What’s more impressive in a collection of short stories: thematic cohesion or variation and range? In Grand Union, Zadie Smith demonstrates the thrill of the latter, offering up nineteen stories spanning bleak, speculative futures, tongue-in-cheek craft experiments, traditional narratives, and brief character sketches that are balanced by a handful of lauded classics published in the New Yorker, Paris Review, and Granta.
Indeed, it’s hard to deny a story such as “Two Men Arrive in a Village” is a masterpiece. There are selections in Grand Union beyond reproach. However, particularly in the collection’s eleven previously unpublished pieces, it’s difficult to parse how much Zadie Smith gets away with simply by being Zadie Smith.
There’s no right way to write short fiction, but Smith does take a few superfluous risks — hefty exposition dumps, unusually brief point of view shifts, overbearingly colloquial dialogue, and meta-commentary on the craft of fiction writing — that are either the calculated moves of an iconoclast or the unchecked flourishes of a literary celebrity. The trickiest part for the reader is deciding whether such instances are tedious or lovely. Standardization, after all, can diminish creativity and experimentation, but a proclivity for breaking the rules without reason can be just as wearisome.
Take “Parents’ Morning Epiphany,” a story structured as brief parental responses to elements of craft as visually represented on a child’s Narrative Techniques Worksheet. It’s a humorous set-up, one that would seem right at home on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, but the highbrow, intellectual concepts by which it is followed through are perhaps more appropriate for an impenetrable New Yorker cartoon. For example, under the section Clarity of Ideas, the narrator writes, “A magnifying glass. Just that. No one’s holding it and nothing’s being magnified. It’s like some kind of Zen kōan. It may have gone over my head.”
Nearing twenty of these little quips, the story both shirks tradition and provides a mini-lesson for writers. Yet, such an inside-baseball approach appeals to a limited audience. Like the parents toiling over their kid’s homework, some of these stories may have also gone over my head.
The range of Smith’s stories cover numerous cities and countries, characters of diverse jobs and classes, and social and political issues galore, but artists and intellectuals, those who can make a passing reference to Sartre or a universal metaphor of their all-inclusive hotel, pervade.
In “For The King,” an unnamed narrator enjoys a rambling evening around Paris with a visiting friend, V, who is an artist-in-residence at a university. Approaching forty, they fret together over entering middle age. Of V’s situation, being freshly surrounded by academics, the narrator explains, “He found them curious people: never able to say a word without qualifying it from fifteen different angles. To listen to them, he said, is to be confronted with a mass of verbal footnotes.”
The old friends discuss time, artists, and orgies, as they get increasingly drunk. It’s a cerebral story that seamlessly fades to a pleasant philosophical close. Still, it’s easier to follow than the collection’s more experimental work, no matter the epiphanic punch in the last few lines. Smith has a knack for ending stories on unexpected, pleasing notes, even if things occasionally get muddled en route. Smith’s short fiction aims at everyone, but its undercurrents often require the fleeting type of literary elitism that makes one wonder is this confusing or am I reading it wrong?
Again, all this might only be to say some of these stories are intellectually above my pay grade. During their Parisian romp, V tells the narrator, “I Was wrong at twenty…and I’m still wrong now. Being wrong is a lifelong occupation.”
By Zadie Smith
Penguin Random House
October 8, 2019
Zadie Smith is the author of many essays, short stories, and novels. Her first novel, White Teeth, won numerous awards, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Betty Trask Award. Smith continues to write and edit; she currently resides in London.
Aram Mrjoian is a visiting assistant professor in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University, an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, an associate fiction editor at Guernica, and a 2022 Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellow. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Electric Literature, West Branch, Boulevard, Gulf Coast online, The Rumpus, The Millions, Longreads, and many other publications. Find his work at arammrjoian.com