This is Zadie Smith’s first collection of short stories – after six novels and two collections of non-fiction – and I opened it with a strange mixture of trepidation and enthusiasm. I scanned down the list of titles and was vaguely ill at ease. The first thing I read by Zadie Smith was a short story, “Bangs” in McSweeney’s #6 and I was looking forward to reading it again. But “Bangs” there were none. I couldn’t quite understand why such a delightful piece had been omitted. But as I read on it struck me that there is a quality halfway between nostalgia and urgency that would have rendered the story almost obsolete. As it stands, Grand Union is a remarkable collection. It tests the limits of what the short story is, and what it can do.
This is not a unified collection, except that it finds its unity in diversity. One story – “Big Week”, about an ex-cop who has committed some hazy offence and whom we first find in a bar, might have had the title “Homage to Raymond Carver in E [flat] Minor”. There is a piece in the key of Kafka, “Two Men Arrive In A Village”, which is both sinister and gracious. It is a story that is quantum-fuzzy – it begins “Sometimes on horseback, sometimes by foot, in a car or astride motorbikes, occasionally in a tank – having strayed from the main phalanx – and every now and then from above, in helicopters”. There are George Saunders-style pure absurdist cadenzas, such as “Mood”, which switches seamlessly between internet conversations, dead parrots (surely a shout out?) and the medieval theory of humours. There is a Borgesian frolic about writing styles in “Parents’ Morning Epiphany”; a piece of what might sneakily be called autofiction, a wink to Karl Ove Knausgård, and a wonderful piece, “The Lazy River”, about tourists, swimming pools, apathy and Brexit, that could have been by John Cheever. Stylistic diversity is also a moral commitment to diversity, as in “Miss Adele Among The Corsets”, which is cleverly ambiguous. It makes the reader make a choice, and neither alternative is entirely comfortable. That is the kind of ethical impasse that the short story can do so well. The collection also features characters who are centre-stage in one piece and resurface in another story in a minor but significant way. 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. In “Blocked” she writes: “Contrary to reports, naming things was not and never will be my bag. I myself never put things in bags. I barely recognise the existence of ‘bags’, at least not as a collective noun.” The passage goes on to fret over the idea that one can “have” emotions as if they were a possession, and beforehand – critics beware – seethes about being “totally alienated by their interpretations”. I used to do a test with readers asking them when they realised the gender, race or age of a character. Grand Union is the textbook I did not have. Each time, the reader has to edge into the story, being cautious about presumptions.
What binds this book? One feature which seems to me rather conspicuous is the regret, the melancholy in many of the pieces. Even when she is in high comic form, there is an undertow of sadness. In “The Canker”, a piece that reads like a lost Calvino story, the narrator says “many years later, looking back on that tragic period” – a time of The Usurper, take your pick if you want it to be Assad, Trump, Erdogan, Urban or any other – “she reflected on the ways, small yet significant, in which she had contributed to the breaking of all the cycles she had ever known”. Yet the cycles are not broken, and the children sing “the ugliest songs” and fantasise apocalypse, since “the Usurper was one of whom you could say anything, think anything. He was a universal licence. Cycles became meaningless. Everybody circled only around him”.
The other noticeable thing is the number of religious references. One character is singing “Michael, row the boat ashore”; “the shame that came over Adam and Eve”. The anonymous dictator that floats across many of the stories is the Devil but also – in a typical pop-culture swerve that might appease the defamation lawyers “he-who-must-not-be-named”. Throughout the book, the religious references are set against a genuine anger at injustice, at political recklessness, at sheer rudeness. In “The Lazy River”, the narrator poses a pertinent question: “What is the solution to life? How can it be lived ‘well’?” This book doesn’t answer the question but nudges us towards a bettering. It has, also, a comic caper where Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando escape from a terrorised New York. Why so serious, as the Joker would say. Because it’s serious. Stuart Kelly
Grand Union: Stories, by Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, £20