I was shocked, or wide-eyed at least, in the way we always are when confronted with great success achieved at ages as young as our own.
“Really? She published White Teeth at 21? Can you imagine writing a book, right now?”
I think the three of us were 19, or just-20, at the time of the conversation. It seemed unfathomable—wildly overwhelming, yet thrilling, to crack open our laptops right now and expound expertly on the vast, systemic implications of our random lives. To be so young and to articulate such a grand (and lengthy) commentary on immigration, colonialism, temporality, and nationhood; to narrate the interiority of middle-aged adults with the acuity of someone the same age as these characters rather than someone the age of their children; to write sentences that strapped words into roller coaster cars and launched them through loops and death drops across the page; to achieve massive acclaim through a story whose setting, character demographics, and thematic interests appear to have emerged from the chapters of Zadie Smith’s young life.
In Smith’s later books, she tackles many of the same themes as in her first one—identity, familial lineage, generational strains, diaspora, colonialism, contemporary urban life, inter-cultural community—yet their stories take on characters and plots that seem tame and focused in comparison. All her novels and stories and essays dazzle with intellect and profundity, but White Teeth races with the mania of a young and brilliant mind desperate to garner the attention her ideas deserve. It reads like the author’s attempt to unleash all that she has come to understand in her 21 years, all that struggle and memory and wonderful chaos, everything she wishes to say in case she never receives another opportunity to say it. It reads like a beginning, like it has something to prove.
The other two people I was talking to hadn’t read White Teeth yet, but the conversation compelled them to do so, for experimentation’s sake. I did the same, with the first books of other authors. We splayed open these books and read them with a pen in one hand and a set of questions in the other: What does it look like to assert oneself as a writer? How does someone tell a story to embark on a lifetime of telling stories? Where and how and why does someone begin to present their art?
MAN WALKS INTO A ROOM
Of the few first novels I paged my way through while my friends read White Teeth, I distinctly remember my surprise at a debut that appeared opposite to Smith’s approach. I had already read nearly every one of Nicole Krauss’s books when I sat down for her earliest one, Man Walks Into a Room. It was short in page number, small when held in my hands, and altogether unassuming. Nothing like Smith’s hefty and wild bombardment.
A book about a middle-aged professor who’d lost all of his post-pubescent memories, the novel isn’t a re-articulation of experiences in Krauss’s early life or a categorical narrativization of the unending nature of trauma across place and time. Both of these characteristics would eventually sweep through Krauss’s later work, imbuing them with oppressive significance and longevity. Instead, the ideas within Man Walks Into a Room, and the linear, protagonist-oriented tactic it takes, clasps Krauss’s talents into a bounded unit.
It reads like someone stepping gingerly into the theater and cueing up a preview, while the slides containing the great scenes of her ingenuity remain coiled inside the film box. It reads like someone cautiously, publicly displaying her notable, quiet intelligence, while internally, the vast gyres of her mind spin with wild energy, churning out the perturbing and indelible characters whose soliloquies on collective trauma would build up to an ultimate revelation of her remarkable ambition.
In Man Walks Into a Room, Krauss’s prose is delicate, lively, and beautiful, replete with engaging musings and observations that propel her neat plot. But in a book about memory and the implications of its loss, she restricts the scope of her contemplations to the individual, holding back from inculcating the weight of memory on collective identity, history, and generations, as she does in her later, award-winning books. For a writer whose career is defined by her explorations of communal and national identity, Krauss wrote a first book defined by a character fixated on selfhood, with little discussion of those massive themes. Whereas Smith from the start launched herself onto a towering platform from which she unveiled her later words, Krauss gently introduced memory as the great mountain of her literary concern, her first work taking the initial steps of a climb whose peak she withheld in order to illustrate the impressive path to its ascent.
As an artist, Krauss practiced restraint. She saved her biggest questions for later.
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES
When reflecting on authors like those above, it seems that there are two primary approaches to beginning a life of writing:
1) to say everything that one thinks one has to say, the story a writer must tell before they can tell any other story, establishing the basis of their oeuvre
2) to create a small and precise project, a character study rather than a social or political study, one that preludes the writer’s full preoccupations and capabilities
It seems to me, as a reader, that it is a choice between measurement of the self or unleashing of the self. Perhaps these are merely the poles.
I see, in the works of a famous Brown alum whose three novels I read in the correct order and spaced out over multiple years, an in-between approach, one that rearranges the expected order of literary art. Jeffrey Eugenides postponed penning the fictionalization of his familial experience in his hometown, the Great American Immigrant-Assimilation Novel, until his second book. But within the pages of The Virgin Suicides, his eerie, macabre first novel, lie the specters of Eugenides’s boyhood in the outskirts of Detroit, the malaise of upper-middle class suburbanization, and youth alienation, even as the plot circles around depressed teenage girls who diverge entirely from the personal vantage point of the author. Eugenides leaves the grandeur of his whole-scale American commentary on ethnicity, capitalism, and identity for Middlesex (his second novel); yet he prepares that ground from the treehouses and two-story homes of The Virgin Suicides.
In that first book, Eugenides is restrained—he issues no epic family saga or heavy-handed political diatribe but a creative twist on a coming-of-age novel. He dwells primarily in the affective realm of ethereal scenes, passages that seek to lose the reader in the illusion of characters all undergoing their own disillusionment. Yet this character study looks beyond the individual in cultivating an insightful, incipient social commentary about collective American life, one which then blooms wildly in Eugenides’s later works. Though its lyrical style and tone are largely unparalleled across Eugenides’ career, The Virgin Suicides is, for all intents and purposes, a warm-up. And then, his third novel, The Marriage Plot, narrates the love triangle of Brown students, an apolitical story that might conventionally arrive at the very beginning of a writer’s tenure. Maybe Eugenides thought the story too trite or common for an emerging writer to publish, but fine for someone who had already won the Pulitzer. He observes no logical timelines, no platforms or mountains, but his novelistic trajectory is still, by the looks of it, calculated. It is not a desperate call to speech nor a ramp that steadily increases its stakes to ensure increasing success. It is a combination of that desire to plan for a challenging, competitive literary world, and the compulsion to write stories as they come.
The start of writing must be a contest. It is a contest between present and future, between an author’s preparedness and ambition, between a story’s viability and its necessity. For those playing the long game, art—at least written art—is not only an act of expression. It is a deliberation.