In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books (NYRB), Zadie Smith describes herself as “having a lot of contradictory voices knocking around my head… My strongest feelings and convictions might easily be otherwise, had I been the child of the next family down the hall, or the child of another century, another country, another God,” she writes. “My mind wandered.”
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?).
Still, much of modern life is here. Smith has been outspoken about her rejection of the internet – proudly showing her outdated flip-phone to interviewers; thanking the website blockers Freedom and Self Control in the acknowledgements of her fourth novel NW. But – inevitably, necessarily – the internet’s influence on our language, on our psyches, on our culture makes its way into most stories.
“Mood” – a series of fragments and shifting perspectives – is funny, sharp and formally apt. A section called “Moods on Tumblr” imitates online vernacular with piercing accuracy: “Tall bottoms are the most oppressed members of the gay community”; “OK so… here’s the part where I explain to people who don’t understand how WORDS work”.
Not all Smith’s attempts to capture the present moment are successful. “In the current climate, a high school student wrote to me,” the academic narrator of the penultimate story, “Now More Than Ever”, tells us. Every night, “the Professor” must engage in a McCarthyite practice of dobbing in her fellow teachers for moral infractions by pointing big black arrows at them. When a poet friend is condemned, the Professor steps in to defend him: the story ends with the line: “Soon after that the poet got cancelled and, soon after that, me too.” 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.
The dystopian story “Meet The President!”, which imagines a surveillance state executing its “immoral” citizens, feels similarly unsubtle. “The Lazy River” conceives post-Brexit society as a pool with an artificial current in which “most of us float”, unthinkingly, buying flotation devices that make this “effortless” state of suspension “easier still”. “The Lazy River is a metaphor,” the text tells us, winking, but despite these self-reflexive flourishes, the story remains both thin and heavy-handed. Of course, elsewhere Smith anticipates such criticisms: “Why did you choose to make the metaphor so obvious?” a student asks the Professor in “Now More Than Ever”.
Meta-fictional asides abound. “Parents’ Morning Epiphany” analyses a child’s homework that explains the basics of narrative technique. “To stir empathy is the aim and purpose of all stories, everywhere, always,” the narrator tells us. “How can you doubt it? It’s written right there in black and white on the worksheet!”
Smith is at her best in a number of evocative, propulsive stories that spend time with compellingly flawed characters. In “Sentimental Education” a middle-aged mother named Monica reflects on her days “collecting sexual and psychological experiences” at an Oxbridge college. Flitting between memories, Monica finds herself touching – if not dwelling – on the racial, sexual and class dynamics that have informed her life. “Big Week” explores the brittle surface optimism of sentimental recovering drug addict Mike McRae, in what is “kind of a big week” for him – a final, unexpected turn into the perspective of Mike’s ex-wife is both expansive and satisfying.
“For the King” follows a character (who, in “a crisp denim jacket, big white trainers and some very red lipstick”, seems to resemble Smith) out for an evening of fluid, funny, conversation in Paris with a friend. “On the walk back to my hotel, I wanted to tell one more story,” she tells us, “but there was no easy way to introduce it.” So it goes untold – though not to the reader – for fear of “seeming like an egoist”.
Perhaps the most significant piece is “Kelso Deconstructed” – a daring, restless story that imagines the last day of Kelso Cochrane, the Antiguan immigrant murdered in Notting Hill in 1959. It gives shape and texture to his final hours while constantly disrupting the narrative with surreal intrusions: probing its own desire to find meaning in the facts of Cochrane’s death, weaving in quotes from Tolstoy and inserting cameos from the cultural theorist Paul Gilroy and Toni Morrison.
In her NYRB piece, Smith writes that she reads fiction for the kind of work “that makes me feel – against all empirical evidence to the contrary – that what I am reading is, fictionally speaking, true”. In the best stories in Grand Union, she pulls off this trick with grace and charm.
Hamish Hamilton, 256pp, £20
This article appears in the 09 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain