“The Lazy River”
by Zadie Smith
from the December 18 & 25, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

The year is really winding down fast. Here we have the final 2017 issue of The New Yorker, and, with it, their final fiction of the year: a new, and relatively short, piece by Zadie Smith.

I am anxious to see what folks think of this one. It’s mostly an extended exploration of the metaphor of a lazy river as life. Not, to me, particularly interesting. In the January 3, 2011 issue of the magazine, Steven Millhauser published a much stronger story about a young boy on holiday in a river realizing that his life was passing swiftly to its conclusion. I loved it. Not that they are doing the exact same thing, but Millhauser’s handling of a similar metaphor is more profound. Smith’s essay here just isn’t my kind of thing, which I guess has me looking forward to a couple of weeks of relaxation before we see what we get from The New Yorker in 2018!

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By |2017-12-11T13:57:07+00:00December 11th, 2017|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Zadie Smith|Tags: |21 Comments


  1. Eric December 16, 2017 at 6:07 am

    I did think there was one clever thing about this story–how Smith incoculated herself against any criticism by making the themes of the story the same things which one might criticize it for–anything you could say bad about this could be met with “that’s part of the concept!” as a response. Slow, aimless, labored, stiff, seemingly pointless–check, check, check. I’m sure there are a bunch more adjectives I could list, but the joke gets old after a while–which, of course, is part of the concept as well. Rather impressive, in a way. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything actually enjoyable or interesting in this slow, stiff, seemingly pointless story.

  2. Dennis Lang December 16, 2017 at 11:34 am

    I’m always a little skeptical of comments that categorically critique a story as “bad” writing. I suppose mainly because I’m skeptical of anyone here having the qualification to make that categorical claim, beyond a personal opinion that the story for whatever reason just didn’t speak to them. So adjectives are intended to suffice; “slow, aimless, labored….” Since I’ve invariably found the “New Yorker” fiction engaging on some level, often extremely so, I’m asking myself why this one left me so totally cold.

    Would be cool to hear from someone for whom this story did speak. What did Eric and I miss?

  3. David December 18, 2017 at 3:45 pm

    Note to Trevor: No time to relax just yet! The NewYorker published a new short story online today, the one for the magazine with the January 1 cover date. I would assume that they thought putting it online a week early was preferable to having to upload it either on Christmas Day or later than usual.

  4. Trevor December 19, 2017 at 12:03 pm

    David, I cannot seem to find that. Do you have a link or the title of the story?

  5. David December 19, 2017 at 2:02 pm

    HA! I just checked again and The New Yorker has taken down the story. I guess it was published in error because someone forgot it was a skip week. Fortunately for me, I saved the story before they fixed it. I guess the rest of you have to wait until Christmas. Suckers!!! :-)
    For those who are curious, the story is “Whoever Is There, Come on Through” by Colin Barrett. His other stories published in The New Yorker are “The Ways” almost exactly three years ago, “Anhedonia, Here I Come” in 2016, and “The Hairless Are Careless” in the summer of 2017 flash fiction series. He published a book of short stories (Young Skins) in 2013, which won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award in 2014. He has also recenty had a short story and a couple of essays published in Granta. (Saving you the leg work on the intro, Trevor. Merry Christmas!)

  6. Trevor December 19, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    Nice! The audio of Barrett reading the story is all there as well. And thanks David for composing the body of my post — Christmas early all around!

  7. mehbe December 20, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    Dennis, I don’t know if this will answer your question in any way, but what I got out of this piece (calling it a story seems a stretch) was a specific sense of the stupid directionless futility that many Westerners seem to be feeling in 2017, a kind of failure of the future. And that seems to be the point of it, given what Smith says in the interview. She wants to preserve and communicate what this time feels like.

    It reminded me of a BEK cartoon from a few issues back, where someone was saying, “I thought I would wander around, vaguely forgetting what I was doing, until the Presidency is over.”

    I enjoy much of Smith’s writing, including this piece, because she has a knack for touching on a very particular mental state that closely matches what I am feeling at times. There are no other writers I know who articulate that mood for me the way she does. I don’t always like the feeling very much, but it is nice to know there are others who seem feel it as well.

  8. Greg December 29, 2017 at 5:32 pm

    Dennis – I am shocked that even you (Mr. Positive) couldn’t find a bright spot in this story….I never thought I’d see this day! Hee-hee…

    Mehbe – I agree with you completely on your following takeaways:

    “… a specific sense of the stupid directionless futility that many Westerners seem to be feeling in 2017, a kind of failure of the future. And that seems to be the point of it, given what Smith says in the interview. She wants to preserve and communicate what this time feels like.”

    Lastly, I absolutely loved Zadie’s satire on the two teenage girls suntanning and taking pics of themselves. I am sure she enjoyed writing this following sentence in particular:

    “Then their props are gathered: pink flower petals, extravagant cocktails with photogenic umbrellas protruding from them, ice creams (to be photographed but not eaten), and, on one occasion, a book, held only for the duration of the photograph and – though perhaps only I noticed this – upside down.”

  9. Ken January 19, 2018 at 3:40 am

    I’m not sure this is exactly a short story or deserves to be called one either, but I found some merit in it. Certain images–such as the hallucination of the tomatoes or the last of the workers in the river–have purchase with me and there are some ideas here that are interesting. Yet…is this really a story? Isn’t there something more one should do than just veil their political ideas in a very vague narrative?

  10. Greg January 20, 2018 at 9:26 pm

    More and more Ken we are seeing these vignettes being published as ‘stories’…..should we just accept this?

  11. william January 29, 2018 at 5:00 pm

    I’m with Ken et al:

    “Yet…is this really a story? Isn’t there something more one should do than just veil their political ideas in a very vague narrative?”

    I think the answer is Yes. We had a story a month or two ago about a woman coming out of an airport that was meant to express dismay about the plight of refugees’ plight. Some thought that too thin,. To the extent that this one has a political consciousness, like the presumably migrant workers glimpsed from the coach on the way from the airport, this piece is even sketchier.

    This “story” clearly shows one thing — what you can get away with when you have already made a name.

  12. Greg January 29, 2018 at 10:15 pm

    Absolutely love your last paragraph William – Thanks!

  13. William January 29, 2018 at 10:39 pm

    Thanks, Greg. Hate to be so cynical, but any notion that Art is independent of the marketplace is so outmoded. Especially after ‘Cat Person”.

  14. Ken February 2, 2018 at 11:37 pm

    I’d say we should not accept this and that Smith has been particularly egregious in fobbing off stuff on the New Yorker (despite my admiration for some of this piece). I’d not be so critical of “Cat Person” despite it’s popularity. There we have a “real” short story—despite what flaws one may find in it–and it’s not to blame if it becomes taken up as part of the #metoo movement.

  15. william February 3, 2018 at 9:29 am

    You’re probably right about “Cat Person”, Ken. No doubt the author knew it would resonate with many women who had similar experiences. But perhaps she didn’t realize it would be taken up as a symbol by the larger movement.

  16. mehbe February 4, 2018 at 8:38 pm

    Earlier, when I said that calling this piece a “story” was a stretch, it wasn’t intended as a criticism of the writing. To my way of thinking, the fiction in the TNY doesn’t need to be recognizable as a story. What I mostly care about is that it holds my interest in some way.

  17. William February 4, 2018 at 9:09 pm

    Then how is it different from an article about professional drone racing or Jared Kushner and China? Fiction needs to be different from documentary reporting. “Interesting” is not good enough.

  18. David February 4, 2018 at 10:46 pm

    William, I’m tempted to go off on a rant (yeah, I do that a lot … maybe too often….) about “new journalism” and the “non-fiction novel”, but I will resist. Truman Capote (who claimed too much credit for the idea of the non-fiction novel, but wrote the best one) once said that the idea was to use all of the tools of a fiction writer, but with the constraint that every word must be true. He argues that this is distinct from what he called “documentary” non-fiction. In the many years since the “new journalism” was new, a lot of the ideas of using the tools of fiction writers have been more commonly adopted by long form essayists. For me the test is this: Can I tell when reading something that it is non-fiction or does it look like it is (or could well be) fiction to me? If so, then it’s a story whether it is true or not. Here’s another test: Think of your favourite work of realistic (as opposed to fantasy, for example) fiction. Suppose you were to find out that every word of it was actually true and the author was reporting real events he or she knew about. Would you still count it as a story? I would.
    Ok, so it was a LITTLE bit of a rant … mea culpa….

  19. William February 5, 2018 at 11:34 am

    David — I have no problem with your “rant”. Unlike much of the political discourse these days, it’s thoughtful and substantive. That’s an interesting criterion for a story. I’ll have to think about it a bit. I think there’s still a distinction to be made between “short story” in the fiction sense and “story” in the sense of true events told in an engaging manner. I’ve made my living as a medical writer, and I’m very aware that I refer to what I write as a “story”. But I wouldn’t submit it to the NYer as a candidate for publication as short fiction. There is a difference — a major one I think — between using the tools of fiction to relate actual events (what is sometimes called creative nonfiction) and inventing or imagining a set of circumstances and characters.

  20. mehbe February 7, 2018 at 3:17 am

    William – what I meant by “story” was probably too naive for this site. I was thinking of something with a fairly traditional narrative structure that goes somewhere. This piece seemed to me to be describing a sort of stasis, with little story-like momentum in the usual sense.

    But it’s still fiction in that I think it was intended to be understood as creative rather than documentary. And for me, being interesting still matters more than those labels. For all I know, it may even be mostly documentary, even if Smith chose to sell it as fiction. I don’t care much, because, unlike the Wideman story, knowing that about this “story” makes little difference to my experience as a reader.

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