December 13, 2019

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A grand collection

Zadie Smith's short-fiction debut delivers bold, muscular, enigmatic prose

In her first collection of short stories (can there be many firsts left for this exhaustingly brilliant writer?), Zadie Smith continues what appears to be her ambitious quest to be all things to all readers.

She does not succeed, of course, but you have to be awed by the sheer energy and bravura the British-born, New York-based literary genius brings to her task.

Dominique Nabokov</p><p>Despite the shorter format of her latest stories, Smith remains a master of the slow reveal.</p>

Dominique Nabokov

Despite the shorter format of her latest stories, Smith remains a master of the slow reveal.

The 19 stories in Grand Union, 11 of them new, run the gamut of style, voice, genre and character. One, called Meet the President!, flirts with Atwoodian dystopia.

Another, For the King, mimics the autofiction of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. Still others nod to the avant-garde impulse of George Saunders and Lydia Davis.

None of this is news in Smithworld. In her five novels so far, starting with her audacious debut, 2000’s White Teeth, she has always strained her own artistic limits (and often her readers’, too).

The Autograph Man (2002) is dotted with drawings, diagrams and lists. The 2005 novel On Beauty pays comic homage to E.M. Forster’s masterpiece Howards End, and NW (2012) encapsulates England’s economic life in an immigrant section of London.

With her working-class biracial background, Smith has always challenged notions of class, gender and white privilege in English literature.

The protagonist of Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets is a black male drag queen in Manhattan facing down the prejudice of a Jewish store owner.

In Big Week, a disgraced Irish Boston cop seeks absolution for his drug addiction and embezzling crimes.

The black first-person narrator of the story Downtown catches the sex-assault hearing for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

"That’s the face a baby makes when you try and take his rattle away," the woman says of Kavanaugh’s angry visage. "America being the rattle in this analogy."

Eight stories have already appeared in highbrow magazines, five in The New Yorker, between 2013 and 2018.

Arguably the strongest original entry, with its Flaubertian title Sentimental Education, has a Smith-like writer in her 40s recalling with amazement her promiscuous behaviour in college.

"Back then, she unnerved men," Smith writes in what her fans might hope could be an excerpt from an autobiographical novel to come.

Alas, barely one-third of the stories have plots to speak of ("Plot is not my strong point," the narrator admits in Parents’ Morning Epiphany, itself a head-scratching collection of headlined paragraphs).

"I like a fragment," the writer-narrator of Blocked confesses. "It’s the completist model that got me into such trouble in the first place."

A Zadie Smith book has never been an easy read, and many of the enigmatic stories in Grand Union fit the template. Her sentences are muscular animals that can tear off in any direction.

She is also a master of the slow reveal, and a reader must pay close attention to get the gist.

At age 44, Smith has already produced nine books, including two collections of essays and much other literary journalism — this while holding down a tenured professorship at New York University and co-parenting two children.

She is whirlwind of energy and accomplishment, a future Nobel candidate without question. Any reader of literary fiction should be pleased to meet her halfway.

Morley Walker is a retired Free Press journalist.

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