The Lazy River by Zadie Smith, 2017
The magic trick:
Perfectly capturing 2017
I read this story in 2017. It was good then. I predict it will be much better in 2047.
Zadie Smith sums up the 2017 malaise so well here – the narcissism, the paranoia, the depression. It does this so well it’s almost boring. I don’t need this story right now, the contemporary reader thinks; I live it every single day. I already know it. But 30 years later? This is going to be a valuable document for social historians. That’s the beauty of fiction. At its best, it reflects history better than the facts and figures of real life.
Now then, what makes this story such an accurate snapshot in time? Smith has tapped into something here – a feeling that self-awareness absolves people of being guilty of narcissism, when in fact it’s usually just another symptom of the disease. The narrator in “The Lazy River” isn’t only experiencing her vacation in Spain from within, but also from afar. This is the essence of the social media phenomenon – constantly considering your life from the outside in.
We like to think we’re not living like that. We like to talk like the social media age belongs to the millennials and the millennials only. Throw in politics, and it’s very easy for all of us to hang every single social ill of 2017 on someone else.
The narrator here mentions early on that this lazy river is a metaphor. A metaphor for what she’s not sure. But just the awareness she demonstrates by considering the experience in such a way becomes her armor. Look at all these self-absorbed people. Look at this ridiculous thing we’re doing. The inability to go to the next level and actually understand the experience is hilarious. It couldn’t possibly be more 2017. People of the future, find this story and take note.
And that’s quite a trick on Smith’s part.
We’re submerged, all of us. You, me, the children, our friends, their children, everybody else. Sometimes we get out: for lunch, to read or to tan, never for very long. Then we all climb back into the metaphor. The Lazy River is a circle, it is wet, it has an artificial current. Even if you don’t move you will get somewhere and then return to wherever you started, and if we may speak of the depth of a metaphor, well, then, it is about three feet deep, excepting a brief stretch at which point it rises to six feet four. Here children scream—clinging to the walls or the nearest adult—until it is three feet deep once more. Round and round we go. All life is in here, flowing. Flowing!
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