Zadie Smith’s fifth novel, “Swing Time” — about two music-and-dance besotted London girls whose adult lives take them in thornily different directions — was such a glorious piece of work that almost any follow-up to it would risk being a letdown. But her new collection of short stories, “Grand Union,” is particularly bewildering. There are several masterpieces among its 19 entries — but there are also experimental doodles and duds that might better have been left in her desk drawer.
The masterpieces first: “Sentimental Education” initially feels like a rueful take on a young university student’s sexual recklessness (“Could it be? Had she slept with three people in twelve hours?”) and her habit of treating the men in her life as objectified “muses” (“Darryl was the first to like it”). The sexual hijinks are explicit, and the wayward psychological dynamics behind them are cannily observed. What’s unexpected is the context in which these dalliances find an echo in her later married life. There’s something both taboo and enlightening in the twist this sly story takes.
Several Manhattan-set tales (the London-born Smith now lives in New York where she teaches at New York University) show her steeped in her new surroundings and even venturesomely evoking the city’s past. “Just Right,” set when the Guggenheim Museum was being built in the 1950s, is a Greenwich Village tale about a white boy with a stutter whose bohemian parents help him navigate a possible friendship with a “colored girl.” She’s a gifted chess player who’s a bit too eager to point out his shortcomings. The result is a gentle look at misunderstandings and misgivings in which race is a factor but far from the only one.
“Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” dips into the more raucous subcultures of the city, as its title character, a tired, aging African American drag queen (“When did the effort start outweighing the pleasure?”), shops for some undergarments that will marshal her sagging male torso back into alluring female form. Clinton Corset Emporium, a drab Lower East Side outfit where she hopes to find a corset that’s up to the task, is operated by a husband and wife who continually yell at each other in a language Miss Adele can’t quite pinpoint. Major miscommunications, full-on meltdowns and chilly reprimands ensue. At same time, Smith deftly fills us in on why Miss Adele’s background gave rise to her belief that you should “[l]eave the place you left where you left it.” The story is a painful gem.
Other high points include “Big Week,” which views a Boston cop’s fall from grace and marital separation from four bittersweet points of view; “For the King,” in which two longtime friends – one gay, one straight – rendezvous in Paris for a tell-all night on the town; and “Kelso Deconstructed,” which imagines the lead-up to the real-life London murder of Antiguan immigrant Kelso Cochrane in 1959.
Smith always hints more than she spells out, and where race is concerned, she’ll deliberately delay revealing ethnic identities until you’re well into the story. Identity politics interest her far less than people do. It’s no surprise that she does better with a bigger canvas – 20 or 30 pages versus 4 to 10 – given the rich, symphonic scope of her novels.
One minor entry in the book, “Words and Music” has its small-scale charms as it evokes Manhattan lives in six wily vignettes. More often, her shorter, more experimental pieces feel like “Look, Ma, no narrative!” pyrotechnics. They’re abstract head-scratchers, even when they touch on such headline-making current affairs as the Brett Kavanaugh hearings (“Downtown”). At times Smith is so cleverly oblique that she’s seems to skirt taking on any subject matter at all.
In “Blocked,” the narrator offers a semi-comprehensible explanation of what Smith may be up to in these more difficult stories: “I’m not a fool, I know when I’m being avoidant. But some of the most sublime things emerge as vehicles of distraction. Really depends on how you look at it. These days, I love a fragment. 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! Who am I to say the fragment is insufficient!”
Still, “Grand Union” isn’t a good place to start with Smith if you aren’t familiar with her. Instead, look to “Swing Time,” “On Beauty” (her brilliant recasting of E.M. Forster’s “Howards End”) or “White Teeth,” the debut novel that rightly started all the fuss when she was just 24 years old.
By Zadie Smith
Penguin Press, 246 pp., $27Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.