by Rebekah Cohen
Grand Union Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, 2019
The publication of Grand Union cements Zadie Smith’s status as a triple threat in the world of literary prose. Her first short story collection shines just as brightly as the novels and essays that compose her existing oeuvre. Not simply Grand Union by name, but also by nature, the book has been compiled to unite themes across time, interweaving pieces that first appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review and Granta, with eleven new short stories. Although united in print, Smith’s shorter fiction remains slippery, rendering the Grand Union title a paradox. Like the eponymous Grand Union canal, reading is like travelling up and down the waterway, building bridges between contrasts of youth and age, inspiration and apathy, before collapsing the antitheses that separate them. Voices travel outwards, overlapping genres and timeframes, skimming like stones over musings, monologues and reimaginings of the past.
Despite the feeling that what we are reading resembles parable, any hint of take away wisdom to be found in her work has been frequently denied by Smith herself. Much quoted on her self-professed ‘right to be wrong’, Smith also rejects the label of ‘mouthpiece’. In an interview with the Guardian last year, she responded with her own account of her role:
I try to point out the idiosyncratic way I think and also the commonality I’m seeking [...] I’m less interested in convincing people of an argument than in modelling a style of thinking. That’s what’s important to me in the literary world: ways of seeing and thinking.
And this follows: Grand Union is a collection of proposed questions, not defined answers. The stories are stitched together like a string of question marks, passing the search for knowledge along the chain. There is a sense that documentation is the book's aim, partly arising out of the fact that various stories were first published elsewhere. Together they paint a picture of the last ten years; if in Swing Time (2016) Smith demonstrated her ability to embody the essence of life spanning the seventies through to the noughties, in Grand Union she continues this project, capturing the last decade. Saturated with allusions to other books, films, and music, these references combine universal recognition with the intimate sense that we are peeking inside a personal library.
‘How can anyone fail to be’ is the book’s epigraph, taken from Frank O’Hara’s ‘Down at the Canal’. The question preoccupies Smith throughout the collection, and is explored differently to in her earlier works, as if in order to account for the ever-tightening grip of iPhones, laptops and social media on our lives. Our concept of self is in a constant state of transition, Smith decides; we must actively decide what to do with it. Whether we make the most of this choice is another issue. The juxtaposition of the first two stories showcases this dynamic, as two women take stock of their present situation by reflecting on formative relationships, reaching very separate conclusions. Opening the collection is ‘The Dialectic’, in which Smith relates a conversation between a pensive mother and cynical daughter on holiday at Sopot:
“It’s an aspiration,” said her mother, quietly. “I would like to look into the eye of an animal, of any animal, and be able to feel no guilt whatsoever.” “Well, then it has nothing to do with the animal itself,” said the girl pertly.
It is through renunciation that the mother hopes to find a clearer sense of herself. Whilst such a cause may be a selfish motive in which to involve the topic of animal liberation, it is nevertheless an attempt to save others as a substitute for alternative irredeemable thoughts. By contrast, Monica, in ‘Sentimental Education’, is unapologetic about her views:
Now, a quarter of a century later, she saw that what had looked like a case of lack was in fact a matter of inconvenient surplus. A surplus of what? Can you have a surplus of self? But it was true: she’d always thought of men as muses. Always treated them that way.
Relationships become reduced to the collecting of psychological and physical experiences, but in a
way that satisfies Monica, because it prioritises herself. The sense of competition between an excess of
self and its nothingness provides an engaging background to the experiences of Smith’s narrators.
Usually, it is Smith’s women who are able to successfully navigate themselves through the fray, to
survive the changing demands they face. In ‘Big Week’ we are confronted with Michael Kennedy
McRae, a policeman forced to retire after battling a prescription painkiller turned heroin addiction.
The mixture of satire and tragedy is reminiscent of an Arthur Miller play – McRae cuts a Willy
Lomanesque figure. Yet towards the end, the spotlight shifts abruptly to Marie, his ex-wife. Despite
her fleeting appearance, we get the impression that her character is more than a foil to her husband.
Smith challenges the idea that childbirth and motherhood, finally resulting in an empty nest, stealing
time away from women. Instead, it shifts the pace of their and allows them to know their bodies, to
find a centre of gravity inaccessible to men.
The nature of relationships and internal body clocks comes under interrogation again in ‘For the King’, a story composed of a dinner conversation in Paris, the dizzying flow of topics, words and friendship as heady as the wine. It is one of the most vibrant pieces in the collection, alive with an attention to everyday details. The talk between the unnamed narrator and her friend V is trivial but almost profound in its regularity:
I asked him how he felt about ageing. V frowned and asked why was I worrying about the subject, I looked exactly the same. But that’s what friends always say, I replied, and they’re not lying, but it’s a delusion of familiarity. I don’t feel that you’ve aged or that any of my friends have aged but that can’t possibly be the case.
In the gaps in the dialogue, Paris twinkles in the background, obligingly picturesque. The cityscape is infiltrated by technology, transforming the charm of a black and white polaroid scene into the colour of the present day:
Since my last visit to Paris a new kind of electric scooter had invaded the city ... People left them abandoned wherever and whenever they felt like, then took them up again, using an app on their phones, translating this new technology into ancient Parisian habits, so that as we sat in Café de Flore we could watch several pairs of picturesque lovers go by, two bodies on a single scooter, helmetless, holding each other, as they had previously done on Vespas and on bikes, in 2CVs and horse-drawn carriages, or on the back of a farmer’s trailer, snug upon bales of hay.
This tension surrounding the inhibiting influence of the modern day, a mistrust and simultaneous wealth of material to be found in its development, is explored further in ‘Downtown’ and ‘Blocked’. The two stories focus on the artistic process, the trials and tribulations of writing. Smith’s position as one of the most celebrated figures of contemporary literature makes it tempting to imagine her own creative endeavours as we read:
I don’t think of a fragment as flawed or partial in any way. It’s the completist model that got me into such trouble in the first place. Now I praise the half-done, the unfinished, the broken, the shard! Who am I to turn my back on the fragment!
In fact, it could be said that issues of storytelling are Smith’s main preoccupation throughout Grand Union. The inertia and resignation described in ‘Lazy River’ calls attention to laziness and our culture of convenience; we believe and trust the narratives we encounter on social media and the internet, without questioning how they are constructed for us. As digital consumers, we invite manipulation. What is real in our identities has been buried by data, leaving our old selves barely recognisable. ‘Meet the President!’ offers a dystopian vision of where this behaviour might lead, revealing a new and exciting facet of Smith’s prose, as her writing ventures into styles that break with conventional realism. We could see the diverse range of genres Smith explores throughout the collection as a defence mechanism against the internet epidemic, a conscious effort to redeem experience by writing a range of perspectives into being. Often Smith demonstrates a capacity to enliven the past, incorporating personality into the urban myth that Michael Jackson fled the scene of 9/11 with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in ‘Escape from New York’, before crossing the Atlantic and travelling another forty years back in time in ‘Kelso Deconstructed’. This story offers a human insight into Kelso Cochrane, a point of view that has often been neglected in favour of emphasising the political web in which his tragedy became caught.
In the poem, all our British names are used – Black, Spade, Coloured – but no man appears to claim them. These are not names for Kelso. They name rather a certain kind of malignancy in the brain of Patrick Digby, the poet-murderer, whose name, like all proper names, describes him perfectly.
In a recent interview with the Literary Friction podcast, Smith mentioned how her students regard the first-person as the most credible form of expression. This bias is heavily related to our consumption of predominantly first- person material online. Smith stated that in Grand Union, she wanted to resist that impulse, and to instead take delight in the third-person artifice of story. That said, it does not seem a long time since her 2016 Swing Time interviews, where she admitted that since moving to the US, she had developed the confidence to write ‘I’, considering it a freeing experience. Evidence of this development of expression is present throughout the collection – the reading of it feels as much like thinking out loud as Smith’s writing of it.
A highly self-conscious writer, Smith demands an equally self-conscious reader. Some of the more obviously experimental pieces highlight the level of involvement with the text that Smith urges us to adopt. ‘Parents’ Morning Epiphany’, a close reading of a classroom worksheet, increases in hilarity the more one lingers within the boundaries of its irony. Since the publication of Grand Union, it has been a divisive story among reviewers who loved and hated it in equal measure. Its ability to perplex is its greatest strength; beginning with an intention to deconstruct, the story ends instead having added flesh onto bare bones:
I can imagine, a hundred years from now, this worksheet being found in the flooded wreckage of New York, and a small religious sect forming around its precepts, and this penultimate instruction being the holiest tenet of their faith.
We float down the canal of Smith’s shorter fiction to the final two stories, ‘Now More Than Ever’ and ‘Grand Union’. The former deals with cancel culture, and the toxic inauthenticity of social media; the latter disintegrates the boundaries between continents and timeframes, reuniting the living with the dead. Where ‘Now More Than Ever’ is haunting, the titular story is consoling. In a world where identity is becoming smaller and smaller, packed tightly into a box labelled with a Twitter handle or Instagram aesthetic, the self is simmering away into nothingness:
There is an urge to be good. To be seen to be good. To be seen. Also to be. Badness, invisibility, things as they are in reality as opposed to things as they seem, death itself – these are out of fashion.
Yet reconnecting with the stories and inheritances that connect us all, that are integral to existence, Smith suggests, is a way of embracing the self ’s natural excess. Humans are excessive and incongruous by nature, and Grand Union celebrates that fact in its entirety. Using the art of fiction to articulate the hidden parts of ourselves, Smith expands on this stance in her latest essay ‘Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction’, published in The New York Review of Books. Fiction provides an opportunity to articulate what is hidden within the identities we craft; personality is inconsistent, and, according to Smith, this aspect of human experience should be welcomed, not denied. Considering this, as with any book of hers, Smith’s short stories have arrived exactly when we need them most – to rescue us from ourselves, whilst simultaneously helping us find the way back.
Rebekah Cohen reads English at Somerville College. She is passionate about floral clothing, green tea and reading the letters of dead writers.
Art by Anna Covell