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‘Grand Union’ offers exceptional short fiction

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True literary excellence is rare. At any given time, there exists a relative handful of writers capable of creating legitimately exceptional prose. There are plenty of GOOD writers out there (though perhaps not as many as we might like), but scant few GREAT ones.

The truly excellent are the ones who are not only capable of crafting greatness, but are also willing to push boundaries – both the establishment’s and their own. These are the writers who, in continuing to challenge themselves, burst through the literary ionosphere and hurtle toward undiscovered realms.

Zadie Smith is one such writer.

The author’s first collection of short fiction is “Grand Union” (Penguin Press, $27), a magnificently wide-ranging selection of stories so diverse and divergent that it sometimes seems that their only shared quality – the one thing that marks them as the work of a singular author – is their excellence. Some are longish, some are very short. Some are straightforward, some are opaque. Some explore genre, some are more traditionally literary. Their sole unifying element is their greatness.

Perhaps this reads as hyperbolic. It would certainly be understandable if that was how you interpreted it. But rest assured – if anything, the exceedingly high quality of this work is being undersold. Yes, among these 19 pieces are works that maybe don’t shine with quite the same brightness, but they too offer their luster. The stars shine less brightly than the moon; the moon in turn less brightly than the sun – are any of them any less captivating because of a disparity of lumens?

“Sentimental Education” is an intimate examination of race as seen through the lens of academia – specifically, what it means to be one of the few dark faces in a college campus’s sea of white. It’s the story of the relationship between two of those few, and how that relationship is both helped and hindered by the past. Monica is somewhat anxious to leave that past behind, while Darryl invites his to the present. Literally, in the form of his old buddy Leon, a charming ne’er-do-well with a bright smile and a penchant for petty crime. It’s a fascinating take on what it means to fit in, how difficult it can be … and whether it’s even worth the effort.

“Escape From New York” is a whole different animal, a wild speculative tale built around the legendary rumor that Michael Jackson drove Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando out of New York City during the immediate aftermath of 9/11. It’s a weird one, centered on Michael and painting a very idiosyncratic picture of both the individuals involved and the nature of their relationships to one another. But it also strives to capture the (mostly) benign self-centeredness that comes with being not just famous, but megafamous. It also features some of the funniest dialogue in the entire collection, for the record.

There are a couple of dystopian efforts that warrant mention as well. “The Canker” and “Meet the President!” are different on the surface – the former takes place in the low-tech isolated outskirts of a world where a new ruler is on the rise; the latter in more urban surroundings, albeit both real and virtual. Both explore the nature of power, though, and how its influences can lead to a sort of soul rot; in both places, we get a sense of how power imbalances dissolve empathy.

“Blocked” offers up a theory as to why the Creator, whoever he/she/it might be, might have walked away from what had been created. It’s a thoughtful take, delivered from the perspective of that same Creator. “Parents’ Morning Epiphany” is an experimental effort, a checklist of escalating absurdity. I can’t possibly explain it and do it justice; you’re better off just seeing it for yourself. “Now More Than Ever” is a bleak glimpse into one possible evolution of our society’s trend toward performative and punitive wokeness.

Honestly, there’s something to recommend each one of these stories. “Grand Union” is so packed with impact that choosing a favorite feels like a fool’s errand. They’re all so goddamned GOOD, you know? Every piece is charged with intelligence and wit. And they all have something to say, which is another indicator of literary excellence that is all too rare these days.

There’s a truth-to-power sentiment that sits at the heart of most of Smith’s work; this one is no exception. The notion of how power impacts the human condition, both of those who possess it and those oppressed by it, is a central tenet to these pieces. That sense of intellectual challenge is buoyed by preternatural prose gifts, resulting in stories that dig into your brain and set up shop, burrowing beneath the surface only to pop up to offer even more unanticipated insights.

To be able to put together a collection like this, one that is stylistically diverse yet thematically consistent … it’s astonishing. Anyone who has ever read a word written by Zadie Smith knows what a talent she is, but when you sit down and pore through this collection, filled with weird tales and autofictional intimacies and experimental explorations, you’re confronted with the sheer magnitude of her abilities.

“Grand Union” is a masterful collection from an exquisite storyteller. Few writers have the talent to pull something like this off. Fewer still have the audacity to even try. How lucky we are, then, that Zadie Smith has both.

Last modified on Tuesday, 15 October 2019 16:58

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