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Zadie Smith Experiments With Short Fiction

Take “The Lazy River,” in which a first-person narrator considers the pool attraction at a resort in southern Spain as a metaphor for modern inertia. (“Sometimes we get out: for lunch, to read or to tan, never for very long. Then we climb back into the metaphor.”) Nothing happens in the story and yet every line dazzles, and it lands on a note of eerie clarity.

Several stories take a mosaic approach, juxtaposing disparate scenes — in one case, venues around New York City involving music — into a brilliant whole. The effect, appropriately, is rather like jazz.

The showstopping “Sentimental Education” digs, retrospectively, into one woman’s early sexual history without any real narrative exigency, but the leisurely pace of her memories allows for reflection and epiphany rather than plot.

Other stories veer into the surreal. In the title story, the speaker meets her dead mother (“for convenience’s sake”) outside a Chinese restaurant to discuss motherhood and heritage and Billie Holiday. “Parents’ Morning Epiphany” is structured as a take-home work sheet on narrative techniques. “Blocked” is told from the point of view of God.

Lurking in quite a few of these stories is a first-person narrator, either centered in the telling or peeking in from the periphery, not even a character. This “I” (except when it’s God) is consistent in tone, a bemused philosopher, and feels quite close to Smith herself. (The narrator of “Mood” has “the most common surname in England.”) This hint of a repeating narrator is one of a few threads that emerge and submerge unevenly throughout the collection — never exactly tying things together, but at least providing a few nice sticky knots along the way.

There are story collections that cohere, that rise and fall the way a great album does, and then there are collections (best presented in late career as “Collected Stories”) that show the evolution of the writer over time, more catalog than album. “Grand Union” gestures toward the former, but ultimately winds up as the latter. For a lesser writer, we might wish more avidly for an editor to have stepped in to carve the book into something more specific, more pointed. But Smith’s stature will have made many of her readers completists and her artistic development a matter of interest.

While the collection might not coalesce as a unit, it contains some of Smith’s most vibrant, original fiction, the kind of writing she’ll surely be known for. Some of these stories provide hints that everything we’ve seen from her so far will one day be considered her “early work,” that what lies ahead is less charted territory, wilder and less predictable and perhaps less palatable to the casual reader but exactly what she needs to be writing.

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