Of odds and ends

Urvashi Bahuguna | Updated on January 31, 2020 Published on January 30, 2020

On a string: One of the stronger stories in the anthology is ‘Just Right’, which follows a family of puppeteers, who are seen mostly through the lens of their young son   -  ISTOCK.COM

‘Grand Union’, Zadie Smith’s debut collection of short stories ‘tells’ more than it ‘shows’

Of Zadie Smith’s first foray into short fiction, Grand Union: Stories, the critic Heller McAlpin wrote, “There are several ways of looking at a story collection (this) wide-ranging and variable.” McAlpin captures what I suspect many reviewers and readers felt as they engaged with the ambitious (and bewildering) range in this collection. A common and entirely understandable phenomenon in the long careers of prolific writers is that not all their work is able to hit the high notes. Grand Union, the much-lauded writer’s seventh full-length publication, makes for challenging reading.

Grand Union: Stories; Zadie Smith; Hamish Hamilton; Fiction; ₹699

The stories include dystopias in the near-future, a retelling of a race-motivated killing in London in 1959, a creative reimagining of a worksheet on narrative techniques, family vacations, a friends’ reunion, and one about the week of the Judge Kavanaugh hearings in a sexual assault case brought against the Supreme Court nominee in the US. The collection opens with a mother and daughter at a small beachside town and closes with a daughter and her mother outside a grocery store in the city. I found myself taking frequent breaks between stories because I would acclimatise to one story only to be placed in a new, entirely unconnected reality. The challenge was not simply that there was variety, but that there was no organising principle or common voice that allowed the stories to come together.

The collection brings to mind the adage generally proffered to aspiring writers: “Show, don’t tell.” In this collection at least, Smith is frequently a teller. The stories explain themselves in places where the meaning is already obvious or would have been better left obscure. In and of itself, that doesn’t disqualify the writing from being persuasive in other ways. Some of the insights into class anxieties, gender roles and geography are thoughtful. But one must wade through an ocean of underwhelming writing to find the astute sentences and well-developed scenes such as the one that shows the gradually escalating conflict between a transwoman and a shopkeeper in Miss Adele Amongst the Corsets.

The 19 stories switch between Smith’s two countries of residence, England and the US, with the exception of two brief forays into other worlds. The anxiety and discomfort that come from feeling British and being elsewhere, from being black in dominantly white communities, and from being working class in the company of middle-class and upper-class people permeate many of the narratives. In Sentimental Education, Monica remembers her life in university where she was first exposed to feminist theory and dated one of the only three other black people on campus. The story is ostensibly about youth, female desire and heterosexual relationships, but the most interesting elements are the cameos and backstories. The paragraphs afforded to the Irish women who clean the dorm rooms and the drug-peddling friend from back home who has followed Monica’s boyfriend to university and sleeps on his floor are some of the most memorable parts of the book.

Each story requires patience and thought to delve into, and sometimes even that would not yield further understanding. There are too many sentences such as this, “She had only just turned twenty, and yet she had alighted upon the answer everybody had been seeking since the very beginnings of cultural theory...” Whether the intention is to amuse the reader or remind them that it is in the nature of epiphanies to appear original, the effect falls flat. There is heightened generalisation in these stories that hold the characters at a frustrating distance. The conclusions of most of the stories left me confused — I wasn’t sure what I had absorbed from the reading. The strongest sections appear to stand on their own, with the rest of the text surrounding them rather than building up to them.

Two stories stand apart from the rest. The small, intimate casts in these are allowed room to show themselves, to flex their complexities. Just Right follows a family of puppeteers, who are seen mostly through the lens of their young son. The story draws attention to the way certain personalities are drawn to the arts, but no matter how deeply one may identify with one’s vocation, anxiety about missed opportunities and the more favourable circumstances of other people’s lives never quite goes away. In Big Week, a man with an unnervingly sunny disposition deals with the aftermath of his divorce. An ex-cop and recovering addict, his children and ex-wife move in and out of the story to reveal all the little details one doesn’t know about a man when he’s alone. The latter is a particularly satisfying story that surprised and moved me.

There were multiple points in the collection where I was aware that I continued reading because I was reviewing it. I found myself reminded of these words by the critic Parul Sehgal: “There are gifted — or maybe just thirstier — readers among us who, by dint of stamina or plain need, won’t be stymied by boredom, offense, incomprehension.” I wondered if there were readers out there who will find these stories more rewarding than I did. For me, in an era of abundant compelling fiction, Grand Union doesn’t cut it. Yet, though I did not evenly enjoy these stories, I do await Smith’s next offering.

Urvashi Bahuguna is a Delhi-based writer

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Published on January 30, 2020
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