Point of View Amplifies Theme in Zadie Smith’s “Crazy They Call Me”
By Candace Walsh •
In Zadie Smith’s short story “Crazy They Call Me,” the author makes the unconventional choice to present Billie Holiday as a second-person-singular narrator. This strikes me as a literary high-wire act, plausibly the result of a dare: pluck a name from a historical-figure hat, then pluck a point of view from another hat, and a storytelling style from another hat…and go!
This story presents an excellent way to study the outer reaches of the possibilities of point of view. How does this choice, although limiting in some ways, reward in other ways that a more conventional POV would not? The central payoff I’ve noticed in this story is the way POV amplifies the main theme of the story: that the engine of Holiday’s often self-destructive behavior is her need to prove that she has transcended her unfortunate childhood.
One of the challenges of this POV is orienting readers that they are present to Holiday’s own voice presented in second person. The first sentence could be one person talking to another person, stating a bit of conventional wisdom: “Well, you certainly don’t go out anyplace less than dressed, not these days.” But the second sentence’s intimacy swiftly narrows the potential pool of people who would know the subject well enough and feel comfortable enough to utter it: “Can’t let anyone mistake you for that broken, misused little girl: Eleanora Fagan. No.”
This is where I knew the narrator is talking to herself, especially given the conclusive “No.” That percussive reassurance is reminiscent of the way people give themselves pep talks. And a reader familiar enough with Billie Holiday, or keen for a quick Googling, would know that she was born Eleanora Fagan, and suddenly understand that this story is about the late singer.
Another challenge of this choice is encouraging the reader to accept the device and melt into the experience of reading the story, instead of seeing it as a distracting gimmick. The idea of the story being a pep talk, or less specifically, a way for Holiday to keep herself company by directing an ongoing line of brusque affirmation and encouragement to herself, allowed me to accept it and get lost in the story.
“You always have your fur, present and correct, hanging off your shoulders just so.” This fur separates Holiday from identifying with or being identified as “that broken, misused little girl.” In the first paragraph, Smith makes the narrator’s identity explicit while also revealing the evolution of her persona: “not only is there no more Eleanora, there isn’t any Billie, either. There is only Lady Day.” She’s at the stage in her life when her voice is not what it used to be, and her health is failing, but she still has a mink and her diamonds.
Holiday reveals that she’s playing a gig in Newark, evidence of her slide from the top (Carnegie Hall gigs in New York City), and she recalls a first person, italicized quote from her Newark landlady: “So you can’t play New York no more, huh? Who cares? To me, you always look like lady.” Thus, Smith interrupts the second-person POV with another person’s voice. This quote supports the theme that looking like a lady—not like pitiable Eleanora—is more important to Holiday than her rank as a performer.
More characters surface in this second-person monologue: “sweet, clueless bobby soxers” who approach her as fans; other women, who are wary of Holiday, because they find her autonomy threatening; men who are drawn to her; and a group of friends obliquely identified as gay men: “even your best girlfriends are men.” When she is upset about a male lover, these other men come over “with cigarettes and alcohol, and quote Miss Crawford, and quote Miss Stanwyck, and make highballs, and tell you that you really ought to get a dog. Honey, you should get a dog.” This passage deftly evokes the trope of supportive male gay friends, and it also debunks another theory I’d had that this narrator is not Holiday talking to herself, but a woman being “read,” aka very frankly observed and counseled, by a gay man who is her close friend, as it’s not plausible that friend would describe this group of supportive friends without identifying himself as a part of the group.
Next, the narrator alludes to her own sexual experiences with women: “Once upon a time there was that wild girl Tallulah, plus a few other ladies, back in the day, but there was no way to be in the world like that, not back then.” And as Smith has established, it’s the priority for Holiday to be in the world, in her mink and her diamonds, representing a grandeur that banishes little Eleanora Fagan.
Then Holiday compares herself to a dog: “Dogs remind you of you: they give everything they’ve got, they’re wide open to the world.” This second-person POV is just as unguarded as the dogs she describes. Why? Because telling the story in the first person presupposes an audience of others who naturally need to be impressed or charmed or cajoled into accepting and sympathizing with what the character shares. Even close third, which presents a closed tableau, presupposes an audience. Holiday is talking to herself, the mode of communication that holds the least potential for artifice in the form of posturing. Lack of honesty, when it does show up in this context, stems from being in denial, or justifying a lack of integrity to oneself, as demonstrated in the following passage:
But with or without your chaperons you’ll get there, you always get there, and you’re always on time, except during those exceptions when exceptional things seem to happen which simply can’t be helped. Anyway, once you open your mouth all is forgiven. You even forgive yourself. Because you are exceptional, and so exceptions must be made.
Here, Holiday justifies her unprofessional behavior to herself. We see how she lets herself off the hook for not showing up to some of her performances. It’s still part of a performance, although not the one she earns a living for. It’s part of her argument and performance of being exceptional, and not being “that broken, misused little girl: Eleanora Fagan.”
She needs chaperons to make sure she gets to her performances, so that the theaters, and the booking agents, and the ticket buyers, and other people who have invested in her aren’t going to lose money. Because she sees herself as exceptional (driven by her need to be more than Eleanora), she demonstrates a maddening level of nonchalance about welching on these major commitments upon which so much rides. In this passage, when Holiday moves from second-person singular to passive voice—“except during those exceptions when exceptional things seem to happen, which simply can’t be helped”—she removes herself as an active speaker, and with that, someone to whom accountability can be attached. You can’t blame someone who is not there.
The story’s last sentence serves as a key to revealing the rationale of using second-person singular. It both ties back to the theme and shows how the very form of the story embodies it. “Once, you almost said—to a sneaky fellow from the Daily News, who was inquiring—you almost turned to him and said Motherfucker I AM music. But a lady does not speak like that, however, and so you did not.” Using “I” to speak the frankly expressed truths throughout this story is not something she can do and also remain the lady she so dearly needs to be in order to transcend her beginnings as Eleanora. And so Holiday uses “you.”
CANDACE WALSH is a first-year PhD creative writing (fiction) student at Ohio University. She wrote Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity (Seal Press), a New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards winner. She most recently co-edited Greetings from Janeland (Cleis Press, 2017) and Dear John, I Love Jane (Seal Press, 2010), both Lambda Literary Finalists. Her short story “The Sandbox Story” is forthcoming in March, 2020 in the fiction anthology Santa Fe Noir (Akashic Books). Her novel in progress, Cleave, was longlisted in the 2018 Stockholm Writers Festival’s First Pages Contest. Recent creative nonfiction essays have been published by the Pigeon Pages, Doubleback Review, the New Limestone Review, K’in Literary Journal, and Into. She’s published craft essays in CRAFT and the Fiction Writers Review. She teaches at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and proposed and moderated a 2019 AWP panel on shame and intersectionally marginalized female narrative unreliability. She is a fiction reader for the New Ohio Review.