Every time some new writing by Zadie Smith enters the world, my insides do a dance. Earlier this summer, on Broadway, minding my own, I caught the words "HOW ZADIE SMITH WRITES HER NOVELS BY ZADIE SMITH" in purple all-caps on the cover of the Believer through Bailey/Coy Books' window. I locked up my bike, bought the magazine, and took it next door to Ali Baba, the Mediterranean restaurant with the left-over-from-when-it-was-a-Hollywood-themed-burger-place yellow-and-red decor. It was empty, an unpromising vibe, but I would have eaten my arm if someone had a good idea how to cook it; all I wanted was something to jam down my gullet while I read, and they had chilled seltzer (not easy to find). I ordered a falafel sandwich and a Greek salad and two cans of seltzer and opened the Believer and, in the middle of Smith's essay—funny, amazing, etc.—watched some guy approach Ali Baba, read the menu, open the door, hesitate, come inside, and hesitate some more. He wore a backward baseball cap and had a clean Pyrex casserole dish under one arm, and at the counter he said, "Yeah, can I snag a gyro? Combo?"
I wrote these details down in the margins of the Believer because they were so individuating, so particular to this human being lifted out of the fray of the sidewalk and into the fluorescent attention of the empty Ali Baba. What was his hesitation? What was with the Pyrex? How about that "snag"? He seemed like a successful Zadie Smith character—with just these few details, he'd lift off the page. Smith's genius at character is undisputed; if you've read her novels you have the company of at least a half dozen peculiar, pretty inventions stuck in your brain somewhere. But her sentences, the mud she makes her characters from, are as particular as the characters themselves—that Zadie Smithish perspective and tone. As she has said elsewhere, perspective and tone are tantamount to a rendering of a consciousness in the world, the writer's consciousness. The perspective and tone of Smith's work hasn't changed much since December of 1999, before White Teeth was ever published in the U.S., when the New Yorker published a short story of hers called "Stuart." That story begins:
This is the truth, whichever way you look at it. There are these two Greek guys. One is huge as hell, with a melon for a face: round, yellowish, moist, pitted with black-headed acne—and yet genial, all the same. It isn't exactly the kind of face the Italians call simpatico, but it's without malice, the way a melon is without malice. It is generous just because it is neutral, and neutral is a sight to behold in certain quarters of the city where men wear their features aggressively, like national flags.
Those are a striking couple of sentences—colloquial, funny, vivid; marked by a free- floating knowledge of the city and the world; spoken by a narrator who isn't a character in the story and yet is totally a character; marvelous all around. Smith's novels all unfold at the hand of this authorial character whose job is to characterize the characters. According to the second page of her essay in the Believer, which is titled "That Crafty Feeling" and is a lecture she gave at Columbia University in March 2008, Smith doesn't have a whole lot of articulate insight into how this omniscient narrator with free-floating opinions works: "For though I have a private language for the way I write, as every writer does, as I'm sure all of you do, it's not particularly intelligent—in fact, it's rather banal. It feels strange, airing it in public, inadequate, unfit for a classroom." She feels tempted "to gussy it up a bit, to find a garment to dress your private language in, something suitable. You borrow the quantifying language of the critic," and goes on to say that the problem with this is that critics analyze craft after the fact, that "they can't help a writer as she writes."
She goes on:
I felt this with force recently as I read James Wood's How Fiction Works.
It's a very brilliant book, particularly astute on what James calls the "intimate third person." Making my way through that chapter, the readerly part of my brain thrilled at the precision and insight with which he goes to work on this neglected aspect of fictional craft. But the writer in me, the one who has written pages of intimate third-person fiction—without ever consciously considering it, without giving it any particular name—wanted to throw the book across the room, and not because he was wrong, but because he was exactly right. It felt like being asked to be attentive to your breathing, to your in, out, in, out, in, out... I thought: If I read one more word about the intimate third person, I'll never be able to write the bloody thing again.
This was frustrating to read because, although How Fiction Works came out in England in February 2008, it still wasn't out here when I was sitting there in Ali Baba eating and reading, and all I wanted to do was go back to Bailey/Coy and snag it, get some precision and insight into this thing Smith has done for years and never consciously considered (hard to believe). After all, it's marvelous that Smith's novels are packed with characters, with people behaving people-y, so many of them, and that she maneuvers around their individual versions of the world so effortlessly and often within a sole sentence or paragraph, but what's truly marvelous in the maneuvering is the track she has to build to do this, the apparatus itself—this third-person intimate that she's learned from E. M. Forster (did it all the time) and Vladimir Nabokov (did it in Pnin) and updated with new-millennium colloquialisms and attitudes. (As a side note, it's also intriguing to read such a recommendation of How Fiction Works from a writer who's been so savaged by Wood in the past: In a review of her novel The Autograph Man in 2002, he went so far as to parody her. They've gone back and forth about realism in post-9/11 fiction—entertainingly, brilliantly—for years, including in the pages of the Guardian. You'll have to Google it.)
Wood's book is divided into 10 chapters ("Narrating," "Detail," "Sympathy and Complexity"), and each chapter is divided into dozens of small, numbered sections, some as short as four lines, most no longer than a page. Some breaks seem arbitrary, although they make reading the book seem less like reading and more like skipping stones, or jumping from stone to stone in a river. For all the lit history and fiction theory, it's a gloriously swift read. There isn't really a chapter, as Smith says there is, on intimate third person, at least not in the American edition, but there's a bunch of stuff about intimate third person, and omniscience itself, scattered into the chapters "Narrating" and "Flaubert and Modern Narrative." For example: "As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking." And: "Thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character's eyes and language but also through the author's eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge—which is free indirect style itself—between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance."
You see that bending to the character, that inhabiting of omniscience and partiality at once, in those opening lines of "Stuart" (the narrator's talking like a street vendor, which is what the Greek guys are) and in Smith's novels, and if you are young and stupid and you read Smith's novels before you read Forster's, you might extend to her the credit for inventing the trick. Wood unearths tons of even better examples of intimate third person—aka "free indirect style"—from the work of "its founder," Gustave Flaubert, as well as Henry James, Nabokov, James Joyce, John Updike (who supplies an example of third-person intimate done poorly), David Foster Wallace (whose fiction "prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language in America, and he is not afraid to decompose—and discompose—his own style in the interests of making us live through this linguistic America with him"), and, wonderfully, Robert McCloskey, whose children's book Make Way for Ducklings has this sentence in it: "Just as they were getting ready to start on their way, a strange enormous bird came by." That "strange" belongs to McCloskey's removed but not totally removed third-person narrator, who is right there inhabiting the confusion of the father duck at the sight of a swan-shaped boat.
You don't have to be a serious nerd about sentences—about where their power comes from, where their batteries are—to love this book, although it helps. Though I've spent a bunch of time here on Wood's discussion of the subtleties and ironies and paradoxes of third-person intimate/free indirect style, that's just one of many excuses he comes up with to take sentences out of great books, pin them to a cotton pad, and scrape at their guts.
He quotes a passage of scene-setting in Flaubert's Sentimental Education and notes that "each detail is almost frozen in its gel of chosenness" and that the "details belong to different time signatures, some instantaneous and some recurrent, yet they are smoothed together as if they are all happening simultaneously." He quotes Anton Chekhov's story "Ward 6," in which a doctor is dying in bed, and while dying: "A herd of deer, extraordinarily beautiful and graceful, which he had read about the day before, ran past him." Wood comments, "How lovely the simplicity with which Chekhov, deep inside his character's mind, does not say, 'He thought of the deer he had been reading about' or even, 'He saw in his mind the deer he had been reading about,' but just calmly asserts that the deer 'ran past him.'" He marvels at Virginia Woolf's sentence "The day waves yellow with all its crops" from The Waves, writing, "I am consumed by this sentence, partly because I cannot explain why it moves me so... The secret lies in the decision to avoid the usual image of crops waving, and instead, to write 'the day waves': The effect is suddenly that the day itself, the very fabric and temporality of the day, seems saturated in yellow. And then that peculiar, apparently nonsensical 'waves yellow' (how can anything wave yellow?) conveys a sense that yellowness has so intensely taken over the day itself that it has taken over our verbs, too—yellowness has conquered our agency."
It's a gorgeous display of some of the best short passages in the English language, this book. And it is short itself. It will make you a better reader and it will make reading better. There isn't a page of it that's snoozy, in spite of what Walter Kirn says in the New York Times Book Review (speaking of snoozy). And there aren't many words per page. And the font is lovely. I recommend it. As does Zadie Smith.