The author complements her celebrated fiction with an equally compelling collection of essays and reviews embracing literary, art, film, and cultural criticism, amplified by a dissection of the vagaries of modern life.
In her second book of essays, Smith (Swing Time, 2016, etc.) likens her wide-ranging yet unified pieces to thinking aloud while fretting she might make herself sound ludicrous—far from it; if only all such thoughts were so cogent and unfailingly humane. The author is honest, often impassioned, always sober. Though she disclaims any advanced academic degrees or formal journalistic training, she produces sharp analyses of contemporary issues that are no less substantial for being personalized. Smith executes these pieces with consummate skill, though her critical faculties seem to take a hiatus when rhapsodizing over certain pop entertainers—e.g., comparing Madonna and Michael Jackson (as dancers) to Astaire and Rogers, to the Nicholas brothers, to Nureyev and Baryshnikov. But these are exceptions. Collected from essays published chiefly in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, all during the eight years of the Barack Obama presidency, the essays risk being dated, but Smith's observations are timeless. Freedom, in one form or another, is at the core of the book, as are identity, race, class, family, art, meaning, and the many permutations of cultural vandalism. She opens with a defense of libraries in a digitalized world and closes with her eccentric, justly renowned musings “Find Your Beach” and “Joy.” In between, she offers lovely portraits of her parents, an astute look at the comedy duo Key and Peele, a brilliant critique of the art of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, appreciations of such disparate British authors as J.G. Ballard, Hanif Kureishi, and Geoff Dyer, and a riff on Joni Mitchell that morphs into a self-revelatory piece on “attunement,” rich with philosophical ideas.
Judiciously political, Smith wears her liberalism gracefully, though with qualifications. She is never less than a formidable intellect, with an imposing command of literary and artistic canons.