Character sketches

<strong>The Book of Other People</strong>

Edited by Zadie Smith <em>Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, £16.9

This volume brings together stories by 23 writers from both sides of the Atlantic. Many "home" names will be familiar, not least because seven of them (A Kennedy, Hari Kunzru, Toby Litt, David Mitchell, Andrew O'Hagan, Zadie Smith and Adam Thirlwell) appeared on the 2003 Granta "Best of Young British Novelists" roster. The US-based writers include Dave Eggers, Jonathan Lethem and Jonathan Safran Foer, as well as names that will be less familiar to British readers, such as Edwidge Danticat, Miranda July and Heidi Julavits.

Like many collections, this one has a theme. Zadie Smith writes in the introduction, "The Book of Other People is about character. The instruction was simple: make somebody up. Each story was to be named after its character." That first instruction might seem unnecessary - what can one ever do in a short story but "make somebody up"? However, it is interesting, because it shows how character is no longer a given for literary writers.

Judging from the titles - "The Liar", "The Monster", "Puppy", "Magda Mandela" and "Jordan Wellington Lint" - the brief was interpreted broadly. They suggest either a denial, through impersonality, of the very nature of character, or an erosion of a character's authenticity through a deliberately artificial name. Perhaps recognising that, Smith writes, "Late in the making of this book, I tried to make a case for first and last names, for reasons of uniformity. The idea was not popular." This, then, is as much a book about writers' attitudes to character as it is about the creation of characters.

There are some good stories here. "Perkus Tooth" by Jonathan Lethem is a particular success. In it, a former child star befriends the eponymous character, an oddball film critic. The pair spend months seeing each other regularly, eating hamburgers and discussing films. Beneath the inconsequential plot, you can see an endearing purposelessness to the two characters as they sit around, smoking joints and discussing movie arcana, each with an unspoken void in his life.

Also good is "Rhoda" by Jonathan Safran Foer, which takes the form of a monologue by an engagingly batty old Jewish woman. The dialogue is good, and there is an enjoyable contrast between the strength of Rhoda's preoccupations and their triviality: "I beg you, no matter what happens, no matter where you go in life or how many millions you make, no matter anything, I beg you: never buy a German car."

Best of all is the opener, "Judith Castle" by David Mitchell, a story that is funny, deliberately silly and, in the end, oddly affecting. It has echoes of V S Pritchett in its portrayal of Little England and in the gap between the title character's perception of herself and other people's perception of her.

Unfortunately, however, most of the remaining stories are forgettable. That the authors donated their work without charge (the beneficiary being 826 New York, a literacy charity) is admirable, but the contributions are, on the whole, mediocre. Nick Hornby's approximately 400-word "J Johnson" is a humdrum skit showing an author's changing biographical notes through his career, while Aleksandar Hemon's "The Liar" and Andrew O'Hagan's "Gordon" are short, heavy-handed presentations of what seem, respectively, to be Jesus and the current PM.

In Zadie Smith's "Hanwell Snr", the writing is too reflexive for any characters to emerge. At one stage a son imagines a conversation with his father: "HANWELL SNR (laughing till he cries): Still telling that old chestnut? Dear, oh dear. Bit antique that story, isn't it? I'd rather call a spade a spade, let everything come up roses. Well, whatever floats your boat, Hanwell, I'm sure."

This is dialogue that allows no belief on the part of the reader, a set of music-hallisms whose (surely deliberate) badness points a knowing finger at the fictional nature of the enterprise. You might read it as an indication that the son stereotyped his father, never really understood him, but it's hard to sustain that reading across the story. Even before you get to the dialogue, of course, you have that excessive "laughing till he cries", which again reduces this to slapstick.

Other stories get some elements of character right but trip up on others. "Soleil" by Vendela Vida features a wayward, jealous woman visiting an old friend who now has a perfect family. Vida observes Soleil's oddness well, and picks up minor behavioural tics, but the plot hinges on a huge unlikelihood, namely that two doting parents would allow an irresponsible and unstable person they hardly know any more to take their 11-year-old daughter off for a weekend of revelry. This is a story that identifies the small aspects of human behaviour, but seems blind to a significant one.

Disappointingly, the book is also poorly copy-edited. Some American authors use a generalising "British" when English is evidently meant (as in the meaningless "British accent", to describe a sentence of bumbling, plummy Englishness), and it is surprising to see grammatical errors in a serious work of this sort. Overall, therefore, it is a book worth buying for charitable reasons but not, with few exceptions, for the quality of its stories.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic