Zadie Smith: ‘The Greatest Thing About Manhattan Is The Worst Thing About Manhattan’

Zadie Smith may be British, but the author has been living in Manhattan and Queen’s Park in London for nearly a decade. In Smith’s estimation, that’s enough time for her share a treatise on how she sees the world and what it’s like to be a modern Manhattanite in The New York Review of Books.

For a foreigner’s perspective, Zadie’s is pretty positive — which is might surprise those who have read her rather critical debut novel White Teeth. Still, the central message of Smith’s love/hate letter to Manhattan is clear: Find your beach.

“Here the focus is narrow, almost obsessive. Everything that is not absolutely necessary to your happiness has been removed from the visual horizon. The dream is not only of happiness, but of happiness conceived in perfect isolation. Find your beach in the middle of the city. Find your beach no matter what else is happening. Do not be distracted from finding your beach. Find your beach even if — as in the case of this wall painting — it is not actually there. Create this beach inside yourself. Carry it with you wherever you go.”

Zadie’s remarks come from what many transplants to New York complain about — the simultaneous coldness and friction that come along with living in a city that’s always on the move. It’s something that Smith notes she’s finally grown accustomed to.

“I have to get used to old New York ladies beside themselves with fury that I have stopped their smooth elevator journey and got in with some children. I have to remember not to pause while walking in the street — or during any fluid-moving city interaction — unless I want to utterly exasperate the person behind me. Each man and woman in this town is in pursuit of his or her beach and God help you if you get in their way… To live in a city where everyone has essentially the same tunnel vision and obsessive focus as a novelist is to disguise your own sociopathy among the herd.”

But there’s also a strong sense of admiration of Manhattan that Zadie clearly holds from the essay. For every feeling of lack of focus, time and space to achieve one’s goals — there’s another facet that keeps Smith living in the area.

“Under the protection of a university I live on one of the most privileged strips of built-up beach in the world, among people who believe they have no limits and who push me, by their very proximity, into the same useful delusion, now and then.'”

Zadie Smith is the author of four novels, all of which have received widespread acclaim.

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