“There aren’t many who do what I do but whenever I happen to come across a significant colleague – not any of the hacks but one of the few I admire and more importantly who I like – whenever I happen to run into one of these esteemed colleagues… I know very well what they’re thinking.”
Here we are, then, a short story collection from a writer who once said she didn’t do short stories. Grand Union. 19 short stories, a good few of which have been published before (in The New Yorker), some of which are good, some of which are alright and some of which are (fingers on nose) a bit stinky.
Let’s dispense with the stinky first. ‘Escape from New York’ is Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and Michael Jackson fleeing disaster. Even without factoring in Leaving Neverland, it’s a silly cartoon that should never have made it by any reasonable editor. ‘Meet the President!’ is a sort of sub par Black Mirror episode about a headset that amplifies the virtual world. It’s a proper dead piano key. Zadie Smith can’t do sci-fi exhibit A. ‘The Canker’ is a sort of Games of Throne-y call for a matriarchal storytelling world. Margaret Atwood might have been able to pull it off. Zadie Smith can’t. Doesn’t. These three stories are terrible, shouldn’t have been in the book, loom large when you think about your overall experience.
Let’s flip to the good. Starting at the end, there is a really modern story – defiantly engaging with the now! – here called ‘Now More Than Ever’, which is set in the academic New York world Smith is a big part of, and the culture of cancellation we trepidatiously move through. We first read the story when it appeared in the New Yorker and it was good then. It raises a point in our minds that Smith is at her best when she is writing about what she knows. See also ‘For the King’, which is largely about a pair of friends playing catch-up. Similarly, ‘Downtown’, in which a writer is visited by a great Austrian painter who can’t understand how she deals with all of the noise in the community she resides within. ‘Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets’, which concerns a sort of identity face-off in a corset shop, also worked for us (although some reviewers have dismissed it as one of the lesser stories).
‘Kelso Deconstructed’ hovers on the fringe between good and alright. It’s a good story make no mistake. The last few hours of a man’s life. Big dramatic subject. But Smith is a tinkerer. An experimenter. A restless presence. And so we get Kelso “caught in the slipstream of life, without the hindsight of either reader or author”. Later, on a walk back to a train station:
“a newspaper boy was changing the hoarding poster from today’s headline: ‘SIGNS AND SYMBOLS!’ to tomorrow’s ‘FORESHADOWING!’”
It may just be me but when I read it: CLUNK. And it twists and it twists to a point that is somewhat alienating, a good story gradually edged out by a restless ‘will this do? How about if I stand on one foot? How about if I juggle? How about if I tell jokes?’ attitude that is a little wearing. This fuzzy tinkering is also apparent in a handful of other stories that wobble between good and merely alright – ‘The Lazy River’, for instance, which feels like it needs a good editorial prune and is one draft shy of a story, concerns a family on holiday and ‘Sentimental Education’ (which conversely many revises have claimed is the best story in the book but which felt muddled to us).
As you’d expect from a writer living in New York and friendly with the McSweeneys crew, there are stories here that feel like exercises in form (‘Parents’ Morning Epiphany’) and stories that feel like Smith trying on hats (‘Big Week’ is Smith not altogether successfully doing Ray Carver, for instance). But what you do get from Grand Union is a real sense of Smith herself, as a writer, as an experimenter, as a person who likes to try on hats. That quote we kicked off the review with rankled as we read (because we have a sense of Smith as a rather superior observer, she’s not one of the hacks) but you also get the sense of her struggling (‘Blocked’) with who she is, what she’s done, what she’s yet to do.
Any Cop?: Uneven is a word that has been used elsewhere in relation to this collection and it’s a word that sums up the experience of the book. If nothing else, Grand Union demonstrates that Smith needs a tougher editor.