Zadie Smith is fearless. Her first short story collection, “Grand Union,” is a soup of contradictions served up with flair. She experiments with form, with language, with conjecture, with the absurd. Tidbits of autofiction, and dashes of speculative fiction are mixed together and seasoned with current events.
The notion of “grand unions” between lovers, strangers and friends links the collection together but the subtheme of water is also a unifying force. “The Lazy River” may be a theme park ride in real life, but as a story, it’s a symbol for the human condition during the relentless chaos of 2017, when some floated with the current and others resisted.
“We’re submerged, all of us. You, me, the children, our friends, their children, everybody else. Sometimes we get out: for lunch, to read or to tan, never for very long. Then we all climb back into the metaphor.” Likewise, England’s real Grand Union Canal becomes a conduit between the old world and the new. Antiguan Kelso Cochrane considers this, in “Kelso Deconstructed”:
“Water went with water in his mind. The green and murky lagoon behind his great aunt’s house ... stretching all the way ... to the Potomac and the Hudson.” The real Kelso Cochrane was murdered by white youth in London, and his death kicked off a race riot in 1959. Smith depicts him as a man, oblivious of his impending death, sharing creative writing tips with his doctor via email - a 21st century mode of exchange inside a mid-century story. She blithely plays with temporality. She also plays with metaphor as a literary construct, along with other tropes like transitions, dialogue and “economy of form.” “Parents’ Morning Epiphany” reads like a creative writing exercise torn to pieces.
Her characters are children, tortured men and grown women, inside their own heads, ruminating. A drag queen makes a miscalculation in “Miss Adele Among the Corsets.” The narrator in “Blocked” is God.
“I was young, full of beans, I’d just created beans, cars, grassland, Post-it Notes, the white rhinos, everything else . having replaced nothing with something.” The deity happens to be depressed.
Dystopia meets urban myth in “Escape From New York,” in which Michael Jackson, Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando flee 9/11. Brett Kavanagh shares a story with Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and Michael Brown in “Downtown,” as two Jamaican aunts visit New York and discuss rape and entitlement.
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“This might look like a war between men and women, but what this really is is the last siege of a ruling class,” they say. Through these women, Smith is witty and eviscerating, comparing Kavanagh to an inconsolable baby who lost his rattle. “America being the rattle in this analogy,” the women say. “He thinks he deserves to do whatever he wants with that rattle, and women are simply a subclause in that arrangement.” Sex, immigration, death and Donald Trump are other sidebars, along with animal cruelty and drug addiction.
Smith has always been audacious. Her debut novel, “White Teeth,” was called an example of “hysterical realism.” And some of these new stories do feel hysterical. They’re panicked - about time, about motherhood, about the environment. The short story as a form is new for Smith, and some of these stories feel unfinished. “The Canker” reads like an episode of “Game of Thrones” but never takes off. “Mood” is a disparate laundry list of emotional possibilities that don’t really hold together, even with humor spliced in.
Many of the best stories are toward the back of the collection. I found myself wanting to rearrange their order so that the final story, “Grand Union,” was the first. In that story, the narrator is so upset, she seeks out the ghost of her dead mother, and they hang out together on a sidewalk outside of a Chinese restaurant. Likewise, in the superb “For the King,” a group of friends meet for dinner in Paris. Along the way one encounters a man with Tourette’s syndrome on the train, who is loud but tolerated because “each passenger ... reached for their earbuds, and thus entered a private world ... there was a palpable sense of collective gratitude to technology.” This is Smith at her best, integrating a compelling story line with perceptiveness and social commentary.