Then and Now: Twenty Years of Zadie Smith

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Whether you’re in a small university town or a densely populated city, the novels of Zadie Smith will always line the shelves of English-language bookstores. Voracious readers all around the world reach for White Teeth and On Beauty, or perhaps one of her newer novels, like Feel Free. Three years ago, I did the same, and I haven’t looked back since. 

After reading White Teeth, I fell in love with Smith’s incisive wit, vivid characterisation, and impeccable ear for rendering dialogue. An ambitious, multigenerational narrative traversing through London, White Teeth has often been pronounced to be epic in scale. Smith moves seamlessly from the specific to the universal: she does not shy away from the seemingly minor interactions within the families of the novel, delving deep into the characters’ interiorities. Major historical events occur in tandem with the granularity of the seemingly mundane. An area in which Smith excels is capturing the spirit of place just as successfully as she captures the spirit of her characters. She creates tableaux of modernity that unfold before our eyes: her ear for dialogue is as excellent as her eye for change. 

Comparing a novel to a short story may be akin to comparing apples and oranges. Nonetheless, I had high expectations for Smith’s latest short story collection, Grand Union, because of my confidence in Smith’s versatility as a writer. Grand Union is certainly grand in terms of scope and ambition, but the resulting collection pales in comparison to Smith’s other work, especially her novels. Her strong and distinctive narrative voice is replaced with a shadow of itself, especially in the opening short stories, which are simultaneously underdeveloped and overly self-conscious. Particularly, the prose of ‘The Lazy River’ is as equally tepid as the water in the titular river. In a feeble attempt at metaliterature, Smith spells out repeatedly that the river ‘is a metaphor’. The characterisation feels rushed and the narrative seems to have been haphazardly constructed, particularly in ‘Parent’s Morning Epiphany’ and ‘The Dialectic’:  the latter especially is so uncharacteristic of Smith’s well-rounded work that it reads like a misprint. Perhaps these shortcomings could be defended as Smith’s way of resisting the reader’s expectations, but in my opinion, Smith has instead managed to disappoint. 

Fortunately, the other stories in the collection are more interesting and substantial. While the beginning was largely disappointing, the one story that stopped me from throwing in the towel was ‘Sentimental Education.’ While I argued that Smith’s formal experimentation falls short in  some of her short stories, but in ‘Sentimental Education’ she succeeds in her vivid rendering of her characters’ experimentation in sexuality and selfhood. In ‘Downtown’ and ‘Just Right’, Smith returns to her often-explored themes of race and politics, demonstrating her acuity in representing the nuances of urban life, latent in her works set in New York and London. She captures both the warmth and distance characteristic of familial relationships, strongly anchoring us to the present.

Her ear for dialogue is as excellent as her eye for change

My favourite story from the collection is ‘Miss Adele Among the Corsets’. A shopping trip in New York city instead becomes a journey through 30 years of history: Smith literally walks us through a reflection on societal change and prejudices. Miss Adele’s confrontation in the store becomes a cacophony of identity crises, reflected through the collision of opinions. In a similar way, the final story ‘Grand Union’ blurs this relationship between perception and reality. It is in these two stories that Smith’s prose is at her best: introspective, precise, human. A powerfully elegiac exploration of love and family, on both the personal and universal scales, ‘Grand Union’ is a strong conclusion to the collection.

If this is your first time reading Smith, I wholeheartedly recommend starting with her novels, especially On Beauty and White Teeth. In both novels, Smith manages to experiment with modern techniques and themes while respecting literary traditions, counterpoising past and present with aplomb. However, Grand Union would have been an underwhelming blemish on Smith’s bibliography if not redeemed by the stronger stories. Fortunately, Smith can still create powerful and resonant narratives in some stories, but if she had sustained this throughout, Grand Union could have been a grander achievement.

Image: Stephen Green via Pixabay

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