The Lazy River: Zadie Smith on Tourists and Metaphors

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New Yorker: This week’s story, “The Lazy River,” is set at an all-inclusive hotel in Almería, in southern Spain, and takes its title from the hotel’s pool, where a steady current allows guests to float along, as if they’re in a river. The narrator says, “Sometimes we get out: for lunch, to read or to tan, never for very long. Then we all climb back into the metaphor.” When did you first start thinking about the story? How long did it take you to realize the lazy river’s metaphorical potential?

About five minutes after I got in a lazy river. As per the story, I was in one this summer with my family, and other families, and although only two of us were writers we all made the same joke: This is definitely a metaphor for something. The question became: For what? I thought of death immediately, but then I always think of death immediately.

I intended to write the story as soon as I got home, and had a naturalistic frame for it in my mind—a plot, characters, and so on—but when I got home I remembered that school was out and we still had no childcare, and by the time the kids went back to school I had a lot of other tasks in front of me, and the story fell by the wayside. I didn’t actually sit down to write it until almost four months later. By that time, whatever story I’d been thinking of was no more. But I think sometimes that kind of frustration is useful, in its own way. It’s clarifying. Not being able to write something for an extended period means that when you do get a chance there’s a certain intensity. And in the dead time I think you continue thinking about it, even if you don’t make a note or write a word of it: it’s developing like a piece of film. Anyway, when I picked it up again, it had become this strange sort of fable and I found I didn’t want the metaphor on the inside. I wanted it on the outside—explicit. That’s been my experience of lazy rivers: they’re none too subtle.

The narrator is British, as are all the other guests at the hotel, and they’re vacationing as negotiations over Brexit are taking place, in the wake of the country’s referendum on leaving the E.U. Did you know from the outset that you were going to write a story about Brexit?

I never thought of it as a story about Brexit. I thought of it as a story about despair: personal, political, historical, and cultural despair. But I can see how Brexit is filed into that category in my mind. The idea of a generation beneath you facing a narrower world than the one you knew yourself: that’s certainly one definition of despair.  Read more.  Read “The Lazy River.”

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(Image: The Lazy River, by Geoff McFetridge; Source: The New Yorker Magazine)

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