Zadie Smith’s most recent novel is NW. (March 2016)

Find Your Beach

New York City, 2009; photograph by Amani Willett. A collection of his images, Disquiet, was published by Damiani last year.
The pursuit of happiness has always seemed to me a somewhat heavy American burden, but in Manhattan it is conceived as a peculiar form of duty. In an exercise class recently the instructor shouted at me, at all of us: “Don’t let your mind set limits that aren’t really there.” You’ll find this attitude all over the island.

On ‘Crash’

J.G. Ballard, London, 1987
I met J.G. Ballard once—it was a car crash. We were sailing down the Thames in the middle of the night, I don’t remember why. A British Council thing, maybe? The boat was full of young British writers, many of them drunk, and a few had begun hurling a stack …

Elegy for a Country’s Seasons

Wyatt Gallery: Displaced Home in Marsh, Midland Beach, Staten Island, ­November 2012; from the book #Sandy: Seen Through the iPhones of Acclaimed Photographers, to be published by Daylight in September. ­Gallery’s photograph also appears in the exhibition ‘Rising Waters,’ on view at the ­Museum of the City of New York until April 6, 2014. For more on the exhibition, see Michael Greenberg’s review on the NYRgallery blog, www.nybooks.com/gallery.
There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words. Is that surprising? People in mourning tend to use euphemism; likewise the guilty and ashamed. The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: “The new normal.” “It’s the new normal,” I think, as a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over. The train line to Cornwall washes away—the new normal. We can’t even say the word “abnormal” to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before. Better to forget what once was normal, the way season followed season, with a temperate charm only the poets appreciated.

Man vs. Corpse

Luca Signorelli: Man Carrying Corpse on His Shoulders, circa 1500
Walking corpses—zombies—follow us everywhere, through novels, television, cinema. Back in the real world, ordinary citizens turn survivalist, ready to scale a mountain of corpses if it means enduring. Either way, death is what happens to everyone else. By contrast, the future in which I am dead is not a future at all. It has no reality. If it did—if I truly believed that being a corpse was not only a possible future but my only guaranteed future—I’d do all kinds of things differently. I’d get rid of my iPhone, for starters. Lead a different sort of life.

Love in the Gardens

The Boboli Gardens in Florence, 2002; photograph by Chris Steele-Perkins
When my father was old and I was still young, I came into some money. Though it was money “earned” for work done, it seemed, both to my father and me, no different than a win on the lottery. We looked at the contract more than once, checking and rechecking it, just like a lottery ticket, to ensure no mistake had been made. No mistake had been made. I was to be paid for writing a book.

Joy

George Bellows: Geraldine Lee, No. 2, 1914; on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ‘George Bellows’ exhibition until February 18, 2013
It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy. But maybe everybody does this very easily, all the time, and only I am confused. A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road—you simply have to go a little further down the track. That has not been my experience. And if you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn’t be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage.

North West London Blues

The 1894 Willesden Library in the Willesden district of London, 2006
Last time I was in Willesden Green I took my daughter to visit my mother. The sun was out. We wandered down Brondesbury Park toward the high road. The “French Market” was on, which is a slightly improbable market of French things sold in the concrete space between the pretty …

The North West London Blues

An 1894 drawing of Willesden Green Library

What kind of a problem is a library? It’s clear that for many people it is not a problem at all, only a kind of obsolescence. At the extreme pole of this view is the technocrat’s total faith: with every book in the world online, what need could there be for the physical reality? This kind of argument thinks of the library as a function rather than a plurality of individual spaces. But each library is a different kind of problem and “the Internet” is no more a solution for all of them than it is their universal death knell.

Killing Orson Welles at Midnight

Orson Welles in the 1946 film The Stranger, drawn on for Christian Marclay’s film The Clock
The Clock is a twenty-four-hour movie that tells the time. This is achieved by editing together clips of movies in which clocks appear. But The Clock is so monumental in intention and design that even the simplest things you can say about it need qualification. There isn’t, for example, a clock visible in every scene. Sometimes people will only mention the time, or even just speak of time as a general concept. Mary Poppins does less than that; she glances at her wristwatch, the face of which we cannot see, then opens her umbrella and flies, to be replaced, a moment later, by a man, also flying with an umbrella, who soon floats past a clock tower, thus revealing the time.

Generation Why?

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and Rooney Mara as his girlfriend Erica in The Social Network
How long is a generation these days? I must be in Mark Zuckerberg’s generation—there are only nine years between us—but somehow it doesn’t feel that way. This despite the fact that I can say (like everyone else on Harvard’s campus in the fall of 2003) that “I was there” at Facebook’s inception, and remember Facemash and the fuss it caused; also that tiny, exquisite movie star trailed by fan-boys through the snow wherever she went, and the awful snow itself, turning your toes gray, destroying your spirit, bringing a bloodless end to a squirrel on my block: frozen, inanimate, perfect—like the Blaschka glass flowers. Doubtless years from now I will misremember my closeness to Zuckerberg, in the same spirit that everyone in ’60s Liverpool met John Lennon.

Speaking in Tongues

Barack Obama at the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya, August 2006; photograph by Gary Knight
Hello. This voice I speak with these days, this English voice with its rounded vowels and consonants in more or less the right place—this is not the voice of my childhood. I picked it up in college, along with the unabridged Clarissa and a taste for port. Maybe this fact …

Two Paths for the Novel

From two recent novels, a story emerges about the future for the Anglophone novel. Both are the result of long journeys. Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill, took seven years to write; Remainder, by Tom McCarthy, took seven years to find a mainstream publisher. The two novels are antipodal—indeed one is the …

E.M. Forster, Middle Manager

In the taxonomy of English writing, E.M. Forster is not an exotic creature. We file him under Notable English Novelist, common or garden variety. Still, there is a sense in which Forster was something of a rare bird. He was free of many vices commonly found in novelists of his …

F. Kafka, Everyman

How to describe Kafka, the man? Like this, perhaps: It is as if he had spent his entire life wondering what he looked like, without ever discovering there are such things as mirrors. A naked man among a multitude who are dressed. A mind living in sin with the soul …