In a 2017 essay about Zadie Smith’s recent work, the critic Mara Smith posits that the common thread running through her first five novels is her use of “an omniscient narrator able to hold multiple voices in suspension.” For Mara Smith, these novels are mostly concerned with balancing disparate voices, cultures and sensibilities — a thematic concern that works well with the lengthy, digressive form Zadie Smith’s novels tend to take.
Anyone familiar with her wonderful and often more tightly constructed essays (collected in “Changing My Mind” and “Feel Free”) knows that Smith is capable of another style, which is less omniscient and more everywhere-at-once. Her reviews and criticism have a playful, airy exuberance that feels like the counterpart to the narrative drive of her novels, while retaining her characteristic stylishness. Every name-drop lands exactly in the right place, every turn of phrase is both utterly correct and wryly illuminating. She has a way of gradually sketching out the field, detail by detail, and then effecting a resolution or a twist at the exact point when it is needed. Other times, one reaches the end of an essay frictionlessly only to realize that they’ve ended up in a completely different place than they started.
I mention her essays because it’s worth keeping them in mind when reading Smith’s first collection of short stories, “Grand Union.” The stories sometime seem like they’re outgrowths of the more experimental essays in “Feel Free” — they are airy, exuberant constructions unmoored from the essay’s fidelity to literal reality. Absent the usual structures she works with, Smith is free to try new approaches, to experiment with pastiche, to sketch with a soft, loose pencil. The result is as uneven as it is thrilling — it feels like documentation of experimentation rather than a polished, tightly-woven collection of the kind that writers like Jhumpa Lahiri or Deborah Eisenberg create. In other words, this book has much the same roundabout, baggy energy of her novels. The essay form also seems like something of a touchpoint for some of the stories here, in that Smith frequently eschews conflict, plot and even character development in favor of scene, texture and voice. Her game is not to tell a story but to describe a situation via the accumulation of details, and, in the process, to tease out tensions and contradictions.
One story that works like this is the fourth in the collection, “Words And Music.” The story begins with a moving portrait of two sisters separated by the circumstances of their lives, as one returns to other’s Manhattan townhouse after she has died, having inherited it from her. “She sits in Candice’s accidental gold mine and rips up the little postcards as they arrive, a few each week, the ones that explain how much the house is worth and how easy it would be to sell. She doesn’t doubt it.” This thread only lasts a couple pages, though — the second half of the story pivots to an unnamed first-person narrator who goes on to describe a disabled man who has become “a piece of city choreography,” a man who walks around dressed as Abraham Lincoln, a “cipher” under the Washington Square arch that she describes as “inauthentic, like me.”
This little quip is never explained, but it’s clear what it means. Many of the narrators in Smith’s stories work like apparitions of the third-person omniscient voice, and it helps that many of them live lives similar to Smith’s. Many of the narrators of the Manhattan stories are middle-aged creative professionals, often biracial, entertaining variously conflicted feelings about personal identity. Another story that resembles a personal essay, “Downtown,” documents a visit from two Jamaican aunts during the Kavanaugh hearings, which are only one element of the narrator’s elusive “funk.” She goes to a Black church and prays for a long list of Black people killed by police in recent years. The narrator feels weird about this — “You don’t say to a witch: The reason they’re dunking you is because you’re a witch. You say: The reason they’re dunking you is these motherfuckers believe in witchcraft!” This tiny semantic point is not taken well by the other churchgoers. Elsewhere in the story, the narrator meets a taciturn Austrian painter who lives in a Hungarian forest and represents a kind of absurd pole of purity that she simultaneously desires and feels guilty for desiring. The story doesn’t try to connect these disparate incidents. In many cases their meaning is self-evident, it’s more that their juxtaposition creates elusive flashes of meaning. This is a kind of fiction that is less about situations as it is about affects — the lack of plot development hardly makes the stories less rich, in the same way that deep water is never still no matter what the wind is doing.
The more character-driven stories tend toward portraiture, which is sometimes wonderful, as in the first section of “Words And Music,” and sometimes tiresome, as in the maudlin “Big Week,” a portrait of a Boston ex-cop, a fount of guilt and wishful thinking, who is trying to reconnect with this family after recovering from a problem with opiates. Other stories in the collection show Smith engaging, with mixed success, with science fiction, parable, folk tale, metafiction. Most of these stories experiment with fragmentation or disjunction to varying degrees. Smith’s style has gotten more terse with each book she has written, and in “Grand Union” her prose is honed down to a fine edge. Even the few stories that confer more traditional narrative pleasures, like “Sentimental Education,” often open with bursts of disjunct energy:
“Back then, she unnerved men. But couldn’t understand why, and sought answers from unreliable sources. Women’s magazines — women themselves. Later, in midlife, she came to other conclusions. Lay on the grassy pavilion above the Serpentine café, admiring a toddler, her own son, as he waded in and out of the wading pool. Suddenly her daughter appeared at her shoulder: ‘You look at him like you’re in love with him. Like you want to paint him.’”
In a paragraph like this, the length of the sentences is almost as important as what is being conveyed. The prose has a blocky, forceful character that undercuts the literal things that happen within it. Smith’s prose is like a flashlight that shines on her subject — revealing only what is immediately relevant or salient in what feels like a much deeper structure. It’s this — Smith’s consistent, masterly wryness, her control over every detail — that makes this story collection such a joy to read. Even though there are occasional misfires in the book, it’s wonderful to follow her wherever she might go.