Grand Union: Stories, by Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, 256 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0241337028
The arrival of Zadie Smith’s debut short story collection, Grand Union, feels extremely timely; for its complex narrativisation of modern life simultaneously questions the role of fiction in an era of “post-truth” politics. This compilation is a self-reflexive exercise whereby Smith exposes the tension between aesthetics and politics in fictional narrative, and considers its potential to be either productive or problematic. Her new story “Kelso Deconstructed” addresses this paradox via the figure of a poet-orator declaiming from atop a soapbox:
“The thing about narrative,” said the speaker, on the crate, “is that it is inherently inauthentic. It is prearranged information in a certain pattern. It will always have a motive. It will always be a manipulation … if it comes from the right, well, then we call it propaganda, and if from the left we tend to consider it not only humane but beautiful. It matters very much who the ‘we’ is in this proposition.”
This scene takes place in Hyde Park’s famed Speakers’ Corner, an open-air space for public speaking and debate. Historically a platform for an international cast of writers and revolutionaries such as Karl Marx, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, George Orwell, CLR James, Walter Rodney, Ben Tillett and Marcus Garvey, Speakers’ Corner was frequented by a range of Londoners. Smith reimagines a day in the lives of two such people, Notting Hill residents Kelso and Olivia Cochrane, who attend the Sunday afternoon session before Kelso is killed later that night. The story is based on real-life events surrounding the murder of Afro-Caribbean immigrant Kelso Cochrane in 1959, a year after the Notting Hill race riots occurred. Fuelled by fascist ideologies, a group of “white youths” who “liked to make trouble for spades” accosted Cochrane on the street, stabbed him and fled. Smith’s treatment of “free speech” in the postwar, post-Windrush period illustrates the power of political rhetoric to alter the fabric of society ‑ a point which is acutely relevant to our current moment.
This keen awareness of narrative as a sociopolitical force is the greatest strength of Smith’s writing, which is at once characterised by immediacy and deep historical resonances. The best of her stories showcase her capacity to harness this force in order to facilitate an intense moment of perception for both the author and the reader. In the foreword to her essay collection Feel Free (2018), she explains her approach:
Writing exists for me at the intersection of three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self. The first is never wholly mine; the second I can only ever know in a partial sense; the third is a malleable and improvised response to the previous two … It’s this self … that I try to write from and to. My hope is for a reader who … takes it for granted that reading involves all the same liberties and exigencies as writing.
In Feel Free, Smith claims that she is “by nature not a political person … My business such as it is, concerns the intimate lives of people.” Nevertheless, in a recent interview she concurs with Orwell’s assertion that “all writing is political”. Indeed a central theme throughout her oeuvre is identity politics, and Smith investigates what she terms “the fictional status of identity itself.” Her writing considers how identity construction imbricates with gender, sexuality, race, class and postcoloniality. Smith examines this nexus in her first published story “The Waiter’s Wife”, which appeared in Granta in 1999. Its portrayal of multicultural London is a precursor of her bestselling, award-winning debut novel White Teeth (2000), which propelled her onto the literary scene. During her twenty-year career, Smith has published four more novels, as well as a novella, two essay collections, and a number of short stories in literary magazines. Her writing is ambitious, wide-ranging, and largely critically acclaimed. However, the majority of critical and scholarly attention is devoted to her novels and her short fiction remains underexplored. The back cover of Grand Union describes the volume as “interleaving eleven completely new and unpublished stories with [nine] of her best-loved pieces from The New Yorker and elsewhere”. Given that Grand Union offers an introduction to her small body of short fiction, the choice to omit some previously published pieces rather than producing a book of new and collected stories is a missed opportunity. Inexplicably, “The Waiter’s Wife” is absent here, as are several other important pieces.
On the whole, the earlier stories that are republished in this collection outshine the new work. One of the highlights, “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets”, was shortlisted for the 2014 BBC National Short Story Award, whose judges praised Smith’s rendering of a “short explosive encounter” between the eponymous protagonist and her past. The story begins as a humorous quest when an ageing drag queen’s beloved corset finally breaks: “The thing about undergarments … is they can only do so much with the cards they’ve been dealt. Like Obama.” While shopping for lingerie in downtown Manhattan, she experiences the sudden onset of a mid-life crisis: “Nothing bored Miss Adele more than ancient queens waxing lyrical about the good old bad old days.” Miss Adele’s account expands into a powerful exploration of queer African-American experience in the face of oppressive forces such as fetishisation, transphobia, and religious zealotry.
Of the new work, the titular “Grand Union” is the standout story. Smith closes the collection with a brief but potent rumination on diaspora spaces and matrilineal inheritance. After a confrontation with her young daughter, the anxious narrator seeks maternal advice:
I felt the need to get out of the house and see my mother. She was dead, and in heaven, but for convenience’s sake we met outside the chicken spot at the top of Ladbroke Grove. It was, in the moment, the blackest place I could think of. We sat together on the steps of the Golden Dragon … Though it’s a Chinese place, it empathizes with its clientele, and that day they were offering inauthentic jerk with rice and pea and two plastic forks.
Here, as in much of her writing, Smith employs her trademark wit, ironic humour, and subversive bathos to address the historical forces that enmatrix contemporary life. Although the narrator resides in New York City, this imagined encounter happens in her birthplace of North West London following Caribbean carnival. Therefore the language of the tale moves across a continuum of British, American, Jamaican Creole and West African dialects: “she admonished me for using an Americanism and asked if I was still living in those devilish parts. I had to confess I was, but had come all this way, across an ocean, just to converse with her spirit.” The narrator draws strength from this conversation with her mother’s ghost, which also enables her to commune with a host of ancestral spirits: “I told her I loved her. I wandered over to the Grand Union Canal which may well be that river of milk which all the daughters of the world are looking for … following the tread of my mother, and her mother, and her mother.”
The transnational scope of this story, and of the collection, is evident in their shared title. For Grand Union is not only the name of London’s main canal (the largest merged canal in the United Kingdom), it is also the original name of Grand Central train station in Manhattan. Thus, the title of the book unites Smith’s present and previous hometowns, which shape her mindset and which serve as settings for the majority of her stories. It also indicates that these tales are sites of imaginative convergence and ideational crossings. Accordingly, the volume features a broad thematic range, covering issues such as Brexit, Trump, war, immigration, interculturalism, intersectionality, sex, ageing and technology. It also comprises a variety of genres, including realist, speculative, experimental, and historical fiction. In Grand Union, Smith holds seemingly disparate elements in creative tension without resolving them, presenting a captivating, composite portrait of the contemporary moment.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast. She has taught at Maynooth University, the University of Edinburgh, and the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School (SUISS). She is co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). Dawn has also published in Irish Studies Review, Breac, Callaloo, Open Library of Humanities, the Sunday Business Post, Four Nations History and Writing the Troubles. She is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books, The Honest Ulsterman, and The Irish Times. Follow her on Twitter @drdawnmiranda.