Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Zadie Smith’s “Meet the President!” was originally published in the August 12 & 19, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Zadie Smith’s “Meet the President!” is fitted with one visual after another, as if trying to sell its movie rights: boy on a pier; boy approached by old crone and “stunted” little girl, boy seen as having a green light encircling his head like a halo, boy outfitting himself with virtual breasts, and boy living in two simultaneous realities – one, the natural reality where he walks along a beach, and the other, a gaming reality where he kills people.
The story is also casually fitted to the brim with ideas about our future: the effects of global warming (such as “tropical Scotland,” global flooding, and the flight from England by anyone who can), the effects of government gone mad (such as the casual elimination of ordinary citizens), the effects of globalization (such as the boy having no sense of his English heritage or identity), the effects of believing there is only one way to see things (such as being enrolled in a school at six months), and the stunted emotional evolution of the future’s elite (such that while you can “read” a person’s DNA at a glance, you may have never grieved over the dead body of a relative).
The population in this future world is divided into the electronically rich haves and the “stunted” provincial have-nots. The have-nots are the kind of people who still attend funerals, while the haves are the kind that mindlessly murder people by governmental drone. Scotland as the new Pakistan.
The story is imagined in the time it takes a fifteen-year-old boy to guide a child from the beach to the ruins of an old church where a funeral is taking place. All the while he is walking the child to the church, the boy is simultaneously playing a virtual game in which he must murder people in order to “meet the president.”
For all his gadgetry, the boy has an emotional evolution of a bully-boy, a thug. At the funeral, he is annoyed by the primitive nature of the people’s grief:
Then, cutting across it all like a stick through the sand, a child’s voice wailed, an acute, high-pitched sound, such animal makes when, out of sheer boredom, you break its leg.
This sentence perfectly expresses Smith’s fear: that we already live in a world where boys never become men, and where, from afar and without a hearing, governments already kill their own citizens.
But the story doesn’t really ever come alive. It illustrates the difficulty of writing about the dead future: if the story-telling is too freighted with fearsome ideas, the fearsome ideas strangle the story-telling. This feels more like the subject of a novel, and yet if this were a précis for a novel, it’s a novel I would skip.
The problem the story has for me is this: the so-dead boy and the so-dead waste-land he inhabits appear to allow no room for hope. That makes no room for this reader. But perhaps the apocalyptic dystopia is not my particular cup of tea. For me, The New Yorker’s previous Zadie Smith story (“The Embassy of Cambodia”) was a hit; this one is a miss.