” instead of writing about tourists floating along in an endless, artificial current in such a way that the reader begins to realize The Lazy River is actually a metaphor, Smith says it plainly in the very first paragraph: It is a metaphor.
But, she writes, “The Lazy River is a metaphor and at the same time a real body of artificial water, in an all-inclusive hotel, in Almeria, somewhere in southern Spain. ... What you do is you do this: you drink so much alcohol that your accommodation is effectively free. (Only the most vulgar among us speak this plan aloud but we are all on board.)” The British tourists do not leave to see the mountains. They opt for Sudoku over novels. They take selfies. At night, after a full day spent in the “watery Ouroboros,” they sit on the balcony and scroll through social media while a fully clothed hotel worker stands in the river with a mop: “He is being held in place by another man, who grips him by the waist, so that the first man may angle his mop and position himself against the strong yet somniferous current and clean whatever scum we have left of ourselves off the sides.”
Some writers distinguish themselves by an ability to convey the depth and breadth of an idea through the inclusion of one or two well-placed details. Others skillfully turn an idea over and over, distilling it through careful prose. Still others rely on characters and a narrative arc to do the heavy lifting. Smith can do all these things, and she does them better than most.