A renowned author of five novels and several works of nonfiction, Zadie Smith in “Grand Union” offers a pithy collection of stories that showcases her many strengths. The best of these are tightly coiled, multilayered, rich in description and tangentially topical: “Just Right,” in which the stuttering son of hypocritical puppeteers befriends a chess-playing classmate; “Sentimental Education,” in which a university student, Monica, dislikes that her lover harbors an unenrolled stowaway in his room; “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets,” a masterwork of droll dialogue, acute tension and complicated characters.
Other works — “The Dialectic,” “The Lazy River,” “Mood,” “Parents’ Morning Epiphany” — have a greater investment in hazy philosophizing, in humor and in observation, and while readers will enjoy them, there is an occasionally perfunctory feel, even if the work is satirical. In “The Lazy River,” the water is “Facebook blue”; in “Mood,” the word “adulting” appears as if to acknowledge it.
Inquiry into resort life, and the labor that creates it, appears in multiple stories, depicting vacation travel as willful oblivion — for its aftermath, note the “carnival detritus” in “Grand Union” — but these stories also defend the urge to seek such oblivion. In “The Dialectic,” Smith writes, “the best thing about a resort town such as this was that you did whatever everybody else did without thinking, moving like a pack. For a fatherless family, as theirs was now, this collective aspect was the perfect camouflage. There were no individual people here.” This is an aspiration that none of Smith’s best characters can claim; they are starkly, brilliantly individuated, and to watch them encounter one another is to be held rapt.
In “Big Week,” Mike McRae greets his son at a bar and offers nothing but praise — “The look of ardent love in the father’s eyes was such that even [the bartender], ten yards away, felt oppressed by it” — and yet the tension builds quietly, inexplicably, undermining the avowed joy the men feel at their brief reunion. As McRae claims to be in the midst of the “peace-fullest divorce in history,” readers brace for the uncertain. The suspense is considerable.
Smith often places her characters in small spaces — in the bar; in a puppet theater; in a corset shop — as if to set up their unraveling. It is hard, in these narrow spaces, to avoid seeing one another, despite their efforts to do so. In “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets,” Miss Adele challenges the proprietor of the shop to look at her, adding, “And you and I both know there’s a way of not looking at somebody that is looking at them.” Smith is exceptionally skilled at depicting the way people see one another, and frequently misunderstand what they see.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in Electric Literature, LennyLetter, Narrative, The Millions, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
By: Zadie Smith.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 246 pages, $27.