Grand Unionencompasses satire, social commentary, postmodernism, futurology, a feminist reading of sex, the black “experience”, philosophical discourse, New York, London, a Spanish seaside resort. Smith’s readers should get some credit too, however, for their fortitude. These are not pages to relax into; personally, I felt as if I was on a gruelling psychological training course in which I was constantly under assault from different aspects of Smith’s talent. For all their brilliance, only the author, surely, could engage with each of the 19 stories equally.
Attention is paid, respectfully, to outcasts: the man in Washington Square Park who believes he’s Abraham Lincoln and the “seers and witches and holy fools”. Indeed, Smith pays so much attention that, if anything, the collection is too generous. Nineteen stories is probably too many; two or three could have been cut. But this is a minor quibble. For all Smith’s acknowledged mastery of the novel and the essay, she has produced, with these stories, her most formally and intellectually daring work to date.
As it stands, Grand Union is a remarkable collection. It tests the limits of what the short story is, and what it can do... is is not a unified collection, except that it finds its unity in diversity... It is, to extend a musical metaphor, almost orchestral: each instrument shines but the whole has to be intact... Smith has always been a writer interested in others and otherings, and that is both an act of empathy and a terrible challenge.
Some of these stories, too, have the flavour of essay or memoir. Smith writes ambivalently about America. ‘Downtown’ lovingly evokes the city’s creative buzz. Yet elsewhere: ‘America is the kind of bitch who turns anyone who truly cares about Her into a crazy person.’ It is to Britain that she returns in the final story, ‘Grand Union’, where a narrator with many apparent similarities to Smith finds the ghost of her mother, with whom she squats in Ladbroke Grove eating chicken.
This bold and tender book leaves us with the feeling that Smith, like her characters, is still searching for her own identity.
The collection is patchy; some of the stories are blandly middlebrow and the prose is stylistically clunky at times. Blocked, about a depressed person who gains a new lease of life after acquiring a pet dog (“each day I have a purpose, a direction”), is instantly forgettable. The protagonist of Kelso Deconstructed is “caught in the slipstream of life”, a drearily commonplace phrase if ever there was one. Such infelicities can go relatively unnoticed in a 400-page saga, but they are much more conspicuous in short-form fiction.
So these are stories, rather than memoir fragments, even if the odd one teases in that direction. And true to Smith’s conscientiousness, there isn’t a single one that doesn’t know just what it’s doing. She’s got the moves. And she’s clever and learned in a hip way. You’re invited to spot in-jokes about the philosopher Thomas Nagel or Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich... So even when she’s being self-referential, Smith is often very funny. She’s funny when she’s not being self-referential, too. One story – which appears to be about Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando and Liz Taylor fleeing New York on 9/11 in a hire car – is very funny indeed; and poignant, with it.
The best stories here are those that act as commentary on her fluctuations and doubts, that blend her criticism with the energy and verve of her fiction. Smith has always been a bit of a smartarse and when she owns that smart-arsery, she’s not only incredibly funny but full of heart, wisdom and truth. At the end of Downtown, as the narrator gets ready for a night out in New York, she says: “I tried on four different outfits and then just went ahead and wore them all.”
Across the 19 stories that make up Smith’s first collection, Grand Union, her mind certainly wanders. It is strikingly varied, with abrupt shifts in tone, voice and genre. Dystopian near-futures jostle with coolly ironic meta-fictions; playful extended metaphors sit alongside novelistic slices of vivid interior life. Attempting to extract a coherent, consistent theme from the stories (eight previously published, 11 new) is a fool’s errand – though the publisher describes the book’s subject as “the fraught and complex experience of life in the modern world”, a mission statement that feels both too broad (all of modern life!) and too limiting (why must it speak to now?)... Not all Smith’s attempts to capture the present moment are successful... This depiction of so-called cancel culture and the #MeToo movement feels blunt – even when glimpsed by this potentially unreliable narrator – and lacks the tension and nuance that so often elevates Smith’s work.
Nothing so obvious as a single subject or theme links the 19 stories in Smith’s first collection of short fiction, Grand Union. Nothing beyond a virtuosity for the form, a powerful imagination, and, as in her five novels and two essay collections, a striking empathy for her characters. But the best stories contained here, the stories that will whiplash readers into cycles of heartbreak, hope, and more heartbreak are those, like “Two Men,” that illustrate the intrusions, whether grand or diminutive, that disrupt the days, the family circles, the very unions we all hold dear.
Smith’s dialogue crackles with mordant wit – “you turn everything into a funeral” an adolescent girl says to her mother in the opening story “The Dialectic” – and even minor characters are dissected with great skill... Even when the subject matter is bleak, Smith is fun to read... Smith casts a humorous and unsentimental eye on characters throughout Grand Union. Middle-aged dread seeps into “Sentimental Education”. “Next stop Canonbury. Next stop menopause and no more denim,” Monica thinks to herself while on a train journey. The special wit in Smith’s writing is that she makes the end of denim the point of no return. She is an author who is in tune with the melancholy of modern life, whether that is through young adults owing vast sums in student loans, or the “general malaise” of people addicted to “exhausting” social media.
There is no moment in Grand Union when we are not entertained, or doubt that we are in the company of one of our best contemporary writers. The only real regrets come when Smith herself seems to doubt – or perhaps is overwhelmed by the many claims made on her identity. We would have followed the vivid children of “Just Right” into a novel: the story feels abandoned rather than sculpted. The acute critique of the anxiety in our universities around free speech and social media shaming in the story “Now More Than Ever” does not need its elaborate speculative fictional frame in which professors point enormous arrows at each other. The ambiguous, semi-fictional stance of the shadowy narrator in the autofictions “Lazy River” and “Downtown”, who seems to be everything that Smith is except a writer, diminishes their penetrating, witty, desolating observations, because it deprives them, quite literally, of authority.
So if you’ve read any of Smith’s longer fiction, or any of her writing really, you’ll be hard put to see the present anthology as any sort of interlude or episode within the larger corpus; rather, it serves as a figure for the whole. It may help that Smith’s work is characterised by what can seem like a slightly crazed appetite for variety. Be that as it may, if you snap the lock on Grand Union you’ll find some tremendous comic writing and snappy dialogue, and a range of themes and devices with which you may already be familiar: clever black kids feeling dislocated at university; chess; the reckoning with violence that lies in wait for so many young men; a few determinedly artless forays into genre (I correctly predicted, around page 150, that the next tale would be a faintly Riddley Walker-inflected tale about a future dystopia) and autofictioneering accidie; sharp pen portraits of Manhattanite cultural elites in the throes of ethical contortions. Even if the stories all read like short stories in one sense or another (the last, longest New Yorker short story reads very much like a New Yorker short story), there’s at times a slight sense of distorted perspectives, of over-concentration, as if Smith had passed her material through the alembic once too often in an effort to fit it into the bottle.
Not a novel, but the debut collection of short stories from Smith — some previously published, many appearing in print for the first time, and all evidence of the now largely New York-based author’s formidable talent and range... For all Smith’s fluency and ease, you wouldn’t want to read more than one of these stories at a sitting — there’s a lot that asks to be unpacked in all but the slightest of the 19 here. And some are, undoubtedly, slight. But the most successful (which also tend to be the most straightforwardly realist) are in a class of their own
Race, sex, environmental and political meltdown, addiction, identity, Brett Kavanaugh : this is a book of and for the times, sobering in its clarity but bracingly witty and clever... Street life, patois, music, food, clothes, hair: Smith has her finger on the pulse of life and the utter weirdness of whatever has just become normal... Why has she waited all this time to write short? It’s the perfect form for someone with so many ideas and a playful streak: even at her most meta-fictional — as in “Parents’ Evening Epiphany” (which reads like a form of found object) and “Kelso Deconstructed” (a reimagining of the last day of a 1959 race murder victim, but featuring Tube stops with writers’ names and a cameo part for Sally Rooney) — she can keep a light hand.
There’s nothing here that’s not at least goodish. Smith’s baseline is significantly higher than average. But we need better than goodish from our best writers. Too many of these stories feel like half-baked parallel projects. Most writers can’t afford to experiment so frankly in public; they’re under more pressure to polish their raw material properly. And perhaps that pressure is a good thing. Such is Smith’s stature that she can noodle away, like the over-beloved boyfriend who fancies himself a guitarist. We’ll listen and buy the next book anyway.
The first ever collection of short stories from the wonderful Zadie Smith is surely a must-read for her many fans. Ten stories are entirely new and published here for the first time, and the other seven have been selected from her contributions to the New Yorker. Settings range from New York to a dystopian Felixstowe. Includes my favourite, "Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets", shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award and "Kelso, Deconstructed" which explores the last day of an Antiguan immigrant who was murdered in north-west London in 1959.