Nineteen years ago, Zadie Smith’s electric debut, White Teeth, signaled the arrival of a major literary star. Then, like an NBA pro who decides he also wants to play major league baseball — and maybe Quidditch, too — she spent the ensuing two decades spreading her gifts across nearly every medium: essays, criticism, stories, more novels.
It feels fitting, then, that Grand Union, her first short-story collection, is as eclectic as it is; 19 short, sharp tales (roughly half of them previously published in places like The New Yorker and Paris Review) that range from intimate first-person sketches to wildly speculative science fiction. Inevitably, some are stronger than others: “Sentimental Education,” in which a woman in midlife looks back at “the familiar and delicious brown animal” of her sexually voracious youth; “The Lazy River,” a cutting royal-we tale of vacationers determined to enjoy the ersatz pleasures of an all-inclusive Spanish resort while the messy world carries on outside. Pieces that garnered a lot of attention when they first appeared elsewhere, including the 9/11 fever dream “Escape From New York” and “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets,” about a fading cabaret star, hold up gratifyingly well, though the experimental efforts that work best tend to be the ones that wear their humanity on their sleeve; the quietly devastating “Kelso Deconstructed,” based on the real-life murder of an Antiguan immigrant in late-1950s London, easily outshines dystopian riffs like “The Canker.” There’s some cognitive whiplash, too, in toggling so quickly between so many styles. But taken all together, the book does feel like a kind of grand union: the lucky synthesis of everything swirling inside Smith’s big, beautiful brain. A-