Here’s a riddle. What is simultaneously the most exciting thing to tell someone and the most boring to hear about? A dream. The interesting sort is your own. And the kind that evoke politely muffled yawns are those belonging to other people. Really. When was the last time you heard someone say “I had the weirdest dream last night” and you responded with something other than a sardonic, “Oh?”
Reading Zadie Smith’s latest short-story collection, Grand Union, is like listening to hour upon hour of tales about someone else’s dreams. The stories are well written because Smith is a terrific writer. The characters are well drawn because that is Smith’s forte. Much of it is striking and much of it is memorable. And yet the stories are frustratingly fragmented and incoherent — strange and impenetrable as the subconscious itself.
My main gripe is that the stories are more or less meaningless. Page after page, we await the moment when Smith will tell us what — beyond the immediate — they’re about. When she will say, as other dreamers do, “And, of course, this all must have come from the conversation I had with my husband about having the spare room painted. Which was really about us trying for a baby.” Of course, she could do it in a far more sophisticated way than that if she liked. But she never does.
The collection is made up of 19 short stories: an additional eleven to the eight already published in The New Yorker, Granta, and The Paris Review. The first third of the book is weaker than the rest. Story No. 2, “Sentimental Education,” is about the political discussions, drugs, and sex (mostly the sex) had by some bright college kids. “The Lazy River” is an elaborate metaphor for life itself: “Yesterday the Lazy River was green. Nobody knows why. Theories abound. They all involve urine.”
“Just Right” centers on a family in Greenwich Village before the war and has some fine passages, such as the following one, which uses understatement to distill racial divisions and the casual cruelty of children: “The pairing was to be achieved alphabetically, as if a third of the class wasn’t coloured and Walter Ulbricht didn’t have a port-wine stain eating half of his face.” The stories set in New York City are compelling and make clear Smith’s intimate knowledge of the place. For instance, she writes:
Three benches along sits Abraham Lincoln. Same beard, same face, and he’s got an outfit that works. It’s not a costume, exactly, but the general impression is that this is basically what Lincoln would wear if he were alive today and spent his days between MacDougal, Thompson and the park.
Weirdly, I know exactly whom she is talking about. There’s nothing fictional about him. Last year, I conversed with Mr. Lincoln at St. Joseph’s soup kitchen on Sixth Avenue. That man was born to be written about. He knows it, too.
Anticipating her reader’s discombobulation, Smith provides us with a breakdown of her postmodern narrative method. “Welcome to the Narrative Techniques Worksheet!” reads the first sentence of the so-called story “Parent’s Morning Epiphany.” Under instructive headlines such as “Show the Resolution” and “Clarity of Ideas” Smith leaves cunning clues, such as “Plot is not my strong point” and “It may have gone over my head.” Ho ho — she is taunting her reviewer — I know what you’re thinking, “The writing lacks definition and structure.” I dare you to say it now that I’ve mentioned it myself. Okay. The writing lacks definition and structure. It does.
Is there more to this than meets the eye? Back in 2000, a year after the then-24-year-old Smith had published her critically acclaimed debut novel, White Teeth, the literary critic James Wood wrote an essay for The New Republic with Smith’s book as his primary target. Wood argued that the effect of bizarre plot devices paired with implausible characters and self-serious social criticism was an “exhausted” and “overworked” attempt at realism. It was “hysterical realism,” Wood said. The young Smith responded humbly that this was a “painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own.” But two decades later, her apologetic self-consciousness seems to have mellowed into ironic detachment. Fair enough, I suppose. “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like,” as Muriel Spark wrote in her unbeatable novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Grand Union improves after the ironic technical explanation. “Downtown” — possibly my favorite — is about an artist in New York who is irritated when another artist, visiting from a Hungarian forest, says, “I don’t understand how you can live here, and be an artist, amongst all this social noise and all of these people.” Another colorful story is the amusing “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets,” about a performer who is “no linguist, and no geographer” but is rather an aging drag queen.
There is no denying that Smith’s prose style is glorious. She is rather like a person striking matches in a cave: The reader sees, if only for a split second, flashing images in the darkness. Egyptian hieroglyphs. Dancing bears. A couple making love.
About the lovemaking — the sex scenes in Grand Union are grossly overwritten. Pointlessly shocking and shockingly pointless. It oughtn’t to be thought prudish to complain about this. Smith is a writer who is capable of so much more than cheap Hollywood tricks. And gratuitous lingering on bodily fluids, etc. feels like something designed to divert and distract us from . . . well, quite. What are these stories about?
The most redeeming features of Grand Union are the well-sketched characters and how they interact. “Escape from New York” plays off the urban legend that Michael Jackson drove Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando out of New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. From the dialogue:
“There are no flights allowed,” Michael said, trying to feel capable, filling them in. “No one can charter. Not even the very important people.”
“Bullshit!” Marlon said. “You think Weinstein’s not on a plane right now?”
“Marlon, in case you’ve forgotten,” Elizabeth said, “I am also a Jew. Am I on a plane, Marlon? Am I on a plane?”
Marlon groaned. “Oh, for Chrissake. I didn’t mean it that way.”
I’m sure it’s tempting for Smith, who has strong (if predictable) political views, as evidenced in her essay collection Feel Free (2018), to make her characters liberal puppets commenting on Brexit and Trump and whatever else seems topical. But they are nothing of the sort. Smith is too smart for that. And if Grand Union falls short, it is only because she has so far to fall. Smith scatters literary brilliance to the winds, forcing the reader to go to the enormous effort of piecing it all together. It’s a big ask. To be honest, I read Grand Union cover to cover only because I was writing about it. Fully awake and autonomous, I’d probably close it at page 20, let out a yawn, and lay my head down to enjoy the sort of dreams that we all find more interesting: our own.
This article appears as “Dull Dreams” in the October 14, 2019, print edition of National Review.