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Zadie Smith certainly doesn’t need a great deal of critical subsidy. Her novels are bought and read in tremendous volume, and she is regularly looked to to hold forth critically on the state of fiction. Curiously, though, a number of good younger fiction writers I know are suspicious of her qualities as a writer, having found in her novels reason enough to question, if not her seriousness, her excellence (and, in her criticism, reason to question its coherence).
I’ve written about Smith’s three novels for this magazine, and I don’t find them to be successful books; rather, they are parts of successful books, or books with successful parts. There is a fundamental lack of achieved-ness that I find in a Smith novel, a striving for form that isn’t attained. That said, she can be a superb writer, both of descriptive prose and of dialogue, line-to-line and paragraph-to-paragraph, and I am always eager to see her to succeed in producing a fully successful whole.
There is one Smith short story, though, that I uncomplicatedly love and regularly recommend. “Hanwell in Hell” appeared in The New Yorker in 2004. It is a very tender, very muted thing, written in a register that never sees Smith overreaching for an effect or overstepping what the story wants. “Hanwell” begins with a classified advertisement—
I am looking to enter into correspondence with anyone who remembers my father,
Mr. —— Hanwell, who was living in the central Bristol area between 1970 and 1973.
Any details at all will be gratefully received by daughter trying to piece together the
jigsaw. Please write back to P.O. Box 187.
—and then picks up with an answer to it:
I spent just one night with your father, in Bristol, thirty-four years ago. He was down on his luck at the time, as was I. We had both suffered dramatic reversals of fortune and recognized immediately that we had failure in common—a rare example of masculine intuition. Each sniffed out the other’s catastrophe. For my part, I had lost my livelihood and my house; I spent the spring of that year bewildered and outraged, almost unable to comprehend that I now lived in a gruesome basement flat in which lichen seemed to grow upon every damp surface. A crooked business partner who took cash under the counter, compounded by my own careless accounting, had separated me from my business (a small chain of Bristol off-licenses) so completely that I was reduced to a salesman’s existence. I hawked the new American fridge-freezers from a catalogue, door-to-door. It was a dismal job and one that required me to spend a humiliating amount of time—or so I thought then—with women. In the off-licenses, all my staff had been men, and I always appreciated the fact; emotionally men are so much simpler. My new job made me feel as if I were being returned to the domestic scenes of my childhood. I seemed always to be in kitchens having cups of tea pressed upon me, repelling the timid advances of motherly women. Hanwell’s situation was of course somewhat reversed: he valued the domestic and lamented its loss; with it went all the things he cared for—women, the home, family. You ask in your letter if I know why you and your sisters were left in London—I don’t know, but it must have been against his will. No one would choose the life that Hanwell had.
If you haven’t read this wonderful story, which continues here, I propose it as your Weekend Read.
More from Wyatt Mason:
On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.
In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”