As a rule, publishers are reluctant to publish short stories. They don’t sell all that well – even though bite-sized prose would seem on the face of it perfectly suited to our attention-deficit age. With rareish exceptions, they do so only as a sort of favour to established writers whose next novel they’d rather be publishing but whose short stories they know will wash their face and, what’s more, keep the author sweet. Which is to say: Zadie Smith could have published a collection of short stories, no sweat, any time in the past 20 years. Yet Grand Union is her first collection. This is to her credit.
I remember hearing, when she was in the white heat of her early celebrity, that she’d accept magazine commissions – to write, say, 10,000 words about The Wire – and spend weeks or months doing the research and preparing notes. But then, if she didn’t think she had anything fresh or interesting enough to say... she’d politely and apologetically hand the money (Lots of money! She’s Zadie Smith!) back. This is not how we hacks think about commissions.
Grand Union has something to say about hacks. The New York-dwelling writer-protagonist of “Blocked” says: “Whenever I happen to come across a significant colleague – not any of the hacks, but one of the few whom I admire and more importantly whom I like – whenever I happen to run into one of these esteemed colleagues...” There are a good few New York-dwelling writer-protagonists here, incidentally – some of whom teach, one of whom is always asked in France whether her name has a long or a short “a”, one of whom has “the most common surname in England”, and so on. This encourages vulgar readers, and, well, hacks, to read these narrators as the author; but we won’t do that.
So these are stories, rather than memoir fragments, even if the odd one teases in that direction. And true to Smith’s conscientiousness, there isn’t a single one that doesn’t know just what it’s doing. She’s got the moves. And she’s clever and learned in a hip way. You’re invited to spot in-jokes about the philosopher Thomas Nagel or Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. She’ll write things like: “I read E M Cioran and agreed with him when he said he agreed with Joseph Pla who had previously agreed with himself that we are nothing but it’s hard to admit it.” Or: “We were all in it together. We had useless, transcendent thoughts like: This, too, is America! We were pretty high. But as I listened I recalled a section of Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics by P F Strawson...” Way to harsh that buzz!
Not many of them tell an actual story – even in the moment-of-epiphany sense that short stories often do. Smith is interested in time (boy is she interested in time), in place, in identity, and in how writing does and doesn’t make sense of the world. Several are knowingly preoccupied with the writing (and teaching) of fiction. It’s as if Smith has hit on the form as a way to conduct postmodern experiments that might outstay their welcome in a novel.
What some will find wittily self-reflexive will probably irk those in search of more traditional storytelling. One story, “Parents’ Morning Epiphany”, is a mockery of a “Narrative Techniques Worksheet” doled out to children: “Narrative Writers Use Techniques Such As...” Another, “Mood”, is a sort of mood board that yokes medieval humours theory with Tumblr fragments with the refugee crisis with the tale of an old punk whose parrot has died. It is, as they say on social media, a mood.
This jinking about with narrative self-consciousness reaches its height in “Kelso Deconstructed”, which fictionalises the 1959 race-murder of Kelso Cochrane in Notting Hill. The narrator tells us “by the time the next sentence arrives it will be Saturday”. An orator at Speaker’s Corner decries the perils of narrative. Newspapers warn of “signs and symbols” and “foreshadowing”. A witness statement turns into a poem. And, bizarrely, a “Dr Rooney” (“her pale ears poked through her poker-straight hair, she looked like a schoolgirl”) writes a prescription (in 1959!) formatted as an email from [email protected] to [email protected] But this is a serious story, too – as is the political horror story “Two Men Arrive in a Village”, and the dystopian sci-fi of “Meet the President!”
“The Lazy River”, which has a lovely tingle of Kafka-meets-Martin Parr, is set in a tourist resort in Spain where, as Brexit goes on elsewhere, bovine Britons eat sausage and chips and spend all day floating in a hoop-shaped pool: “Sometimes we get out: for lunch, to read or to tan, never for very long. Then we all climb back into the metaphor. […] We do not leave the hotel except to buy flotation devices.” Later: “That night there was a blood-red moon. Don’t look at me: southern Spain has the highest ratio of metaphor to reality of any place I’ve ever known.”
So even when she’s being self-referential, Smith is often very funny. She’s funny when she’s not being self-referential, too. One story – which appears to be about Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando and Liz Taylor fleeing New York on 9/11 in a hire car – is very funny indeed; and poignant, with it. And there’s a witty riff on so-called cancel culture, in “Now More Than Ever”, describing running into someone “beyond the pale”: “I thought, Maybe if I am one day totally and finally placed beyond the pale, I, too, might feel curiously free. Of expectation. Of the opinions of others. Of a lot of things. ‘It’s like prison,’ he said, not uncheerfully. ‘You don’t see anybody and you get a lot of writing done’.”
The punctuation in that passage is only one of the things to admire about it. Zadie Smith: very much not a hack.
Grand Union by Zadie Smith
245pp, Hamish Hamilton, £20, ebook £9.99. Call 0844 871 1514 to order from the Telegraph for £16.99