‘Permission To Enter’ by Zadie Smith


Permission To Enter by Zadie Smith, 2012

The magic trick:

Using humor for not just tone but also character development and emotional heft

Zadie Smith really isn’t a short story writer. She’s one of this generation’s great novelists. But let’s not let that keep us from featuring her this week on SSMT. She has published many stories, and more often than not they serve as previews of her novels.

What do you think about that?

It’s not my favorite. I think to be a truly great short story – or maybe even a good one – the author needs to have constructed it as a short story from the start. However, as we’ll see this week, it’s certainly possible to turn an excerpt into a fully formed short story.

“Permission To Enter” apparently doubles as the closing section of Smith’s novel, NW. I have not read NW, but I probably should, given how much I enjoyed this story.

Smith is such a talented writer, it’s difficult to pinpoint the magic tricks. The story traces a very long time in the history of a friendship through 67 chapters – vignettes and episodes. The framework isn’t the magic, though. It’s the writing. This story is particularly funny. It’s not a comedy at all, but it is consistently funny. She is able to relate jokes and situational humor in ways that still convey emotion and character development. And that’s quite a trick on Smith’s part.

The selection:


When being bullied, Keisha Blake found it useful to remember that if you read the relevant literature or watched the pertinent movies you soon found that being bullied was practically a sign of a superior personality, and the greater the intensity of the bullying the more likely it was to be avenged at the other end of life, when qualities of the kind that Keisha Blake possessed—cleverness, will to power—became “their own reward,” and that this remained true even if the people in the literature and the movies looked nothing like you, came from a different socioeconomic and historical universe, and—had they ever met you—would very likely have enslaved you or at best bullied you to precisely the same extent as Lorna Mackenzie, who had a problem with the way you acted like you were better than everyone else.


Further confirmation of this principle was to be found in the Bible itself.


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