:: Article

Grand Union

By Andrew Hungate.

Zadie Smith, Grand Union (Hamish Hamilton, 2019)

Imagine that you teach in a public school in New York City. The day comes for your fourth-grade students to try their hand at creative writing, and so you distribute a worksheet to the class. Perhaps you designed the worksheet yourself, or perhaps it was written by a colleague, but it is a simple document, going through the elements of narrative — perspective, setting, pace, and so on — in a friendly and uncomplicated way that encourages your students to approach writing themselves.

It turns out that one of these students has an internationally famous novelist and essayist for a mother. She has been short on inspiration lately, but when she sees this worksheet with its naïve, narrow remarks and cartoonish illustrations, she decides that it will make an excellent target for a real writer. Over the course of one exhilarating morning, she turns this worksheet into an excoriating series of snide remarks about the New York Public School system, then sends it off to her editor without altering a single jot, not even the injunctive at the top: “Feel free to take this worksheet home and review it with your child”.

This is “Parents’ Morning Epiphany,” a poorly executed and mean-spirited rant whose inclusion in Zadie Smith’s first short story collection, Grand Union, is so depressing that it makes one want to give up on upmarket fiction altogether.

But let’s try again. Why begin with the bad? Grand Union shows a talented, award-winning novelist trying her hand for the first time at short stories, some of which are very good. A story entitled “Two Men Arrive in a Village” stands out as an exceptional length of prose, infusing a mythopoetic style with the concrete terms of postcolonial suffering. “Kelso Deconstructed” makes out of the 1959 murder of Kelso Cochrane a clever update of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, reminding us with a few forceful twists of the arm that the meditative memento mori is a thing for “bourgeois Russian deathbeds”. Even the less polished pieces are refreshing in their frankness of form, as Smith makes no attempt to distinguish between essay and story, the observed and the imagined.

Indeed, for readers who have grown accustomed to the semi-annual release of a Zadie Smith novel, Grand Union promises a refreshing change of pace. It is encouraging to see a writer experiment in the middle stage of their career. “It’s the completist model that got me into such trouble in the first place,” Smith writes in “Blocked.” “Now I praise the half-done, the unfinished, the broken, the shard!”

Unfortunately, Grand Union is deeply unfun to read. There is plenty of the “half-done,” but that is more likely due to a lack of proper editing than anything else. Smith is usually a clear and straightforward stylist, so it is rather shocking to come across a sentence like the following:

Their father, who could very easily be — as far as anyone in Sopot was concerned — around the next corner, buying more refreshments for his family, had in reality emigrated, to America, and now fixed car doors onto cars in some gigantic factory, instead of being the co-manager of a small garage, as he had once had the good fortune to be, before he left.

The greater problem is tone. The narrators of these stories and essays are not just cynical — they are leering. They leer at millennials, technology, and the bourgeoisie while dangling a few self-deprecating remarks in half-hearted humility. One wonders why Smith is so keen to distance herself from young people. In “For the King,” she writes: “We wondered what young people overhearing us might make of our ancient conceptual divisions . . . how ridiculous we must sound to them”. In “The Lazy River,” the narrator sneers at the selfie habits of teenage girls by the pool, who are posing with an upside-down book. They are caricatures, of course, and one hopes the narrators are as well, but where is the warmth?

The New York stories in particular have that aggravating combination of urban worship and class criticism that serves so unnecessarily, and for so many, as the spirit of the “literary New Yorker,” but sounds to the rest of us like so much of what has come before. It is a variation on two sentiments: “Only in New York can one see [insert beauty] with [insert filth],” and “This privileged individual has just done or said something absurd, but they don’t see it that way!” A story based on the rumored escape from the city by Marlon Brando, Michael Jackson, and Elizabeth Taylor on September 11 proves to be an exception, though it retains the form and feeling of a creative writing prompt.

The collection does try for warmth, here and there. “Big Week” features Mike McRae, a recently divorced, recovering opioid addict who cannot help unleash a frightening waterfall of love upon all his fellow creatures. It is an honest, if rather painful attempt at the American working-class dialect, and when Mike begins talking to a woman in his taxi who turns out to be a beautiful and refined Ugandan architect, the story is clarified as an answer to the question: “What if I tried to write from the perspective of my cab driver?”

“Miss Adele Amongst the Corsets” is more successful. An older drag queen with skin like “some once-valuable piece of mahogany furniture, lightly dusted with cocaine” goes into a corset shop where she must navigate a pitched cacophony of arguments, languages, and differing attitudes toward gender. In this case, the “melting pot” cliché of New York is made up for by the wonderful pacing, as well as a relieving lack of sympathy for any particular point of view. The rest of the stories alternate between controlled writing exercises and uncontrolled personal essays, with cultural commentary that occasionally hits the mark.

Then there is “Blocked,” a piece of metacriticism in which Smith agonizes over her reputation and direction as a writer. Six pages of angry imprecations against both her readers and her own person leaves you wanting to feel sympathetic, but also rather jilted. At one point, Smith declares: “I AM DEPRESSED.” Then she justifies it: “At a certain point, given the way things are, it’s a fair and rational response”. The kind assumption here is that she is justifying this to herself, and not to the reader. But what to make of the sentence that follows? “The fact that I even have to defend the emotion tells you all you need to know about how large the distance has become between my mind and all other minds.”

Nobody feels comfortable calling themselves depressed; some people take a long time to build up the courage to say it just once. However, one thing that can help is to hear the feeling expressed by somebody else, especially a writer. As the critic Steven Ratiner writes, in a review of the wonderful poems of Jack Gilbert: “My own solitude would feel more desolate if it had not been fortified by an engagement with his”. It is a quality of the best literature to make us feel understood, at least in one corner of the world, and not pushed out with “all other minds”.

“Blocked” begins with, “What nobody gets . . .”, continues with “a lot of people could do with being a lot less judgmental”, and finally — just when dog ownership seems to offer a bit of commonality between Smith’s position and the rest of the world — ends with the sentence, “I am no longer concerned whether or not I am the only soul left in existence who knows what a dog means and what it is for”. (Can I take a moment here to complain about the sheer number of artists expressing with all the useless generativity of the suicidal brother in Franny and Zooey telling his younger sister to shine her shoes “for the Fat lady” that the key to life, happiness, and, rather conveniently, the criticism of others is a dog?)

None of this feels very inviting, to say the least. This is the problem with Grand Union: individual pieces of talented writing are undercut by an author who refers to “the people” in quotation marks, and twice repeats the phrase, “This is a metaphor”. In other words, an author who seems conflicted about our presence in her domain.



Andrew Hungate is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in Words Without Borders, ZYZZYVA, Literary Imagination, and elsewhere.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 18th, 2019.