Grand Union: Stories

Image of Grand Union: Stories
Release Date: 
October 8, 2019
Penguin Press
Reviewed by: 

Readers will find Zadie Smith’s short story collection a mixed bag with a few interesting bits and pieces, and a few good short works.

Grand Union contains a number of smart, witty, insightful and cultured short stories by UK-based author Zadie Smith. Perhaps half or more are based in America, in particular New York City. the remainder were written for a UK audience and use slang and brand names that may be unfamiliar to an American audience.

Many of the stories are fragments, and as fragments are mostly character sketches. Many of the stories also feel as if they are experiments, while others have potential for becoming a chapter within a larger work. Some stories have Caribbean themes with inside jokes and slang that require Google and Wikipedia to decode. Some stories claim to be postmodern, though generous readers will forgive Smith her academic excursions.

A brief synopsis of each story follows:

“The Dialectic” examines a fraught mother-daughter relationship. The story is darkly moody, and barely four pages long. The daughter is outgoing, and filled with childish fun, the mother is filled with smoldering anger and regret.

“Sentimental Education” by its title clues the reader that the story will be an homage to Flaubert. The story told from the perspective of a middle-aged woman, a mother who is conventionally unhappy, as she reflects on her 19-year-old self romantically, through past loves. The woman’s mood changes from fun to aggressive, to passive-aggressive. The story is funny but unkind, with the kind of unkindness that for this reviewer, led to loss of empathy with its characters, especially after a very unsexy sex scene. A shout-out is given to Helene Cixous, who according to Wikipedia, was an early thinker on post-structural feminism.

“The Lazy River” is a ride in a theme park having a concrete or fiberglass sided flowing artificial endless loop of a river where riders sit in innertubes while drinking cold drinks and burn in the sun. The theme park in this story is an all-inclusive resort in Almeria, Spain, filled with British vacationers doing (clichéd) British things, drinking to excess, eating sausages and chips, and singing karaoke. The lazy river, in this case, is a metaphor for going ‘round and ‘round and never getting anywhere. Smith, just in case you didn’t get the metaphor, actually calls it out in the story as a metaphor. Which, if a writer does this, ruins the effect for any reader who likes to figure things out for themselves

“Words and Music” is set in N.Y.C. and is a jazz riff using series of character sketches. The story starts at the Village Vanguard, a jazz club in Greenwich Village, then jumps to 123rd St, Harlem, with a character sketch of two grandma-aged sisters, their family history, and then more character sketches and street-life vignettes of people you might meet or overhear at a concert in Central Park.

“Just Right” is another story filled with character sketches, and also set in N.Y.C., but set in an earlier time, before WWII, and contains a of plot. This story focuses on children, black and white, and their teachers, seen through children’s eyes. There is culture collision, as Smith writes, “Matters developed.”

“Downtown” contains character sketches of artists and their families, and again is set in N.Y.C. The principal characters are insular, self-centered, and act jealous though they imagine themselves superior. There is a conversation in a restaurant between a middle-aged gay man and a middle-aged straight woman, who are long-time friends. Both are jaded, and perhaps expecting to be overheard in their conversation, talk for shock value. To the reader, though, the feeling portrayed is of tiredness, that is, the words intending to shock sounding cliché, almost rote, and this reviewer couldn’t tell if the tone was meant to be ironic. The restaurant in the story is real however, Café Loup is in the West Village, and according to Google, last year, was seized (reported as “seized again” in a newspaper article) for unpaid taxes. Irony indeed.

“Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” is a very funny character sketch with a plot. The setting is midtown Manhattan, Broadway, and mentions the “Naked Cowboy” entertaining tourists on their way to the theater to see The Lion King. Miss Adele, a middle-aged drag queen, tries to buy a replacement for her busted corset in a lingerie shop. The story, at first, swings perilously between melodrama and slapstick, and then goes totally out of control. Miss Adele’s life is performance, and her performance is way over the top. “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” shows Smith’s skills at their most fun.

“Mood” is set in New York City and is a riff on culture, art, music, and passion. There are a number of character sketches, personal observations, and shout out to Richard Hell, an innovator if not the innovator of punk music fashion. There is not much plot, other than conversations overheard, with perhaps, the intent to be amusing and vulgar at the same time, and in this, is similar to “Downtown.” “Mood” is also similar to the style of Don DeLillo, as non-sequiturs abound, as for example, with this overheard fragment, “Tall bottoms are the most oppressed members of the gay community.”

“Escape from New York” is set on September 11, 2001, where three out-of-town celebrities who are stranded in New York share a rent-a-car and head back west. Their names aren’t given in the story, but enough hints are so who they are can be worked out. This reviewer won’t give their names away, only to point out that if a reader googled their unlikely-to-be-linked-together names, this story appears to be based on a “true-as-reported” event. In “Escape from New York,” Smith revisits her picaresque style of her Hugh Grant/Devine Brown meet-up and aftermath from in Smith’s novel The Autograph Man.

“Big week” is based in Boston and environs and uses almost every Boston cliché imaginable—as in, everything but the kitchen-sink and checking all the boxes: The Red Sox, the Irish, Catholicism, Guinness, Police, Substance Abuse, and the National Grid electric company. Of the main character, Smith writes, “There are five McRae siblings and they were all of them talkers. And the all looked like Donald O’Connor, more or less—even the women.” Despite this start, not an Irish accent is to be seen, as well, a university is mentioned, but not identified, as if Smith were unaware there is more than one university in the city of Boston. Except for the Boston clichés which would not be recognized by its denizens, the story is well-crafted. “Big week” is an extended character sketch, with a slim plot. The title refers to the ex-cop, Patron McRae, moving out of the house. The story starts with this and jumps backwards in time to add context. The divorce stems from Patron’s back injury, which led to substance abuse and culminated in loss of job, marriage, and home. The “I” of the story switches from Patron to his ex-wife, Moire, which this reviewer expects was intended to provide balance.

“Meet the President” presents a dystopian future set in Felixstowe, a seaside town in England. Smith explains, “The only people left in England were the ones who couldn’t leave.” The central characters are two children, a high-status adolescent boy, and a low-status, orphaned, nine-year-old girl. The boy is the son of a high-tech administrator visiting Felixstowe to test drone weaponry for a mercenary army. The low status girl is a resident of Felixstowe, barely a survivor, her older sister killed by drone for reasons of immorality. Though “Meet the President” is barely a fragment, the story shows enough richness of character and plot to permit expansion to novel length.

“Two Men Arrive in a Village” is a story told in the style of Gerald Murnane, a quirky Australian author. For readers who are unfamiliar with Murnane, his short stories often present a repeating theme of nothing much happening, with a tiny addition with each iteration, similar to the tale told by the musical round the old woman who swallowed a fly. Smith however, bests Murnane, because much more happens in each iteration of “Two Men Arrive in a Village” than would have certainly been chanced, if it‘d been penned by the more cautious Murnane.

“Kelso Deconstructed” is an experiment in postmodernism. Set in England, Kelso and his fiancé, Olivia, are a poor, lightly educated but heavily dutiful immigrant couple. The today of “Kelso Deconstructed” is the last day of Kelso’s life. Telling you this won’t ruin the story as Smith begins with this as a fact, as a conceit that breaks the “fourth wall” which, this reviewer guesses, is an essential part of postmodernism. Though the characters are unaware that they are characters—Smith tells us they are and also are not, by this, “Kelso, caught in the slipstream of life, without the hindrance of either reader or author . . .” Smith comments on her other character—for example with Mal, Kelso’s friend, “’Well, I’ll be seeing you, Kel, man,’ said Mal. He would not, not ever again, but wasn’t to know.” “Kelso deconstructed” includes as cameo characters, the poet Toni Morrison, and so does author and civil rights activist Toni Cade Bambara.” Kelso Deconstructed” ends with a quote, “All the world is a test,” from founder of deconstruction theory, Jacques Derrida.

“Blocked” portrays God as a hipster explaining his works as a “FAQ,” or answers to Frequently Asked Questions. A few of the answers offers more of the idea of the hipster lifestyle than of a hipster God, for God lives in N.Y.C., is a dog owner, and gets his deli on Mercer street in the Village. “Blocked” is similar to to comedic essays that can be found in the New Yorker and McSweeneys’ Internet Tendency.

“The Canker” is a fantasy tale. The central character is a woman, a fish packer by trade, but a storyteller by spirit. In a primitive world set on an independent island near a mainland that is ruled by a dictator, the men stay at home to care for their children while women are educated, work outside the home, and when at home, take multiple lovers. This short piece bare introduces what has the promise to be interesting story if it were expanded, but like “Meet the President,” ends much too soon.

“For the King” is set in Paris, in the present. The two principal characters are an unnamed Jamaican protagonist who is female and an academic, and her friend “V.” V is male, gay, very concerned with beauty, and recently took a job as artist in residence in a university in England but is mystified by the ways of academia. The reader is invited to listen in to friendly banter over dinner outdoors at a Parisian cafe, on a warm October evening, between a straight academic and a gay artist, as they “dish” on men.

“Now More than Ever” is post-modern puzzle of a story, very silly but this time, intentionally so. The reader has to tease out the context—the who, what, when, where and why of the characters and their actions. The characters appear to be academics in N.Y.C. but this is an off-kilter world ruled by social media acted out by semiotic pointers placed in high-rise windows, pointing this way and that, while person-to-person dialogue is carried out by use of hand-puppets. Smith changes font size to indicate change in mood, her character, claiming “You’ll know the eight-point type is a fair and accurate representation of the situation.” The silliness however, if one were to dig a little deeper, masks interesting and difficult truths. Smith also piles on cliché after cliché, leading to the question of how many clichés does it take for a cliché to stop being cliché, and becomes performance? To add to this “throw in the kitchen sink” performance, “Now more than ever” also includes an in-depth critique of the movie, A Place in the Sun.

The final story, “Grand Union,” is a prose-poem set in West London, a Jamaican neighborhood in or near Notting Hill. The “I” of the story is a mother who converses with her own dead mother, who was of slave ancestry. Things are hinted at rather than stated outright, in a form of code. Smith presents many, many Caribbean, Jamaican, and African cultural references: Queen Nanny, Arawak, Obeah, Red Stripe, and David Rodigan. The title, “Grand Union,” is a metaphor too, though this time, Smith does not explicitly call it out.

With Grand Union Zadie Smith is a novelist using shorter pieces to freely experiment with mood, style, character, dialogue, plot (and no plot), and humor.