Zadie Smith has always been drawn to the comedy of doubles. Almost all of her books have been built around pairs: the war buddies Archie and Samad and the twins Magid and Millat in White Teeth, the Belsey and Kipps families in On Beauty, the childhood friends Leah and Keisha (later called Natalie) in NW.
These pairs are easily—too easily, Smith seems to suggest—defined by their differences. Archie is English and Samad is Bangladeshi. Howard Belsey is a white liberal and Monty Kipps is a black conservative. Leah is unambitious and Natalie is driven.
Smith’s comedy comes from her ability to show how these differences are not hostile to one another but productive and revealing; they can even be a source of intimacy. Indeed, for Smith, they were more than just an object for comedy but also represented a certain kind of politics. From the delirious reception of White Teeth in 2000 to 2012’s NW, Smith’s novels have come to represent one of the sincerest hopes of her liberal Anglo-American audience: the hope that pluralism can be a source of joy and creativity rather than hatred and frustration.
Over the years—and in particular, over the past year—this liberal hope has been under continuous and growing pressure. In an age of religious terrorism, xenophobia, and racist populism, many liberals have come to suspect that pluralism has become the precarious privilege of only a small and cosmopolitan elite. The last time liberalism had such a bad conscience was in the 1930s, when it seemed helpless to stop the rise of fascism and communism, and Smith’s fascinating literary engagement with E.M. Forster, who was a spokesman for this more tragic view of liberalism, has allowed her to express a similar unease. Her essays on Forster and on Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland, both published in The New York Review of Books and collected in Changing My Mind, offered her occasions to critique the very tradition of novelistic humanism to which she belongs, and which relies on liberal assumptions about the autonomy of the self that Smith worried no longer were relevant in our world.
In her 2012 novel NW, Smith even attempted to change the style of her fiction in order to make it less ingratiating and less easy to assimilate, as though to signal to her reader her growing ambivalence toward these liberal verities about the self. But she only sustained the Joycean fragments and dislocations intermittently, and the difficulty she introduced into the text remained mainly on the surface. Realism and the liberal assumptions that undergird it have always been the homes to which Smith has returned. She was unwilling to give up on the idea that we live in the world in common and can find a way to communicate in it.