Zadie Smith: “Meet the President!”

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.

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Betsy

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.

10 thoughts on “Zadie Smith: “Meet the President!””

  1. Roger says:

    I also found this to be a miss. I admire Zadie Smith’s writing very much, which made this piece such a disappointment. It is a polemic, “ripped from today’s headlines,” with drones zipping around a post-Global Warming planet where the gap between the ruling class and everyone else has worsened so badly that the resulting dystopia can only be … the logical extension of where we’re already headed? Well, not really. More like the creation of a current-events savvy novelist eager to try her hand at bitter satire. The Google-glass stuff near the beginning seems to “borrow” heavily from Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, but minus the sense of humor. The looming, imprecise drone strike at the end fits the story perfectly. Unfortunately.

    Hopefully Smith’s future work will feature her gift for dialogue, dialect, and character that made White Teeth such a pleasure to read and gave On Beauty its strongest moments.

  2. Arnold Handler says:

    The callous attitudes portrayed in this story are not just that of the boy and the “electronically rich haves”. The seemingly friendly old woman Melinda asks the boy to “keep an eye on” the young girl Aggie for eight minutes while she (Melinda) goes back for her rosary; but this is just a pretext for her actually leaving Aggie. There is no indication that Melinda even makes it to the laying out at St. Jude’s for Aggie’s sister. The boy at least has the decency to get Aggie to St. Jude’s.

    St. Jude is the saint for lost causes, and the story is a superb portrayal of a bleak, lost society. The story fittingly ends with “someone or something else in that grim room. . . coming for him as much as for anybody.”

  3. Ken says:

    I enjoyed this for her craft as a writer and found it suspenseful but the ideas in it are pretty familiar from dystopian fictions. Basically, they follow the template of Brave New World where the super-technological and mobile elite are contrasted with the “primitive” classes of the world who are “stuck.” The film Code 46 by Michael Winterbottom deals with this as does (although I’ve not seen it yet) the new film Elysium as did Blade Runner tangentially and I’m sure many science fiction stories (I draw from films because I’m more familiar with science fiction films than science fiction literature). And, yes, the heavy-handed ‘social relevance’ is a bit tiresome. Neverthleless, that last paragraph is pretty impressive stylistically and for creating suspense and leaving a slight ambiguity. Most likely, given what we’ve read, a drone strike is about to hit the church (it’s been mentioned that sometimes ‘good’ people are killed because standing next to ‘bad’ people) but what is instead God is visiting our young hero and His spirit is entering the church–unlikely but possible? Any thoughts?

  4. Roger says:

    A very interesting possible interpretation, Ken. I just reread the ending and I can definitely see it the way you suggest. God in a literal sense or even something else spiritual, some kind of feeling, an empathy for other people and a sympathy for their suffering, that has never come over Bill Peek before. This possibility opens up the story for me, makes me want to reconsider some aspects of my initial reaction.

  5. Betsy says:

    With my apologies for the meandering nature of this post:

    Arnold, thanks for that reminder about St. Jude being the saint for lost causes. Smith surely make a person wonder if this child – Bill Peek – is a lost cause. After all, it is in the last paragraph that Smith has him think:

    “Then, cutting across it all like a stick through the sand, a child’s voice wailed, an acute, high-pitched sound, such as a small animal makes when, out of sheer boredom, you break its leg.”

    Bill has a long way to go!

    Ken, I found your remarks about science fiction movies really helpful. Somehow this story struck me as a flyer – as if the extended long form of this story could be a movie – like “The Hunger Games.”

    I found the story’s appearing just as England’s new prince was being born kind of suggestive, as if Smith is suggesting that despite the hoopla for the new prince, the elite of England may be less elevated than all the tabloid fever would suggest. Peek, after all, is an old English aristocratic name. It is also apparently the name of someone who landed at Jamestown. Peek, of course, is a kind of seeing – but the only seeing Bill does is his “peek” at the dead body. He thinks he’s seeing reality in his gaming, but he doesn’t see it for what it is – misguidance.

    “Bill” is a loaded name:
    — the word that replaces “William” (the conqueror/the prince)
    — the nickname for William that is not Will – as in mental idea or force or choice
    — reminder of “charming Billy”
    — reminder of the current Prince Wills
    –a reminder that the character is not a descendent of Will Shakespeare
    — a tally of what you owe
    — a new law proposed to a legislature
    — a play bill at a performance
    — a piece of paper money
    — the visor on a hat
    == the name of a weapon with a hook shaped blade used in the 18th century

    It’s also one of those words that is both a noun and a verb, and as a verb it can mean
    — to charge someone money for services or products rendered
    — to announce or promote
    –to touch tenderly, as in “bill and coo”

    (With thanks to http://www.merriam-webster,com)

    My problem is that while “Bill” is a name that Zadie Smith probably picked with great care, at the moment all I see is the devolution from William the conqueror, as well as the devolution from “Will”, as well as the strange marriage of “bill and coo ” with vicious hooked blade. So the name seems to indicate an unformed quality – something that positively calls for expansion into a character more formed.

    All this meandering brings me to Ken’s proposal that we consider the church setting to be important – something that works for me, given the complete desolation of the environment otherwise. I would like to think that Bill is slowly going to evolve into Will – someone who learns to choose “according to principles” – but of course, the principles he is being taught via video game are going to be next to useless.

    But I agree, Ken, the suggestion is there – that Bill be touched by some thing higher than himself – except that it may well be a drone that “enters” him.

    London has its bombed out Christopher Wren Churches, England has its destroyed abbeys. For the English reader, a church, in war-time, may feel like a very dangerous place.

    And Roger, I am reminded that it’s time for me to read “White TEeth” and “On Beauty”. I’m right now struggling with Coetzee’s “Dusklands” – and need to wrestle that to the ground! Then some serious Zadie Smith is in order!

  6. Jon says:

    I found this story a bit tedious for reasons people have mentioned, but at the same time admire Smith’s craft, give her an “A” for effort, and think this story does have a heart and unique vision (while being a bit familiar in broad outline).

    For me, the main problem was Smith’s (over-)reliance on elliptical techniques to hint at larger themes such as how modern gadgetry distances us from direct experience. It was interesting to follow how a theme like that played itself out in the story, and I did think Smith succeeded in making the interplay of the themes unique and somewhat compelling, it’s just that what was given in the narrative wasn’t quite enough to create a richness and vividness you could really sink your teeth into. Still, I suppose since I share her overall outlook and concerns, I think there’s something of value here.

  7. Aaron Riccio says:

    Some of you read into this story a bit more than I did, but we reached the same conclusions: this is a fairly slight piece, and I take the same issues with this future world as I do with recent work from Junot Diaz and George Saunders that doesn’t really doesn’t fulfill any of the speculative requirements of this fiction, so much as to simply use them to toss off casual observations as if they’re somehow more poignant from the setting.

    However, here’s what I take out of the conclusion: this boy, divorced from religion and informed by technology rather than experience (see him looking up sandworms first by their disassociated name “Arenicola marina” rather than their actual appearance). For all that this six-years-younger girl is a “developmentally debased” child, she has one thing over him at the end of the story, and that’s an awareness and acceptance of death.

    I don’t think there’s an immanent drone strike–not specifically. Rather, it’s the “grim” and “unseen and present” specter of death that’s lurking there. For all his money, privilege, and devices, the same end is “coming for him as much as for anybody.” Is that a particularly novel or worth-repeating concept for Zadie Smith? Probably not, but at least it’s enjoyable slight.

  8. Julie says:

    Aaron, I think you’re right, it’s death, but more specifically death as the great equalizer. I flashed upon the scene in Alice Munro’s story “Pride” (from the collection Dear Life) in which the protagonist upon hearing of a ferry sinking, thought of “the blowing away of everything, the equality – I have to say it – the equality all of a sudden, of people like me and worse than me and people like them.”

    This story – Smith’s story, I mean – really worked for me. I don’t read a lot of science fiction so maybe that’s why. (I don’t think Cloud Atlas or Super Sad True Love Story count but those are the closest I’ve gotten!). But, actually, I don’t think that futuristic stuff matters; it could in the simplest analysis be seen as an allegory about Americans (as represented by Bill Peek) and the people in countries to which America sends its drones, about how we’ve treated those we’ve seen as having “an innocence that practically begged to be corrupted”. Also, how entitlement and privilege can twist a soul in ways that aren’t even ever questioned or noticed by the twistee. I liked this story a lot.

  9. Betsy says:

    Julie, I like your specificity – “it’s death, but more specifically death as the great equalizer.”

    Smith is English, and class has enormous force and form in England, and a different force entirely than does class here. (Smith adopted an upper class accent as a choice, and she has written about that choice.) The idea of class in this story is related to colonialism, where one group is privileged and the other is either impressed into service or seen as barely human. Suddenly, it is the English who are the colonized, the barely human. And the American way is seen as a “have-have not” world view, in which the casual death of the colonized goes entirely unremarked and unnoticed. What seems merely American to us is imperial in this story.

    So your word “equalizer” seems central to Smith’s intent and opens up the story – again. The losses that death represents to most of us are not particularly significant in this story – it is that death is the one thing that can jar the devolved Bill Peak into a sense that he is the same as the barely human.

    Being English, it may be easier for her (than it is for me) to understand our war on terror from a colonial point of view, in class terms. But being American, it may be difficult for me to appreciate her story, as it represents us as possibly devolved.

  10. Robbie says:

    Great comments here – and I agree with what seems to be the almost-consensus. Gripping writing, but a story that didn’t seem to quite deliver.

    The very obviousness of the current-events relevance and their cinematic nature almost made me suspect some sort of double illusion. That is to say, the whole thing could have been a story written by / game played by Bill Peek in 2013, complete with the “human mysteries of the world”.

    That flight of fancy aside, for me, the strongest and most poignant moments were those that dealt with information availability – the way, as Aaron mentions, that Bill processes the sandworms, or the village itself, and his immediate access to an endless Wikipedia stream of information leads only to “his interest fading”. Contrast his pleasure at being able to lie to Aggie, something previously impossible in his world of “access”.

    On a separate note, were there some parallels to Ulysses’ Chapter Three (“Proteus”)? A beach scene, Martello towers, modality of sight, solipsism, death and bodies, and fox imagery even… Then again, there’s so much packed into Joyce that you can probably find parallels to everything. Still, I can’t help wondering if Smith ever thought: “what if I gave Stephen Dedalus a pair of Google Glasses”.

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