“Now More Than Ever”
by Zadie Smith
from the July 23, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

The prolific Zadie Smith has returned to the pages of The New Yorker with a new story called “Now More than Ever.” Her last piece of fiction to appear in the magazine was “The Lazy River,” and it didn’t really feel like a story (we talked about it here). This one feels more like fiction, even if it starts sounding a bit like an essay. Here is how it begins:

There is an urge to be good. To be seen to be good. To be seen. Also to be. Badness, invisibility, things as they are in reality as opposed to things as they seem, death itself—these are out of fashion. This is basically what I told Mary. I said, Mary, all these things I just mentioned are not really done anymore, and also, while we’re on the subject, that name of yours is not going to fly, nobody’s called Mary these days, it’s painful for me even to say your name—actually, could you get the hell out of here?

I’m excited to see what you all think this time around, so please feel free to comment below!

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By |2018-07-16T11:55:36+00:00July 16th, 2018|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Zadie Smith|Tags: |16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Julian Wyllie July 16, 2018 at 3:01 pm

    The beginning worried me, mostly because I tend to enjoy Zadie’s prose-style more than her ideas. What this piece successfully does however is combine a great style, like how she inhabited Billie Holiday in “Crazy They Call Me,” with sound, modern observations, like her profile on Jay Z and her comments on Facebook in “Generation Why?”

    Without spoilers, Smith goes through multiple phases by using a current situation at a college, along with a film, to tell a story about how we identify with “villains” who lack political correctness. For me, the brilliance begins around paragraph three, when she more fully introduces the concept with examples that felt absurd but real, much like what we see today.

    Lastly, there’s a back-and-forth between the narrator and an emailer that I liked as its own passage, and could be an interesting start to another story. The sum of everything she wrote here works, and it comes off as really well thought out. With that said I’m interested to see the response to the overall story.

  2. David July 16, 2018 at 7:13 pm

    Well, I’m baffled by this one. I know at one point she’s talking about the Childish Gambino video for “This Is America”, at another Donald Trump, and she spends about half the story giving us the plot of “A Place In The Sun”, but I don’t have a clue what she’s on about here. The arrow pointing is pretty symbolic and she seems to be referencing social media in a metaphorical way at the start, but I was left at the end with no clear idea how this is a story at all. I await others to help me out with it.
    .
    But in the meantime, continuing a tradition (can two instances make a tradition?) I started with “Seeing Ershadi”, I downloaded “A Place In The Sun” and am halfway through watching it. Hot take: It is extremely dated. Monty comes across as a super creep right from the start. The only person I’m rooting for is Shelly Winters, and, well, Smith told us how things go for her. (Side note: Smith is wrong about one thing. The doctor Winters goes to see about an abortion does use the word “pregnant”.)

  3. Sean H July 17, 2018 at 2:55 am

    A worthwhile satire and an amusing read that made me laugh a number of times at the recognizability of Smith’s various targets. She’s obviously familiar with the lexicon of leftists and millennials as she lines up “unpack,” “transhistorical thought,” “platform mastery,” “problematic,” and other urban buzzwords (or buzzfoods, ie: poke bowls).

    Some might say it’s easy to satirize the puritanical indoctrination mindset of the far left on college campuses but some of it has real teeth (the sexual kinks of a professor, the “beyond the pale” guy, various forms of erasure, the silencing of unpopular thought). College professors as literal finger-pointers – fearful, protecting their own skins and jobs — rings true. The university as ground zero for a certain type of liberal-arts brainwashing mixed with an inescapable persecution matrix, evicting speakers who fall outside the social norms of the feelings-loving word police, enforcing retrograde political reeducation, is also a finely executed bit of humor.

    The section about A Place in the Sun is a full-on essay, and Smith relishes in embracing the somewhat punk-rockish “Ha ha, I’m telling, not showing” mode. There are moments where Zadie tries to get a bit more dark, but in the end I don’t think she’s mean enough for satire. This simply doesn’t rise to the level of Dr. Strangelove, Vanity Fair, Candide, or even The Simpsons or To Die For. It’s more like a slightly-better-than-middling South Park episode.

    Still, in our fraught times, watching an author of Smith’s status risk skewering in-the-know liberalism and virtue signalling while simultaneously eliding certain facts because she expects her audience to know things — Montgomery Clift was a closeted gay man; A Place in the Sun is an adaptation of Dreiser at his naturalist peak; and clearly pining for a more traditional form of pre-identity politics academia where “there are degrees of sympathy” and “it’s not a zero-sum game” — is a brave move.

    The Donald Glover/”This is America” and Trump stuff was maybe a bit on the nose, but probably needed to be (at least she didn’t name them) since the reading audience now is far more like the high schooler character than the professor who responds with the wonderfully withering comment about Hamlet having a quarter-life crisis while “IRL” the prof is worrying about being deported. The points Smith makes about reputation being the immortal part of oneself are well made, as is the notion in the closing paragraph that being politically incorrect is about the exertion of freedom and liberty, and once we kowtow to the PC police we become inherently less human, and then it is we who are the “victims.” The real Devil, of course, being censorship.

  4. David July 17, 2018 at 8:53 am

    Ok, so I re-read the “story”. I don’t use quotation marks to be cute. I really do think this is an opaque essay just disguised as a story. Smith has something to say about something, but she decides she doesn’t really want to say it, so she blows smoke at us for ten pages and hopes we can decipher her code. The only new thing I figured out on a second reading is that the “musical poet” she is referring to at the end is probably Kanye West and his supposed “slavery is a choice” comments recently. (Do a quick google search … confirms that Smith is a superfan of West … so that checks out.) In the end it’s not clear what issues she is talking about in this “story’ and what views she has of them so it is all just a lot of murk.

  5. Julian Wyllie July 18, 2018 at 11:08 am

    I agree with David, upon a second reading, that the story seems more like an essay idea that was turned into fiction. I wonder if this is because the author is fresh off of an essay collection, and perhaps had contemporary commentary on the brain. With that said, I wish she did a “This Week in Fiction” segment to see what inspired this, but I suppose the entire point is to leave things up to interpretation.

    I caught the reference to “This is America” on my own, but I didn’t catch the thing about Kanye. When I was reading, I thought she meant that another professor at the campus did something, or rather said something, received backlash, then went from there. I’m erring on the side that it’s probably about Kanye after it being pointed out to me. Thanks David for that context.

    All in all I still enjoyed the read, even though I was very unfamiliar with the references to the movie in the middle section. Usually I’m not a fan of fiction writing relying so heavily on expecting the reader to have seen and read all that you have seen and read, but this crossed into something I found time to enjoy.

  6. David July 19, 2018 at 2:27 pm

    Today in “I still don’t understand this story”, we will be discussing the title. When I first read the story (and the second time, too), I didn’t really think much about the title. The phrase “now more than ever” does not appear in the story and does not have an obvious significance to me, so I just never thought about it. Then, just a few minutes ago, I saw a tweet from The Paris Review.
    .
    Now I have noticed that The Paris Review will often tweet links to older work they have published that are by or interviews with authors who have just been published in The New Yorker. It’s a smart bit of promotion on their part. But this tweet was a little different. They tweeted a link to a 2017 poem entitled “Now More Than Ever” by Morgan Parker. Is this a mere coincidence? Is there a connection between the story and the poem? I had no idea.
    .
    A quick look at the poem shows it is about race and politics. Google quickly tells me that Parker is a young, black, American woman who writes a lot of poems about pop culture subjects. It also shows that she is an admirer of Zadie Smith. It seems quite likely that Smith knows who Parker is, has read her work, and knows this poem. I would also expect that the title of this story was chosen as a deliberate reference to the poem, on the person who runs the twitter account for The Paris Review seems to be pointing out for us.
    .
    But still, I don’t really know what the specific connection between the poem and the story is even though I am certain there is one. It does not help clarify the story for me more, even though I think it probably should. So I’ll just leave for you the link to the poem in The Paris Review. Maybe you can figure something out by reading it. Here it is: https://www.theparisreview.org/poetry/7105/now-more-than-ever-morgan-parker (In case you are wondering what happens in the poem after the fade out, Parker answered that on twitter. She wrote, “i tricked the system! literally end of the poem A) doesnt exist and B) says (cont)”.

  7. Holly July 19, 2018 at 4:07 pm

    I felt the story was definitely quite trendy, but yes, it is a comment on “trendiness” with all of the references to buzzwords and political correctness. Forgive me, I haven’t seen or kept up to date on many of it, and therefore felt at a bit of a loss with the true purpose ofthis story. For that reason , I feel the New Yorker is a perfect place for it. If there is one gripe I have with the New Yorker it is its trendy nature, not cohesive stories dealing with character, in which social platforms and thinning of the human experience play a key role in deciding who is a good author and who isn’t.
    Lastly, I feel the narrator is quite dislikeable for this reason. She knows the social punch phrases intended to rile her audience, but at the same time, feel that this is how the author and the ‘why generation’ actually feels about the name Mary, and calling puppets ‘insultingly basic’. Basic: another one of those over used slang phrases. Untrustworthy narrators are cool, but not if the author acutally sympathises with them. I bet is if she gets asked about it, she’ll say she meant it that way when it’s obvious she hadn’t. However, it’s also obvious that by that ending we are meant to sympathize as well, but in all, this story will have the staying power of an Autumn Rose . I’ve already forgotten it.

  8. G July 20, 2018 at 11:26 am

    “Now more than ever” was a slogan President Nixon used during his campaign. Here is a writeup from the Washington Post describing how this phrase has been repurposed over the last decade, and more recently has become apart of the language of The Resistance. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/03/15/now-more-than-ever-now-more-than-ever-needs-to-go/?utm_term=.52628df5fa1e

  9. David July 20, 2018 at 6:42 pm

    G, thanks for the link. I didn’t even know the phrase “now more than ever” was really commonly used. I guess I hang out in the wrong crowd. If asked, I would have guessed it might be a phrase used in advertising, but that’s about it. Since I never use it and never hear it used, I have decided not to worry about whether or not the phrase is problematic. Call it “Non-now-more-than-this privilege”.

  10. Larry Bone July 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

    “Now More Than Ever” by Zadie Smith, has a loose conversational flow of forward conversational motion that stands in for plot and is therefore difficult to unravel. 

    It reads like a small jazz quartet playing a jazzy blues number that could be called, “Polarity Evolution Explained”.

    Her philosophical theme is short fused anger over the past not being recognized in the present.

    Point of view in this story comes from I.  I seems to be a liberal college professor who tries to be politically correct though is somewhat privileged with enough time to think about the nature of goodness versus badness:

    “There is an urge to be good.  To be seen to be good.  To be seen.  Also to be.  Badness, invisibility, things as they are in reality  .  .   .”

    get ignored.  This is not intentional but nonetheless happens, “I” seems to admit.

    The underlying past she seems to refer to is the lynching of black men during slavery in the South but also in the not very distant past.

    “I”‘s friend is named Scout.  Scout is an up to the minute younger very smart early 20s person perfectly in tune with politically correct social media where the oppression of dark skinned people and conflict between rich and poor linger off camera in the sudden anger of reality show contestant flareups or within hip hop lyric riffs.

    But Scout is also the name of the “I” protagonist in “To Kill A Mockingbird” whose father is trying to protect a black man from being lynched.

    Scout’s puppets are a female figure with oversize long arms to reach back into the past and an objectified triangular spindle which can be seen as a kind of deterioration of the female spirit.

    That Scout and “I” go see “A Place In the Sun” which here is a 1951 early identity politics warning against how the rich can exploit the poor.

    George Eastman (think beautifully handsome Connecticut rich guy) who gets the plain looking Shelly Winters character (think poor Rhode Island or Maine Irish or Italian immigrant) pregnant and gets rid of her to go after the Elizabeth Taylor beautiful rich girl.
     
    Think of Philip Roth’s “Goodbye Columbus” somewhat reversed in that the daughter of a wealthy Short Hills family uses a handsome but somewhat poor Newark college student for casual sex then dumps him or he dumps her (never sure which it is).

    I also think of “He do the police in different voices” which comes from the Charles Dickens novel, “Our Mutual Friend.”  Dickens exhaustively chronicles the exploitation of the poor by the rich.  The character “Sloppy” is educated enough to dramatically read the newspaper to “illiterate” poor people:

    “You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.”

    I think Zadie Smith is riffing with her characters like Sloppy dramatically riffing on the reading of social media, which has replaced the reading of a newspaper.

    Finally, “He do the Police in different voices” was the working title of T. S. Eliot’s, “The Wasteland” which chronicles the breakdown of goodness or all that is good in the deaths of all the British young men in World War I.

    The parallel ignored past breakdown of goodness would be all black people lynched, shot in the back and beaten to death during slavery and (the not talked about) way after or the total of all the brown skinned people who died during 200 years of Imperial British colonization.

    Zadie is very effective at pinning down the roots of polarization out of what happened in the past that seems to get ignored in the present.

  11. Greg July 29, 2018 at 6:18 pm

    Thanks everybody for making sense of this story/essay for me….including the title. Your impassioned and researched efforts are much appreciated by me!

    Also, I loved this writing from Zadie on suffering:

    “…although with the mental proviso that suffering has no purpose in reality. To the suffering person suffering is solely suffering. It is only for others, as a symbol, that suffering takes on any meaning or purpose…pain is the least symbolic thing there is.”

  12. Jon July 29, 2018 at 8:40 pm

    I enjoyed listening to Zadie read this story but was left feeling unsatisfied (and like, ultimately, it just didn’t work.) More than anything, it’s interesting that the New Yorker published it, since it seems to embody the sub-culture Zadie is skewering.
    I enjoyed her riff’s on substance and reality versus image and group-think sentiments.
    (And @Greg, I also liked that musing on suffering, which ties in, while also being a trendy topic right now–e.g., it’s a major Jordan Peterson theme.)
    Why it didn’t work for me was that when trying to make sense of the mish-mash of stylistic elements, there’s no coherent voice or vision that really comes through. Here’s some magical realism, there’s some pop-culture references–you more just get the sense that Zadie had some ideas on her mind and threw them on the page using different devices she finds entertaining.

  13. Leon de Pola July 30, 2018 at 8:34 pm

    If we understand this as a story on how the protagonist moved from within the “edges of the pale” to “beyond the pale,” it actually works pretty good. And it is called, “Now More than Ever” in reference to Scout’s “consistency theory,” it is saying — we have to move beyond the pale, now more than ever.

    The essence of being free is to be beyond the pale — to be outside the trends and pressures of social norms. Thus, the story begins in Point A where the narrator breaks up with Mary, because her name is out of fashion as well as her beliefs. Then, the narrator goes through a journey of sorts. The protagonist meets Scout, who brings up the idea of timeless consistency, and they watch “A Place in the Sun.” The narrator reveals the narrator’s sympathies for the guilty, and Scott warns the narrator of going beyond the pale of acceptable behavior.

    The narrator then receives a letter from a high school kid who points to Hamlet’s passage, in which man is extolled for his qualities, but is questioned as this “quintessence of dust?.”

    But, the narrator makes a crucial turn when the narrator meets someone in Bleecker, who was beyond the pale — the real deal. The narrator is touched by the encounter but is in self-denial. “Maybe if I am totally and finally placed beyond the pale, I, too, might feel curiously free,” the narrator says in the third paragraph to the last.

    Thus, inevitably, we find the narrator in Point B, defending the musical poet as “existentially this particular poet just wants us all to be free” after which the narrator ends up being “cancelled.” The act apparently of defending the poet among the philosophers and even saying the poet is one of the philosophers is something that is beyond the expected.

    Of course, the narrator’s crisis actually begins when she asks Scout whether the Natalia should be afraid that Ben is texting everyone about Natalia’s sexual adventures in the bedroom, and finally, she crosses the border when she defends the poet as a philosopher.

    This is an amazing read.

  14. Greg July 31, 2018 at 6:07 am

    Jon – It’s nice to see that you liked the passage on suffering too!

    Leon de Pola – Thank you for clarifying the title and the author’s intentions for the multi-staged plot.

  15. Dev August 6, 2018 at 10:39 am

    I’m really glad to have found such insightful discussion about this story. I’ve just listened twice to Zadie Smith’s reading it, which is entirely more humorous than my own reading of it.

    The “he do the police in different voices” reference is interesting after having listened to Smith change her voice when reading from the perspectives of Scout, the maid in A Place in The Sun, and the high schooler in the email correspondence. She takes on some ham handed American accents that do feel kind of Simpsons-ish

    I guess I’m still confused about Scout ditching the narrator after she asks if Natalia should be worried – is the switched-on, finger pointing liberal whom Scout represents already miles past having any sympathy for this CEO whose private life is incongruent to her public efforts?

    The “past is the present” motif is presented in the story as a philosophical trend and it’s interesting to think that isntitutions or higher learning and academic fields can be just as susceptible to trend

    I think the bit about reputation being “the immortal part of oneself” is a key point to understanding the narrator, who obviously feels far enough “beyond the pale” to consider embracing ideologies like those of Kanye which are going against the grain. I think of the story as an extension of the idea that certain leftist ideas are “enforced” and sometimes discourage a more philosophical discussion.

    The actual reproduction of gun violence against black bodies in this is America is reported to have been triggering to some, but to dismiss the video on these grounds is nixing the possibility for debate

    Also Smith’s reference to the university “towers” and the unnamed poets words having flown “between the towers” – somewhere in this comment section Sean H mentioned that a liberal university is the “ground zero” for ideological brainwashing. I know there’s no grounds to make a case for an actual reference to the twin towers but as a New Yorker I had to mention it lol

    I wondered about the instances of the name Eastman in the story, specifically that Montgomery Clift’s character in A Place In The Sun shares his name with the George Eastman who created owned and operated Kodak. Im speculating about Kodak’s role in manufacturing film that was originally chemically balanced to be exposed for white and paler skin tones. Other than this I can’t conjure up a solid reason for what is probably just a coincidental reference anyway….maybe that Kodak and the Hollywood of the 1950’s and Griffith’s birth of a nation among many other films are large factors in reaffirming some systemically racist power structures in America etc etc etc etc

  16. Ken August 19, 2018 at 3:02 am

    If this is a satire of academic political correctness (as it seems to be) then it is subtle to the point of incoherence. I’m with David on this. I found it interesting and read it twice and clearly Smith is a smart writer, but I can’t see the thread to her argument. O.K so defending Kanye is NOT p.c. nor is sympathy for the guilty BUT how does this tie in with the first part where appearance is placed over reality and where this idea of similarity of past and present as virtue is espoused. How do those notions tie in? I think spending so much time discussing the film A Place in the Sun is kind of lazy as is quoting Hamlet (which of course is dangerous as I don’t think even someone as clever as Smith can write this well). Perhaps those are avant-garde type gestures–they certainly derail the “fiction” that she is writing. I’m in agreement about this also not being a story so much as an essay. Her reviews and essays in The New Yorker and Harpers seem to me to be far more coherent writings.

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