Just before we knew there was a virus waiting in the wings, in late 2019 my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I went back to Sydney from Prague where I had been living. Then in 2020 it – COVID – happened, something that we will probably always remember as the year of ‘before’ and ‘after’. It also was a defining year for me because my mother passed away shortly after her diagnosis, just as lockdowns and restrictions were happening. I left Sydney in mid-2020 to return to Prague as the first round of the pandemic was in full swing.

What I remember of that haze of a year, besides her death and my return trip to Prague, was the emptiness of Charles Bridge on my daily walks. A stone mediaeval bridge with Baroque statues of various saints adorning both sides, it connects Prague Castle with the rest of the city and is probably one of the most famous landmarks in the Czech Republic, beside the castle itself. Crossing the bridge in pre-pandemic times, especially during the summer, usually meant jostling shoulder to shoulder with tourists from everywhere.

In lockdown, not only were the streets empty of tourists, but I also got to walk over this iconic bridge mostly alone; something unimaginable before pandemic times unless it was at 3am. Crossing Charles Bridge became part of my regular walk, and it was a strange privilege to experience not only the bridge, but also the city, in a completely different way, encountering perhaps a world that would never quite be the same again.

Written just after the pandemic hit in 2020, Intimations is Zadie Smith’s slim volume of reflections. I was looking forward to reading how she, a prolific writer of both fiction and essays, chronicled that early shock and upheaval. Intimations refers to a hint or suggestion, an indirect reference to something, which for Smith, is also a refusal or hesitation to assert and to dogmatise: ‘If only it were possible to simply state these feelings without insisting on them, without making an argument or a dogma out of them!’

But intimations is also a good description of Smith’s writing style in the book, who seems to keep slipping into digressions that circle around each other. The first piece, ‘Peonies’, is written about a time just before the pandemic, when she was so busy that she had, ‘each block of time packed tight and levelled off precisely, like a child prepping a sandcastle.’ Smith utilises the sighting of tulips in a city garden (which she wishes were peonies) to spin a thread that moves deftly from topic to topic – from Nabokov’s Lolita and primates, to the experience of gender, time and fertility – connecting them with ease to bring us to her main point, which is the need that all writers have to shape and mould unruly experiences: ‘Writing is all resistance.’ However, all writing also involves a necessary delusion of control because despite this impulse, experience can never be completely contained in our writing: ‘Experience has no chapter headings or paragraph breaks or ellipses in which to catch your breath … it just keeps coming at you.’

Implied by this is that writing inevitably fails, and that the pandemic has again reminded us how little we as writers are able to capture an overwhelming experience. Smith furthers this reflection in the next piece ‘Something to Do’, this time directly addressing writing during a pandemic. In lockdown, everyone had to face the problem that artists have always had: how to use their time. But rather than slowing down, Smith finds the need to fill up time continues, which she evokes with her characteristic ability to deploy apt images: ‘On the one hand, like pugs who have been lifted out of a body of water, our little limbs keep pumping on, as they did when we were hurrying off to our workplaces. Do we know how to stop?’ Smith recognises that this constant desire for busyness, which doesn’t seem to have been much hampered by lockdown, is a way to avoid asking the question what time is actually for, and ultimately, what life is for. These two opening essays, in their detours and intimations, are essentially about a writer in transition grappling with her (and our) new ‘normal’.

In other essays, Smith tackles her subject matter more directly. ‘American Exceptionalism’, is exactly about what it says in the title. She begins the piece by defining American exceptionalism, which at its foundation is the capacity to deny that death is something inherent in life. Before the pandemic, Smith contends, America had viewed itself as being immune from all forms of death that affected the rest of the world, including environmental catastrophe and war: ‘Relatively secure, in its high-walled haven, America would feast on whatever was left of its resources, still great by comparison with the suffering out there, beyond its borders.’

Now, the pandemic has blown apart that fantasy, making it apparent that America’s self-belief around overcoming death is a delusion. Smith adds that a feature of American exceptionalism is, as demonstrated by an insane healthcare system (or lack of), death being structured and determined by an access to wealth: ‘Death comes to all – but in America it has long been reasonable to offer the best chance of delay to the highest bidder.’ The onset of COVID has shown even more clearly how life-chances in America are dependent on a healthcare system that is, to put it brutally, linked to a person’s ability to pay.

Smith makes a good point. Evidently, healthcare in America is atrocious. But even in this – an insistence on how terrible it is – is perhaps another version of American exceptionalism. To recognise America as being exceptional in this is also a way to let ourselves, non-Americans, off the hook. Healthcare is big business, and real quality of care is dependent on an access to resources even in Europe or Australia.

If anything, the pandemic has shown this is true across the world, and rather than being exceptional, America’s healthcare system is at the extreme end of a spectrum. I remember the times when my mother would have to sit as a cancer patient waiting for hours in the emergency waiting room, or being let inside but still waiting, for a doctor to come see her. I saw how that tired her out, how it added to her physical and mental strain. I remember how we changed hospitals because we felt the oncologist just wanted to impose a treatment of clinical trials run by pharmaceutical companies, rather than being open to other options. We moved my mother to a hospital that had a doctor recommended by a friend who was willing to work with us to give her a more personalised treatment plan. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the first hospital was in the outer western suburbs and the second one in the inner eastern suburbs of Sydney. I remember how much my mother’s face brightened when there was a doctor in the room who made her feel truly listened to.

Stress-addled and traumatised while we, as a family, were fighting for our mother’s life, I remember thinking that the rich probably have their doctors on call, that in private hospitals they probably don’t have to wait for hours to be seen to, and how something as seemingly simple as this probably extends lives: the feeling of being cared for, of being reassured that medical experts are there to help fight for your life, that was also part of having the best care. And even if this does end in death anyway – whatever extra time, extra feeling of being nurtured that it could have afforded, would have been worth it.

Australia is also a nation that denies death, in many ways and in much worse ways than what happened to my mother. To think that America is exceptional in this is just another form of insularity, on the part of Americans or those who live there, like Smith does.

Insularity strikes me again as I read further on in Intimations, especially in the essay, ‘Suffering like Mel Gibson’. Smith contends that before the pandemic, discussions around privilege and the intersections between race, class, gender etcetera abounded and were important. However, in this new normal of COVID times, the question of privilege can no longer be applied to discussions of suffering. This is because, according to Smith, privilege is something that can be pointed out and argued over; we can, with an awareness of our own privilege, ‘pop’ through it: ‘Class is a bubble, formed by privilege, shaping and manipulating your conception of reality. But it can at least be brought to mind; acknowledged, comprehended, even atoned for through transformative action … if the will is there to do it.’

Suffering too, is a bubble, Smith asserts. But that bubble is ‘impermeable’; suffering is experienced as absolute and cannot be mitigated by factors such as privilege or class. She writes, ‘If it could, the CEO’s daughter would never starve herself, nor the movie idol ever put a bullet in his own brain.’ This is very surprising to read. Someone’s privilege will not protect them from the experience of suffering, Smith says. But isn’t this obvious? It’s true that everyone suffers, including the well-off. But what does Smith gain by pointing this out? Where does the need to insist on this come from? Is it a way of saying, well, we are all in the same boat, albeit acknowledging that some have a lifejacket?

It’s only towards the end of this essay that I think we finally get to Smith’s real point: she advocates ‘allow [ing] yourself the admission of the reality of suffering’. To give ourselves – despite our (and her) relative privilege – permission to admit that, we too, are suffering during the pandemic. This is not a terrible thing to do, but I’m puzzled as to why she thinks this need to be articulated. Does she struggle to admit that she is suffering during the pandemic because of her privilege? With the platform that Smith has, which is above and beyond the average person, what is gained by emphasising this?

Contrary to what Smith contends, there is something problematic about not factoring in our own privilege when we talk about our suffering in the context of the pandemic. The effect of the pandemic on people all over the world has been vastly different. Despite our global connectedness (in fact sometimes because of it), it’s more like people are weathering completely different stormy seas rather than only being in different boats – as they always have been, and always will be. In fact, during the pandemic our comfort and safety often depends on the continued suffering of others. Lockdown for many people hasn’t been about having too much time, wondering what to do with it, but the opposite; continuing to go out to work at a risk to their lives.

Having a platform to write about our suffering is an immense privilege. To say that we need to separate suffering from privilege, especially within the context of the pandemic, as if our experience of suffering is not always shaped by an uneven access to resources, suggests Smith is more preoccupied with trying to reassure herself (and others like her) that it’s okay to feel that we have it bad, even though we don’t really. It’s to encourage a further inwardness to people who are already very insulated by, dare I say it, privilege.

As if to move away from the self-preoccupation of this reflection, in the next essay titled ‘Screengrabs’, Smith enlarges her perspective to reflect on people in the background of her life in a series of short snapshots. Amongst them is Ben, an Asian masseur at her regular nail parlour and Barbara, a 70-year-old neighbour who lives alone in her apartment block; Smith encounters her just as she is about to leave New York when the pandemic hits. There’s also the homeless man in a wheelchair, whom Smith had previously turned into a character in one of her stories, and whom she runs into at the ATM in her neighbourhood as she gets cash out before leaving the city. The cumulative effect of these character sketches is, oddly, to reveal Smith as someone who is attempting to look outside herself during a period of tumult and chaos, but who, despite this, is still the centre of focus.

In possibly the most effective piece in the book, the last section of ‘Screengrabs’ titled ‘Postcript: Contempt as a virus’ compares the contempt of someone, whether due to their race or their class, to a virus:

Infecting individuals first, but spreading rapidly through families, communities, peoples, power structures, nations. Less flashy than hate. More deadly. When contempt kills you, it doesn’t have to be a vendetta or even entirely conscious. It can be a passing whim.

It feels too easy in these times to use a virus as a metaphor, but Smith is able to go deeper, arguing that a racial discourse is often used to obscure a virus whose effects are ‘economic at its base.’ Recognising this could produce real change, Smith argues, especially if the ‘many different members of the plague class – that is, all economically exploited people, whatever their race – act in solidarity with each other.’

It is astute, but feels a little empty. I can’t put my finger on exactly why. Maybe because the rest of Intimations feels so self-absorbed. Despite gestures towards other lives this collection is mainly focused on the concerns of people like herself, middle-class artists or cultured types. Smith’s brief invocation of James Baldwin in this piece prompts me to compare their writing and I can’t help but notice the difference: Baldwin’s writing is like fire – it burns you. He has no easy consoling words, only an insistent call to self-reckoning that refuses to let us look away, refuses to let us off the hook.

In one of her character sketches, Smith writes about a young man called Cy who works in IT at her university’s library. She notes his particular style, from his clothes to his hair to his hoverboard, and quotes Susan Sontag: ‘A style is a means of insisting on something.’ She defines style as more than just clothing, it is ‘a way of moving through the world.’

What is Smith’s style in Intimations, and what is this style insisting on (despite her disclaimer at the beginning of refusing to insist)? A clue is perhaps in the foreword of the book, where she tells us that she read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and states, ‘I am no more a Stoic now than I was when I opened that ancient book. But I did come out with two valuable intimations. Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.’

There is a sense, both in its piecemeal structure and writing style, that this book is Smith talking to herself and thinking things through, at a moment that was bewildering and overwhelming for many. And yet at the same time, this writing, as she notes from Marcus Aurelius, is meant to be overheard. In speaking and wanting to be overheard, is Intimations insisting that writers have something useful to say, especially in times of extreme upheaval?

But after reading this book, I was left wondering whether writers really can think outside of their own social milieu, and in their musings, have something to say to the wider world. I also wondered if everything we as writers ruminate on or think about, is useful or meant to be overheard. Is it always necessary to speak?

The question of writing immediately in the aftermath of something, especially when Smith notes early on in the book the failure of writing to capture overwhelming experiences, is a pertinent one. If that is the case, then what about taking time, a lot of time, to digest experience first? Intimations was written as an initial reaction to the start of the pandemic; perhaps with more time to reflect and revise, Smith would have written a different book.

The rush to push out COVID literature and thinkpieces is troubling, if only because surely the pandemic has taught us the value of slowing down, of being wary of endless production in all its forms. Surely, the pandemic should have taught us, if nothing else, to take time, if we are privileged enough to be able to do so. Yet I write this knowing about the economic necessity to write – this review is also, in a literal sense, born out of economic necessity.

Maybe it might be better to conclude then, that if we can (while recognising that for some of us, often we can’t), we as writers should take time to think before we write. And that not all of our reflecting and talking needs to be overheard.

Published March 28, 2022
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
May Ngo

May Ngo is a Teochew Chinese Cambodian Australian who currently lives in Prague. She...

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