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Grand Union


by Zadie Smith

Grand Union by Zadie Smith X
Grand Union by Zadie Smith
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Oct 2019, 256 pages
    Oct 2020, 256 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Erin Lyndal Martin
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About this Book



Zadie Smith's Grand Union is a short story collection full of dry wit, formal experiments, and nuanced characters.

In Zadie Smith's debut short story collection, the accomplished novelist and essayist establishes herself as a phenom of the shorter form. All but four of the 19 stories in Grand Union have been previously published in literary journals, and all feature characters full of nuance, depicted with a balance of compassion and wit.

The author's humor is one of her most original, winning qualities. "Words and Music" is full of laugh-out-loud moments; I cracked up at relatable descriptions like this one: "Historically speaking, men with guitars have held their instruments in a certain way and pointed them at you like a penis and stood in the center of whatever space and drawn all energy to them like a lightning rod stuck on a church spire."

There's also a cackling hilarity to "Two Men Arrive in a Village" which opens with speculation about all the ways the story could begin: "No one can deny that two men have arrived in the middle of the night on horseback, or barefoot, or clinging to each other atop a Suzuki scooter, or riding atop a commandeered Jeep," she writes. Swiftly, she adds that, "It goes without saying that one of the men is tall, rather handsome—in a vulgar way—a little dim and vicious, while the other man is shorter, weasel-faced, and sly." Her juxtaposition of endless possibilities with incredibly specific images is sublime. This story stands out for having no main point-of-view character, yet offering an elegant description of a village.

In "Downtown," Smith takes the reader to the West Village in Manhattan, where characters mourn the sudden closure of their beloved hangout Café Loup. The story unfolds while Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford is testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee about Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Inviting in such a profound moment from recent history makes the story feel more immediate. "Downtown" also references events in African-American history and Black men killed more recently by police, though these things are presented as zeitgeist, never devolving into sermon or lecture.

When the author writes more fully about violence, the results are intentionally murky and chilling. In "Meet the President!," she withholds information about the background of 15-year-old protagonist Bill Peek while giving vivid details of his violent fantasies. We don't know who he is or why he's in Washington D.C. with his family, but we see the dark workings of his imagination. At the Lincoln Memorial, Smith tells us that "Bill Peek's scene of fabulous chaos was frozen—a Minotaur sat in the lap of stony Abe Lincoln and a dozen carefully placed IEDs awaited detonation." What's so frightening about the teen's visions is how casually they seem to come to him.

In "Big Week," the protagonist reveals way too much about himself to others while he seeks redemption. A former police officer and substance abuse counselor who got hooked on opiates after a running injury, Mike now drives an Uber and begs the local library to allow him back on their board. His overly chatty manner and his brags about his children feel real, especially for anyone who's spent time in Charlestown, the suburb in Boston he calls home. In the process of divorcing and moving out of his former home, we want Mike's situation to improve even as we empathize with the characters who don't think highly of him.

This collection also offers two experiments in form. "Parents' Morning Epiphany" is framed as a fiction-writing worksheet, with sections titled "1st Person Narrator" and "Show the Resolution." This story stands out for its lack of characters and discernible storyline as much as for the unusual form, but it's a useful education after spending time with Smith's unusual stories. "Mood" is also an alternative form broken into smaller sections, but it's difficult to discern how the subsections connect, if at all. Some are snippets of dialogue, some are third-person anecdotes, some are lists about the blogging platform Tumblr. Regardless, there are some funny moments and interesting narrative strategies if you don't try too hard to connect the dots.

Zadie Smith is a much-lauded writer known mostly for her novels; On Beauty was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and Swing Time was long-listed. Short fiction allows for a more experimental approach, which Smith takes advantage of in spades. Grand Union is a challenging, but rewarding reading experience.

Several of the stories in this collection are available in full online, including "Meet the President!" and "Two Men Arrive in a Village," both published by the New Yorker.

Reviewed by Erin Lyndal Martin

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in November 2019, and has been updated for the October 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Café Loup

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