GRAND UNION: Stories. By Zadie Smith. Penguin. pages. $28.
Zadie Smith famously wrote one of the only negative reviews of her smash first novel “White Teeth.” She described this generous, refreshing book as “the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired, tap-dancing 10-year-old.” Those who loved the dancing kid in Smith will welcome the sock of energy that is “Grand Union,” Smith’s first collection of short fiction.
“Grand Union” is a catch-all volume, zippy and various. The stories date from 2013 up to the near present moment. Of the collection’s 19 stories, five saw first publication in The New Yorker, two in The Paris Review and one in Granta. The rest make their debuts here, and what a fun party they make.
The best stories in the book show up back to back and early. “Sentimental Education” is a moody, refractive story that might have taken its title from a Gustave Flaubert novel. Flaubert announced that he wanted to “write the moral history” of the men of his generation, with an emphasis on feelings. Smith’s story also draws us into morality and emotion. Monica, her central consciousness, shuttles back and forth between the present middle-age moment and her years at college. Hers was one of four dark faces on campus. It seemed natural enough to pair up with Dwayne, one of the other dark faces.
Although they share a race and a postal code, Monica and Dwayne are mismatched from the start. He is devoted to memory; she doesn’t want to be encumbered by the past. She is busy playing a game of who’s on top; he’s just hanging around and getting by. Although Monica is busy moving ahead and discarding memories (“they only tie you to the past”), she makes an exception and preserves her dreams: “A dream was a house your brain made without your permission.”
The next story is “The Lazy River,” a kind of waking dream. If “Sentimental Education” is all about building and shedding personas, “The Lazy River” takes a vacation from the struggle to be anything in particular. The story’s narrator, who speaks in the first person plural, is on holiday in Almeira, somewhere in southern Spain, at an all-inclusive resort. But she might be anywhere. If she were asked to find Almeira on a map, she couldn’t.
The lazy river is both real and metaphorical: “The plain fact is that we will be carried along the Lazy River, at the same rate, under the same relentless Spanish sun, forever, until we are not.” Round and round they go, with intervals of karaoke (Amy Winehouse) and magic (rabbits). The sea is out there, but, as our funny narrator says, “once you have entered the Lazy River, with all its pliability and ease, its sterilizing chlorine and swift, yet manageable currents, it is hard to accept the sea.”
Smith, as always, nails the pitch and tone of everyday life. Just as we readers are floating along frictionless in Smith’s prose, she brings us back to the real world. Even the Lazy River is never the same twice (thanks, Heraclitus). Thinking one philosophical thought leads her narrator to others, and soon she is falling like Eve back into a world of shame.
The epigraph to Smith’s collection, “How can anyone fail to be?” comes from Frank O’Hara’s poem “Yesterday Down at the Canal.” Smith herself brims with zest and attitude. Her sense of inhabiting a time and place — fully being there — is a marvel. Smith sets many of the stories in “Grand Union” in New York, her adopted home, where she has taught at NYU since 2010: “Words and Music,” “Downtown,” “Just Right,” “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets,” “Mood” and “Escape from New York.”
Whether she’s recording a mass cry of distress at the closing of Cage Loup in the Village or taking us on a walk with her Jamaican aunts, whose visit coincides exactly with the four days of the Kavanaugh hearings, Smith tunes in to big, colorful worlds. She will always be a native of Willesden, another big, colorful world, but she’s made herself at home also here in the States.
In all the outposts of Zadie Smith’s imagination, one thing is certain: No one fails to be. Yet another Frank O’Hara line might apply to Smith’s “republic of the imagination” (her phrase): “What land is this, so free?”