So I hadn't read a word of Zadie Smith until this recent New Yorker piece about her family of British "comedy nerds." The rap on Smith, according to people I trust, is that her first novel, White Teeth, was incredibly overhyped, her second, On Beauty, is "supposed to be" better. After reading her extraordinarly apt and moving personal history, "Dead Man Laughing," I'm inspired to decide for myself about her fiction. Ostensibly a tribute to her frustrated late father, Harvey, the essay ranges over themes of family, time, mortality, class, and race with the surprise and suspense and thrill of the best fiction.
Along the way, Smith proves that novelists can be devastating and illuminating critics of the lively arts. While I was struck by her envious comparison of standup comics and novelists, by the way she traces the sense of dashed class aspirations that links generations of despairing British comedy right up to David Brent, by her term "comedy nausea," I think my favorite excerpt is her offhanded precis of a sketch act she sees as an opening act for her brother, a budding standup comic, in a pub theater. Brace yourself:
Two men and two women performed a mildewed sketch show of unmistakable Oxbridge vintage, circa 1994. A certain brittle poshness informed their exaggerated portraits of high-strung secretaries, neurotic piano teachers, absent-minded professors. They put on mustaches and wigs and walked in and out of imaginary scenarios where fewer and fewer funny things occurred. It was the comedy of things past. The girls, though dressed as girls, were no longer girls, and the boys had paunches and bald spots; the faintest trace of ancient intracomedy-troupe love affairs clung to them sadly; all the promising meetings with the BBC had come and gone. This was being done out of pure friendship now, or the memory of friendship.
Every bit of the essay is that good, and better. It put me in mind of Steve Martin's "In the Birdcage," a beautiful culling from his excellent memoir, Born Standing Up, that's actually better than the book. And its incision, clarity, and transparency put me in mind of Joan Didion's best work. Yes, I think I will be checking out White Teeth and On Beauty.