It’s time for the first installment of the new monthly Sunday Story Society, for which I’ve chosen to look at Zadie Smith’s story ‘Meet the President!‘ in the New Yorker (you can read it by clicking on the link). The way it works is, I start off with a review of the story, then you can join in talking about the story in the comments here, and we’ll just see how it goes. So…
Zadie Smith has reportedly said that she’s working on a science fictional novel, which is an intriguing prospect to me. I’m not sure whether ‘Meet the President!; is an extract (it stands well enough on its own. And seems to make all the point that it needs to make), but it is a taster of how Smith may approach science-fictional material.
We begin on the edge of what is presumably still Suffolk, in a future sketched fairly conventionally, but efficiently: there was flooding a hundred years previously; Felixstowe has moved inland; a woman of forty-nine qualifies as ‘very old’ (on reflection, this may simply be reflecting the viewpoint of the protagonist as a teenage boy, but it still strikes me as fitting with the harsh nature of life in this place). Then comes the key technological innovation around which the story revolves: a personal augmented-reality device which allows users to place pretty much any situation or setting over the world they see.
‘Meet the President!’ is about dramatising contrasts. On the one hand, we have Bill Peek, the rich boy with the Augmentor, whose task (perhaps a futuristic analogue of the Grand Tour) is to travel around and use the augmentation technology to deepen his understanding of the world and its inhabitants. If that ends up looking like play, or ticking the boxes without really learning anything, so be it: Bill has the privilege to get ahead; to be safe; to move away from here (‘If you can’t move, you’re no one from nowhere,’ he says).
On the other hand, we have Melinda Durham and Aggie Hanwell, the local woman and girl who disturb Bill as the story begins. They have none of Bill’s advantages, and quite a few disadvantages if you go by what the Augmentor tells Bill about their likelihood of falling ill. But that kind of itemisation doesn’t give Bill the true measure of people – and the lacks the ability to deal with the real place in which he finds himself, as we see in the contrast between the rural community and the game Bill creates through the Augmentor.
I suppose that contrast could be seen as somewhat heavy-handed – Smith clearly has her thumb on the scales – but I think it ultimately works because there is such a sharp difference between the augmented and physical worlds that Bill experiences. I’d stop short of saying ‘Meet the President!’ is a great story (I don’t think it has quite enough depth for that); but it does make me look forward to that novel.
And now, over to you…
2nd September 2013 at 8:02 am
Don’t forget that Aggie’s sister was killed by a drone strike (they are on their way to her laying out), and that Aggie herself appears to be being targetted by the drones (Bill Peek’s presence may actually save her life). There is an awful lot more going on in the story than actually fits into the story. Which is why I am inclined to think that it actually is an extract from the novel.
2nd September 2013 at 1:34 pm
I agree with Paul – there’s a lot in there that suggests it has a connection to other events around it so it may be a novel extract.
I enjoyed the contrasts between Bill and Aggie’s perception of the world but, I have to admit, I was kept busy trying to decipher the world they were in, rather than focusing on the interaction between the characters. Smith works hard to convey the setting without really convey the setting and credit to her for that. However, at times the explanations seemed to get in the way.
I did think it gathered momentum and the last two paragraphs were engrossing.
6th September 2013 at 8:12 pm
My initial thought, when I first read the piece, was that, even if it is not actually a part of this novel, it is surely connected with it, if only because it is unlike anything else I’ve seen by Smith. But, as Paul notes, there is a lot more going on here than the story can hold. And if so, not quite the ‘romp’, thank god,that we were promised (I am hoping that someone in publicity got a little carried away there – I find it hard to imagine the phrase ‘sci-fi romp’ passing the lips of Zadie Smith). I’d now actually be quite keen to read the novel.
I like the way that Smith is fairly economical with the way she represents this world – I anticipate comparisons with Atwood and await with interest Smith’s explanations of what she is doing (I notice with the publication of Mad Addam that Atwood is doing a variation on ‘this isn’t sf’ theme again, and am very curious as to what path Smith will take). It does of course raise questions that sf readers like to ask – how far in the future, how has this come to pass, and I’ll be interested to see how she works her way through that. I don’t see her as a novelist focused on setting.
Bill’s Augmentor seems to me to be a fairly conventional sf artefact and I like the way she doesn’t bother trying to explain how it works but instead concentrates on the way that Bill moves between the real and the imagined worlds. It strikes me that while he has technological assistance in doing this, there is still a great deal childlike imagination at work here. And Bill is very much still a child, despite being older than Aggie, well-travelled, well-educated, presumably well-fed too. Again, it’s a conventional approach – the privileged dome kid, or some such, meeting the poor outsiders – but again it seems to me that Smith seems to imbue this with something more than the usual rhetoric about the imbalance of lives. I think it might arise from Bill’s extraordinary self-consciousness, literally so if, as the text implies, he is constantly being observed by his classmates and tutors (a kind of scholastic panopticon). If this is so, and is expanded in the novel, there seem to be fantastic potential for exploring layers of dissembling, even on top of that usual adolescent self-consciousness that has teenagers viewing themselves from afar, wondering what they look like at any given moment.
I am more curious about Melinda and Aggie, who seem to be akin to futuristic Pendle witches. I’m assuming that this is Smith’s intention so I wonder where that part of the story might go. Also, a very British setting, which is a rarity these days, but has me thinking of people like Richard Cowper and Keith Roberts.