Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers

Some of you may think of this as the shopping season. The Christian music in public places season. The family tension season. The Jewish parents’ outsized hyping of a minor holiday season.

But for the bookish, (and music-ish, and filmish, OK, for anyone remotely artsy-ish), Tis the List Season.

Which makes it the Criticize the List Season. The Alt List Season. The Anti-List Season.

And what does a Thinker for Hire do but give readers what they drool for: a rampage against the New York TimesBest Books of 2012 list.

Put her on your list. I dare you.

As attentive readers know, I’ve been reading almost only women novelists this year. I hope to write a year-end review of that experience sometime in the next week and a half. But.

I made two exceptions to my pseudo-schtick this year: Nathan Englander’s first collection, because I was in the mood, and Dave Eggers’ latest novel, because it was hanging out in my house.

Did I review Dave Eggers’ novel here? Nope.

Did this omission result from my lacking the time? From not thinking of anything funny-smart to say about it?


I didn’t review it here because the only good thing I could come up with about it was its pretty cover. The book is like one of those gorgeous-looking apples that, when you bite, is so mealy and bland that you can’t even bear to chew and swallow the bite.

OK, harsh metaphor. But you get my drift here: if y’all can’t blog something nice about a book, don’t blog at all. Because while I believe in constructive criticism, life’s too short to spread stinky shit around the Internet just to sound smart for the spreading.


Here’s their reason:

In an empty city in Saudi Arabia, a ­middle-aged American businessman waits day after day to close the deal he hopes will redeem his forlorn life. Eggers, continuing the worldly outlook that informed his recent books “Zeitoun” and “What Is the What,” spins this spare story — a globalized “Death of a Salesman” — into a tightly controlled parable of America’s international standing and a riff on middle-class decline that approaches Beckett in its absurdist despair.

Approaches Beckett? I’ve read Beckett. And you, sir, are no Beckett.

But maybe one woman’s “tightly controlled” is another woman’s “clichéd and dull.” And one critic’s “absurdist despair” is another’s “yeah, we get it, he’s a middle-aged loser about to lose, losingly.”

I think the Becket thing may be a kind of sophomore English class (HS, not University) connection: the protagonist is waiting for the king to show up, just like those two guys are waiting for Godot to show up. Just like I’m waiting for my doctor to call me back with test results. Waiting in a book: it’s just like Beckett!

OK, this is why I try not to harsh out too much on the blog. No one needs my show-offy insults. And the truth is, I was curious to see if the king ever would show up. So Eggers did that right. Also, the protagonist managed to be vaguely likable, which is something.


Which leads me to Zadie Smith. Who, I dare say, deserves her spot on that list.

Smith’s piercing new novel, her first in seven years, traces the friendship of two women who grew up in a housing project in northwest London, their lives disrupted by fateful choices and the brutal efficiency of chance. The narrative edges forward in fragments, uncovering truths about identity and money and sex with incandescent language that, for all of its formal experimentation, is intimate and searingly direct.

Are you guys ready for a partial book review? I’m about halfway through NW.

My verdict: yes.

In two earlier novels (haven’t read Autograph Man, yoinks!), Zadie Smith’s gift to the world was her fully-rendered teenage girls. I’m always surprised when teenage girls are so poorly developed, even in books by former teenage girls. As much as I loved Swamplandia!, for example, Russel’s teenage girl protagonist wasn’t as awesome as Smith’s.

By which I may mean that Smith’s teenage girls are vaguely unlikeable, along with all the pluck and discernment that a li’l feminist reader enjoys. Remember how that’s what teenage girls are actually like? Even the smart ones that you mostly like talking to? Self-righteous? Occasionally insufferable? In a way that melts your damn heart because you know that their trial hurts will lead to bigger, badder hurts that you hope they’ll develop the chutzpah to weather? And you know that their self-righteousness masks deep insecurities that you hope they’ll eventually be able to turn into good-humored, assertive humility?

Or am I just fantasizing adults’ responses to my own frenzied nerdlington youth?

In On Beauty, the mom character says, about her daughter, to another women, something like “All these girls hating their bodies. Why?” It was more artful than that, of course.

So Zadie Smith: people write mostly about how she’s got “multicultural” London down, and the mixed race thing that she does so well. I haven’t seen too much written about how masterful she is at teenage girls. Which is my favorite thing about her. She gets it.

In NW, though, those girls grow up.

Listen, everything good that everyone‘s said about NW is true. And Kakutani’s negative review seems deliberately ungenerous, with perhaps a valid point or two. But you want something meatier from me, right?

NW lost the humor that buoyed White Teeth and On Beauty. And I have mixed feelings about this. While I feel that NW is a better book than those earlier ones, I suspect this feeling comes from my internalizing the canon: weightiness is “better” than lightness. Drama is “better” than jokes. Experimentation is “better” than transparent realism, unless it’s derivative experimentation.

Mostly I dig that way that NW is Joycean–obsessed with the material reality of a particular section of a particular city, with class and status difference, with the effects of money (or lack of it) on both the characters and the modes of representing them in a novel.

Mostly I dig the way that Smith uses narrative form to disrupt multicultural platitudes about how we’re all different flavors of the same glorious human. To alienate those of us who assume we know these “types” of people. And to focus on that alienation, developing it thematically and formally.

Mostly I dig the whole novel.

I’ll write a proper review when I finish it!

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5 thoughts on “Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers

  1. Melissa says:

    Love. I have nothing more brilliant to say, which you will excuse because you know about my life right now, but I love this review, I think you’re a critical genius, and this review makes me really want to read both of these books so I can have a real conversation with you about it. Over pancakes. Also. it made me want to actually write that review of Swamplandia you invited me to write. And I love what you said about teenage girls and how hard they are to like.

  2. Howard Uliss says:

    It’s my fault the Eggers book was in the house in the first place. I thought it was pretty ho hum but I do admit I was curious how it would end. The NY Times glowing review is why I read it in the first place,but it was really nothing special-certainly not Top 10 material.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for your comments, friends!

    Melissa: pancakes and book talk could heal the world. Or at least our worlds. You better write that Swamplandia! post. With all your free time. I’m glad you liked the bit about teen girls bc in writing it I feared I was being overly autobiographical. Ahem.

    Howie: I’m glad I had the chance to read it! But I agree with you. I remember seeing it for the first time on display at the Tattered. It was so pretty! I almost bought it on the spot, just for its looks. I’m glad I remembered that he’s an inconsistent novelist.

  4. […] Englander because I was excited about his new story collection. So I read his old one: go figure. Dave Eggers because it was laying around in the […]

  5. […] my pre-review of the book, I noted that Smith does teenage girls better than pretty much anyone I can think of. I also said […]

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