By Zadie Smith
By Rebecca Makkai
To consider yourself well versed in contemporary literature without reading short stories is to visit the Eiffel Tower and say you’ve seen Europe. Not only would monumental writers be missing from your literary tour, but entire angles and moves and structures of which the novel, in its bulk, is incapable. The quirky neighborhood, the narrow cobblestone alley, the stray cats and small museums and the store that sells only butter.
Since the publication of “White Teeth” in 2000, readers have known Zadie Smith as a novelist of tremendous scope, a maximalist with a global eye and mind. Those who’ve been paying attention have also caught her stories along the way in our better magazines and journals — stories that until recently have, for the most part, followed a linear narrative, taking advantage of the shorter form but not its more eccentric powers.
Some of these more traditional stories have landed in Smith’s first collection, “Grand Union,” and while still brilliant on the level of the sentence, the paragraph, the often hilarious skewering of humanity, they’re the least successful ones here, sour notes in a collection in which the best pieces achieve something less narrative and closer to brilliance.
The more traditional stories become most interesting as examples of a mode from which Smith seems to be evolving away. In “Escape From New York,” Michael Jackson and his friends leave Manhattan on the morning of 9/11 in a rented Toyota Camry, traveling among normal folk and realizing that whatever’s going on, they’re “stuck in it, just like everybody.” In “Big Week” (the best of these), a disgraced former cop named Mike attempts to redeem himself, but he and his efforts are shot down; no one needs him, and the story finishes with his soon-to-be-ex-wife grateful for the freedom she feels, “distinct at last from every other body in the world,” especially Mike’s. In “Meet the President!” an arrogant boy who simultaneously plays a virtual reality game and escorts an orphan girl to a funeral realizes that death is “coming for him as much as for anybody.”
In other stories, a drag queen and an awkward schoolboy are similarly brought up short, and fundamentally isolated, by the limitations of their own vision. While the stories vary in their details, the thrust is always the same: A character feels himself the singular victim of circumstance but winds up realizing how tangential he is to the lives of others — or at least the reader does. All are compelling until the very end, when they land with a thud on their own most logical conclusions. These are single-use machines that serve to demonstrate how the body — the “anybody,” the “everybody,” the “every other body in the world” — is both indistinct from the masses and forever alone. These are stories about disillusionment.
Smith has always been merciless in splaying her characters open and allowing their flaws — their weakness, blindness, narcissism, vanity — to spur the narrative. In her novels, she has increasingly managed to do this without holding them at arm’s length. Her evolution on this point has been dramatic. Her earliest work often felt unkind to her characters, not because of what happened to them but because the world that tripped them up seemed so clearly the invention of a puppeteer-author, one who rigged elaborate Rube Goldberg devices for their demise. The climactic scene in “White Teeth” notably features a showdown between militant Islamists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, scientists, animal rights activists, a Nazi and a mouse — part of a narrative ebullience the critic James Wood, reviewing the novel in The New Republic, problematically termed “hysterical realism.” (Some words can never divorce their etymologies.)
But witness Smith’s most recent novel, “Swing Time,” in which her more exuberant impulses vent themselves in the messiness of one real life, in tangential thought, in the passage of time. At last, the breadth of the novelistic world allows enough space for her characters to contain multitudes, for their interactions and the randomness of the world to complicate any moral judgments. It’s perhaps the lack of such space that has stymied Smith’s more traditional efforts in the short form. Minus the texture of a fleshed-out world, her go-to moves feel repetitive, once again preordained and cruel.
Fortunately, short stories allow for more modes than straightforward realism, and Smith has, of late, taken advantage of these options. Thrillingly, the best work in “Grand Union” is some of the newest. Among its previously unpublished stories and the two most recently published ones, we find the surreal, the nonlinear, the essayistic, the pointillist.
Take “The Lazy River,” in which a first-person narrator considers the pool attraction at a resort in southern Spain as a metaphor for modern inertia. (“Sometimes we get out: for lunch, to read or to tan, never for very long. Then we climb back into the metaphor.”) Nothing happens in the story and yet every line dazzles, and it lands on a note of eerie clarity.
Several stories take a mosaic approach, juxtaposing disparate scenes — in one case, venues around New York City involving music — into a brilliant whole. The effect, appropriately, is rather like jazz.
The showstopping “Sentimental Education” digs, retrospectively, into one woman’s early sexual history without any real narrative exigency, but the leisurely pace of her memories allows for reflection and epiphany rather than plot.
Other stories veer into the surreal. In the title story, the speaker meets her dead mother (“for convenience’s sake”) outside a Chinese restaurant to discuss motherhood and heritage and Billie Holiday. “Parents’ Morning Epiphany” is structured as a take-home work sheet on narrative techniques. “Blocked” is told from the point of view of God.
Lurking in quite a few of these stories is a first-person narrator, either centered in the telling or peeking in from the periphery, not even a character. This “I” (except when it’s God) is consistent in tone, a bemused philosopher, and feels quite close to Smith herself. (The narrator of “Mood” has “the most common surname in England.”) This hint of a repeating narrator is one of a few threads that emerge and submerge unevenly throughout the collection — never exactly tying things together, but at least providing a few nice sticky knots along the way.
There are story collections that cohere, that rise and fall the way a great album does, and then there are collections (best presented in late career as “Collected Stories”) that show the evolution of the writer over time, more catalog than album. “Grand Union” gestures toward the former, but ultimately winds up as the latter. For a lesser writer, we might wish more avidly for an editor to have stepped in to carve the book into something more specific, more pointed. But Smith’s stature will have made many of her readers completists and her artistic development a matter of interest.
While the collection might not coalesce as a unit, it contains some of Smith’s most vibrant, original fiction, the kind of writing she’ll surely be known for. Some of these stories provide hints that everything we’ve seen from her so far will one day be considered her “early work,” that what lies ahead is less charted territory, wilder and less predictable and perhaps less palatable to the casual reader but exactly what she needs to be writing.
Rebecca Makkai’s most recent novel, “The Great Believers,” was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.
By Zadie Smith
245 pp. Penguin Press. $27.
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