The truest measure of a writer may be the quality of her incidental work. Just look at Zadie Smith. Since her 2000 debut “White Teeth,” she has been regarded primarily as a novelist: exuberant and incisive, evoking both the characters and the community of Northwest London, where she was born and raised.
There’s a similar argument to be made about her essays, which are equally, if not more, accomplished: provocative and deeply humanistic takes on art and culture and private life.
What then do we make of the 19 stories gathered in “Grand Union,” Smith’s first collection of short fiction? There’s no mistaking the voice, with its mix of assurance and conditionality, her declaration that “ALL THE WORLD IS TEXT.”
That’s hardly a new idea for Smith, who in her 2012 novel “NW” insisted, “People were not people but merely an effect of language. You could conjure them up and kill them in a sentence.” At the same time, there’s something looser about her stories, more offhand.
What I mean is that this work comes off as incidental in the best sense — not marginal but open, as if it didn’t have to bear the weight of the novel or the essay but could operate instead out of a more spontaneous give and take. Such a quality of serendipity, of a writer making it up as she goes along, sits at the center of “Grand Union,” which is perhaps most vivid in its sense of play.
Smith acknowledges this throughout the collection but particularly in her experiments with form. “Parents’ Morning Epiphany” takes a grade school “Narrative Techniques Worksheet” and uses it to raise pointed questions about the contrivances of storytelling. [T]his, the classic love story,” Smith snipes in response to one prompt, “is indeed the motivation for many a narrative writer and yet how can I confess to the worksheet that it has never interested me in the least?”
“The Lazy River,” meanwhile, opens as an account of an all-inclusive family vacation: “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.” The slipperiness is part of the point; does the “you” refer to the readers, a companion or a partner or all of the above?
“At the elevators,” she reports, “we separate from our friends and their children and ascend to our room, which is the same as everybody’s room, and put our children to bed and sit on the balcony with our laptops and our phones, where we look up his Twitter, as we have every night since January.” We all know exactly who she is referring to, and in that moment, the story sharpens as we recognize both the treacherous condition of the present and the denial that enables it to continue, a denial that belongs to every one of us.
Such public, or political, concerns echo throughout “Grand Union,” which does not shy away from stories with a point. “Two Men Arrive in a Village” works at first with generalities: the village may be a settlement or even an apartment tower (“in which a village lives vertically” and the men’s arrival might take place in the present or the past. The intention is to reinforce the commonality of the experience, which will culminate, as it always does, in violence.
But Smith turns our knowingness around on us by ending the story in a way that is both specific and unpredictable, as in the aftermath the men’s identities are erased. “He wanted me to know his name!” cries a girl who has been assaulted, but before she can say what it is, she is shut down by the wife of the village chief. The inference is that the act of naming can cut both ways, that in identifying those who brutalize us, we not only expose them but also, paradoxically, increase their power.
That’s a complicated concept, more the move of an essayist than a short-story writer, and it gives “Grand Union” an unexpected heft. As in her novels and essays, Smith writes about characters on terms that blend the personal with the impositions of a broader world.
“Kelso Deconstructed” takes as its frame the 1959 Notting Hill murder of Antiguan carpenter Kelso Cochrane by a white man named Patrick Digby, revealing from the outset that we are reading about “the last day of Kelso’s life.” Yet rather than dissipate the tension of the story, the choice leads to unlikely possibilities.
Smith deftly interposes contemporary touches — a doctor’s prescription that reads as an email, London tube stations named for writers Toni Cade Bambara and Toni Morrison — to remind us that racial violence is as much a marker of our moment as that in which “Kelso Deconstructed” takes place. The more things change, in other words, the more they remain the same.
Not every story in “Grand Union” is so ambitious, but that again is part of the point. Throughout the collection, we see Smith stretching, trying one thing before turning to another. “Blocked” offers a monologue by an author who, like Smith, has had to reckon with early success; “These days, I love a fragment,” she declares. “Downtown” ends with a foreign-born artist becoming an American to take advantage “of a new citizen’s eligibility for certain national arts prizes.”
Here we see Smith is at her finest, when she reveals what we recognize but do not say. The strength of “Grand Union” is the way such a sensibility informs these incidental pieces. This is the frisson that drives her writing, the balance between humor and self-laceration that cannot help but extend to us as well.
Penguin Press: 246 pp, $27
Ulin is a former book editor and critic at The Times.