Essays: Zadie Smith reviews ‘The Social Network’ |
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Zadie Smith reviews ‘The Social Network’

Celebrated as a novelist, Zadie Smith is less well known as a literary journalist and cultural analyst, but really, in those subsidiary fields, she deserves to be more well known than almost anybody. Written for the New York Review of Books, her long review of the movie The Social Network is a case in point. Zadie Smith was a Harvard student at the same time as the movie’s nominal subject, Mark Zuckerberg, but she starts off the piece by disclaiming any special qualifications or knowledge. You would think she knew nothing at all about Facebook or the electronic world in general. Actually she is pulling a hustle. The hustler’s standard technique is to get the expectations down as low as possible before unleashing his prowess. Having suitably prepared the unsuspecting reader, Zadie Smith begins gradually but inexorably to prove that she has all the qualifications that could be wished. Her first weapon is a driving prose rhythm, always close to the conversational but never prone to the redundancies of speech. “If it’s a three-act movie, it’s because Zuckerberg screws over more people than a two-act movie can comfortably hold.” Such things are often thought of, but seldom written so neatly, and almost never written as if they had been spoken.

But her second weapon impresses me even more. She has a wonderfully rich and useful range of cultural reference. Welcoming The Social Network as a movie full of words, she brings in His Girl Friday: exactly the right comparison. In praise of the film’s writer, Aaron Sorkin, she has all his titles at her beck and call: The West Wing of course, but also the movie A Few Good Men. Finally, however, she doesn’t try to solve a cultural problem with purely cultural knowledge. She can bring in her knowledge of life. Thus equipped, she can see that Sorkin’s characterisation of Zuckerberg is not as complex as the real-life figure; it is simply more filmic. On screen, Zuckerberg goes for the money and uses the money to get girls. In real life, Zuckerberg contents himself with exactly one long-term girl friend and doesn’t seem very much interested in money. By pointing out that the facts would have been hard to film, Zadie Smith makes an important criticism of the movies in general. Much as we love them, they are instruments of falsification. She is thus able to imply, without having to state it outright, that her own art form, the novel, might be the one with better access to the truth. Read ‘Generation Why?’ , Zadie Smith’s article about The Social Network.