Zadie Smith published her first story in The New Yorker in December of 1999, when she was twenty-four. Her début novel, “White Teeth,” had recently been released in the U.K. and would soon come out in the United States. In the same issue, the magazine reprinted part of a column by James Thurber, from 1939, in which he considers a future era. “Will they, for example, say ‘two thousand and one’ or ‘twenty hundred and one’ when speaking of the year 2001,” Thurber reports one friend asking, of a date that he feels has “a fictive and implausible look.”

In these implausible years of the two thousands, Zadie Smith has been an invaluable companion. The work that she’s published in the magazine over the past eighteen years is marked by keen intelligence, brilliant humor, and deep empathy. She is a perceptive (and often ruthless) interrogator of her own tastes. In “Some Notes on Attunement,” an essay about her transition from finding Joni Mitchell’s music incomprehensible to falling in love with it, she observes, “I truly cannot understand the language of my former heart. Who was that person? Petulant, hardly aware that she was humming Joni, not yet conscious of the transformation she had already undergone.” She uses the results of that kind of self-interrogation to burrow into the works of others, like Mitchell, or, in an essay from 2017, the British-Ghanaian painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, allowing us to see Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits through her eyes.

It’s in her fiction, in particular, that Smith invites us to experience our fictive twenty-first century anew. “Escape from New York” opens with the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11th, and then reimagines the possibly apocryphal tale of Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando, and Elizabeth Taylor escaping New York together by car. In “The Lazy River,” a pool at an all-inclusive hotel in Spain, where guests float along on a steady current, becomes an explicit metaphor for 2017. In “The Embassy of Cambodia,” Smith captures the precarious status of an Ivorian maid’s position in London—perhaps the precariousness of life for any recent immigrant who has been forced to leave a homeland—but, more than that, she captures everything that makes it impossible to reduce the woman, Fatou, to a type or a statistic.

Finally, in “The Trials of Finch,” from 2002, an eccentric woman, who has been taken up as a hobby, of sorts, by a group of housewives, is revealed to have a complicated past. Recently, Smith, partway through rereading “The Trials of Finch,” said in an e-mail, “I can barely recognize it as something I wrote. I don’t like it all!” The next e-mail: “I was 27. I sound 83.” But the amazing thing about this story is the way that it shifts, when this apparent bystander moves to the center. With that shift, the story introduces profound questions about the nature of culpability, punishment, and justice—and the assumptions we make about one another. One hopes that Smith finished reading it and could recognize just how good it is.

—Cressida Leyshon, senior editor


“Some Notes on Attunement”

“Aged twenty, I listened to Joni Mitchell—a singer whom millions enjoy, who does not, after all, make an especially unusual or esoteric sound—and found her incomprehensible.” Read more.


“The Trials of Finch”

“Of course, at a certain point in her life, Finch had lived through a bad day. One might guess that much, simply by meeting her. But would it be clear how bad?” Read more.


“The Embassy of Cambodia”

“Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It’s a surprise, to us all.” Read more.


“Escape from New York”

“But now he allowed the thought that people had always overjudged and misunderestimated him and maybe in the end you don’t really know a person until that person is truly tested by a big event, like the apocalypse.” Read more.


“The Lazy River”

“Life is struggle! But we are on vacation, from life and from struggle both. We are ‘going with the flow.’ ” Read more.


“A Bird of Few Words”

“The artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Imaginary Portraits people push themselves forward, into the imagination—as literary characters do—surely, in part, because these are not really portraits. They are character studies of people who don’t exist.” Read more.

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