Zadie Smith’s Turn to Short Fiction

The Urge to Be Good

Zadie Smith’s turn to short fiction.


Reading Zadie Smith’s new short story collection, Grand Union, I kept thinking about Joni Mitchell. In part that’s because for Smith, music is a touchstone: It is a subject and a metaphor, and you might say the stuff is right there in her sentences, too. I hear it, anyway, and certainly references to sound and music abound in Grand Union. In a story called “Words and Music” (see?), here’s how Smith writes about a scat singer:

Instead of la la do la be la it was almost al al od al eb al—like an ululation. In fact, at times it sounded like she was singing that word, ululation, over and over. Maybe she was. She sang in Spanish, she sang in English, she made us laugh, she made us cry, it was ridiculous!

But Smith and Mitchell share more than music. Both are virtuosic talents, geniuses a couple of times over. Mitchell is a composer who can write lyrics but also has a painter’s eye—from her Van Gogh homages to her Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter blackface. (It’s not always a good eye.) Smith, too, can move between modes: Though many of her peers produce essays as well as stories and novels, very few do it well. (To be fair, this is a bit like being a marathoner who can also play the trombone while waterskiing.) Grand Union also made me think of Mitchell for one particular reason. It’s a book like her 1979 record Mingus—a great concept, perhaps, but one that stubbornly resists old-fashioned ideas like pleasure. You can admire it, but it’s hard to love it. I read Grand Union, but I doubt I’ll ever read it again.

Grand Union collects 19 stories, eight of which were previously published, the earliest in 2013 and the most recent in 2018. As the remaining 11 stories are undated, it’s impossible to fix a firm chronology to them, but taken as a whole, they give us a glimpse of Smith as a mature artist: Here we find the fiction written by a part-time American, a New Yorker, a celebrity writing professor at New York University, and a mother. She is liberated from niggling professional concerns. The Smith who wrote these stories is an author doing as she damn well pleases. (It’s possible that she has always been just such a writer; it’s a perquisite of being a best seller.)

In a withering assessment of her early work, James Wood wrote that “Smith does not lack for powers of invention. The problem is that there is too much of it.” It might be impossible to know whether she took his criticism under advisement—perhaps she would have naturally ended up moving in a more realist direction—but whatever the reasons for her artistic evolution, I’m grateful. Her best work is the 2012 book NW, more narrow in scope and restrained in voice than her previous three novels. It’s no less imaginative than what preceded it; instead, Smith’s focus yielded real depth, and the book is more mature and incisive—especially on class and urban life, that way-we-live-now jazz. Smith seems to have learned that sentence upon sentence of razzle-dazzle satisfies the writer but actual narrative and recognizable characters satisfy the reader.

These fundamentals pertain to the short story as well as the novel. But stories, by virtue of their brevity, allow the writer leeway. It’s not that a short story is less demanding than a novel, but it’s a dalliance, and like a heated love affair, it gives the writer a chance to try on and cast off alternate selves.

Smith seizes this opportunity in the collection. “Parents’ Morning Epiphany,” “Mood,” “Blocked,” “The Canker,” and the title work feel more like feints than stories. If you read them without authorial attribution, I’m not sure you’d guess they were hers. And without her name attached, I’m not sure they’d find their way into print.

“Parents’ Morning Epiphany” is a sketch about narrative and parenthood with a simple message: To be a writer, as to be a parent, is to care about time’s passage. The story—which is broken up into sections of discrete paragraphs, a strategy deployed in “Mood” as well—defies summary because I cannot figure out what it’s about. It’s sort of about New York City, but it’s also about dogs and Tumblr and the crisis of the migrant, and slicing these two stories into digestible sections does not make them any easier to swallow. Smith seems to be deliberately resisting the reader’s expectations. I don’t know if there’s a reader not named Zadie Smith who will enjoy this.

“Blocked” is another story difficult to summarize; it might be a diatribe about the difficulty of making art. It might also be a defense of the younger artist’s ambition and the middle-aged artist’s desire to just… hang out with a dog? It would seem to catalog some of Smith’s frustrations with her critics and readers. “No matter what anybody tells you, the underlying principle is not consumer satisfaction,” she writes. Fair point, but then what is the rest of the text—a work of grievance? An artist’s explanation? Or just a fictional writer chatting at us? One thing is clear: I’m not sure that’s enough to make a story. There is no sense of movement or engagement with anything. The same could be said of “The Canker” and “Grand Union,” the former a sort-of fable and the latter a sketch that reads like someone describing a dream she once had. You are either the kind of person who enjoys hearing about someone else’s dreams, or you are not.

When all of these sketches are measured together, the math can be unforgiving. Given that a quarter of Grand Union consists of these oddities and false starts, it makes sense to conclude that the book doesn’t cohere the way the finest collections of stories can. If one reads only these pieces, the book can feel like a particular kind of disappointment from a writer who has rarely let her fans down; it’s a miscellany.

But Grand Union does have more traditional stories as well, and of them, “The Lazy River” stands in contrast to Smith’s handful of experiments, showing what this author is capable of doing with a few thousand words. Told in the first-person plural (no mean feat), it describes a family sojourn to a Spanish resort, contrasting the milieu’s mindless pleasures with glimpses of the African migrants whose labor makes such comfort possible. It made me think of the artist Fred Wilson, known for rearranging museum collections to show the presence and absence of black faces.

The story is knowing, even self-aware—“The Lazy River is a circle, it is wet, it has an artificial current…. If we may speak of the depth of a metaphor, well, then, it is about three feet deep, excepting a brief stretch at which point it rises to six feet four”—but not so tongue-in-cheek that it doesn’t satisfy in more conventional ways.

“The Lazy River” is one of five stories in this book that first appeared in The New Yorker. It’s no surprise that the magazine generally considered to be publishing the finest in contemporary fiction would have a relationship with Smith. What is a surprise is that it seems to have published so much by her that doesn’t stand the test of time. “Meet the President!” dates from 2013 but feels like an artifact from the distant past and the work of someone who had been reading too much George Saunders. It’s vaguely post​apocalyptic in a way that seems both weighted with meaning and ultimately unimportant, a story of violence and war and technology that is impenetrable to the reader but was probably great fun for the writer.

The New Yorker also published “Escape From New York,” in which Smith imagines the possibly true, possibly apocryphal (honestly, who cares?) scenario of Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando, and Elizabeth Taylor fleeing Manhattan together on the morning of September 11, 2001. The précis tells it all: The gimmick is the story. No one, not even a master like Smith, can conjure the inner life of Jackson, an utter cipher, and from the vantage of the present, the whole enterprise seems silly.

In “Now More Than Ever,” Smith takes on the culture of social-media-enabled umbrage that such a story might provoke. “There is an urge to be good,” she writes. “To be seen to be good. To be seen. Also to be.” This is a savage (and accurate) assessment of the tweeting classes and a scintillating way to begin a cautionary tale of a professor falling afoul of the masses. This professor lives in an apartment building whose residents use signs painted with arrows to indicate the homes of neighbors who fail to live up to the moral standards that the collective has agreed upon.

Smith is 43, but this piece feels like the work of a much older writer. It’s hectoring, a little inane, and not very subtle, as if David Brooks turned one of his columns into fiction. And it’s impossible not to notice that the protagonist is, like Smith, a woman professor. The narrator makes the mistake of defending a poet who has said something unacceptable. The tale ends with a stomped foot and the echo of a familiar hashtag: “Soon after that the poet got cancelled and, soon after that, me too.” Smith is a bit young to be slipping into “kids these days!” shtick. But then she’s always been wise beyond her years.

When Smith is good, she’s superb. Besides “The Lazy River,” three previously unpublished stories—​”Sentimental Education,” “Kelso Deconstructed,” and “For the King”—show her full capabilities. The first distills a novel’s worth of time into a handful of pages, a loving portrait (of the artist herself?) that contrasts young adulthood with less-young motherhood. “Could it be? Had she slept with three people in twelve hours? The things we put young bodies through! And because you can’t remember forward, she would have to wait a long, long time to find a faint future echo of this extremity: breastfeeding one child, then a few hours later, lying next to another till it slept.”

In “Kelso Deconstructed,” the author fictionalizes the 1959 murder of Antiguan immigrant Kelso Cochrane, telling it at a slant. Kelso and his wife, Olivia, go to listen to the ranting at London’s Speakers’ Corner and there encounter Toni Morrison (“a woman not unlike her own grandmother: the same lion’s face, the same wealth of hair”); later a doctor called Rooney (Sally, I guess?) gives the ailing Kelso a prescription in the form of an e-mail sent from [email protected]. This doesn’t feel ironic or overwrought or distant or cold. It feels like a gamble that pays off.

Let’s be realistic and admit that most story collections contain a handful of good stories. That’s enough; that’s an accomplishment. A bad story or two or three doesn’t wholly undermine the endeavor. It’s not the less successful stories that made Grand Union a disappointment to me; it’s that they were symptoms of a bigger problem. She writes in “Downtown,” “Of all the living painters he is the most livingiest and also the most painterly.” And here’s the issue: When a writer is full of jokes, the reader begins to wonder whether he or she might be the butt of them.

Too many of the stories here just don’t yield or seem to require the reader at all. Sometimes, Smith is still willing to make herself vulnerable through pure sincerity. I think this is a necessary ingredient. In “For the King,” in which a woman meets with an old friend to catch up over dinner, Smith writes, “Our lives are so different on the inside. We can never express their full particularity and strangeness in public, their inner chaos and complexity. There are always so many things it proves impossible to say!” This is straightforward—maybe even a little mawkish—but it’s quite beautiful. Sincerity is a risk, much harder to pull off than a joke.

A couple of years ago, I saw a video on Instagram of Smith performing a song at New York’s Carlyle Hotel. It somehow did not surprise me that she has a beautiful singing voice. She is just one of those rare people who are good at so many things that it doesn’t seem quite fair. It’s fine to see her falter; I do not question her talent. Lamenting her turn toward the arch or the experimental is as fruitless as regretting Joni Mitchell’s dalliance with synth-pop or jazz. Still, I find myself hoping that Smith’s next song will be a little sweeter.

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