Her New Collection, Grand Union, Shows off Her Range
Sometimes novelists, masters of long fiction, have trouble when it comes to writing shorter stuff. I call it “the Michael Chabon Paradox,” after the author whose longer works like The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and Moonglow tend to be more satisfying for me as a reader than some of his shorter fiction (The Final Solution, Gentlemen of the Road, etc.). Some authors need the extra space that 300- to 500-page novels afford them to spin a compelling narrative.
Jonathan Lethem springs to mind as one of the best “novelists as short-story writer”; his collection Men and Cartoons is worth seeking out if you already love The Fortress of Solitude. Conversely, some short-story writers might falter when they attempt something more ambitious; I’ve read Donald Barthelme’s novel Snow White, I just can’t tell you if it was worth it or not.
So when I learned that Zadie Smith, the British novelist, was publishing her first collection of short stories, I proceeded with caution. I need not have worried: Grand Union is in essence a distillation of her longer works, in bite-sized forms that are nonetheless as compelling in their brevity as novels like NW, White Teeth, or Swing Time.
Smith’s stories, some culled from her writings at The New Yorker, are never dull, though some work better than others. Any reader of her novels knows by they can’t easily peg her. Grand Union most resembles NW, perhaps her most experimental and challenging (and it also happens to be my favorite). Characters inhabit worlds both familiar and bizarre, in situations that recall both domestic drama and science-fiction fantasy. An unnamed village is at the mercy of two men, until the women of the town exact revenge. The story of a young black man beaten to death by racists gets a post-modern twist by the “deconstruction” of the very tale itself by the narrator: “But Kelso, caught in the slipstream of life, without the hindsight of either reader or author, could think only of his own pain…”
In other stories, a futuristic tale of a boy using augmented reality to escape the dullness of his ordinary existence intersects with a funeral for a young girl and the reminder that death comes for us all. Two old friends reconnect over a fancy dinner and try to make sense of their lives, coming up just short. A transgender woman in need of a corset wonders if the people running the shop are talking shit about her. A survey for prospective parents looking to enroll their kids in a private school takes a turn for the absurd. This story, “Parents’ Morning Epiphany,” is a masterclass in satire: “A girl looks through the magnifying glass. Next to her, a boy looks through a magnifying glass. Next to him, a cat looks through a magnifying glass. This apparently exhausts the question of perspective.”
If you’ve read any of her novels, you already know that Zadie Smith is one of the best writers currently working. But her short stories capture in miniature the scope of her imagination and creativity, which is not always the case with novelists whose longer works embrace a fantastical element to their work. Some of the stories are clearly “New Yorker stories,” constructed to meet the style and taste of that magazine’s intended audience. But that’s not a bad thing, and Smith isn’t afraid to be silly and humorous, either. This collection of Zadie Smith stories will introduce her to an even broader audience, while those who are already fans will not be disappointed.
(Penguin Random House, October 8, 2019)