cover image Grand Union

Grand Union

Zadie Smith. Penguin Press, $27 (256p) ISBN 978-0-525-55899-6

In Smith’s smart and bewitching story collection, the novelist’s first (after the essay collection Feel Free), the modern world is refracted in ways that are both playful and rigorous, formally experimental and socially aware. A drag queen struggles with aging in “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” as she misses the “fabled city of the past” now that “every soul on these streets was a stranger.” A child’s school worksheet spurs a humorous reassessment of storytelling itself in the postmodern “Parents’ Morning Epiphany.” “Two Men Arrive in a Village,” in which a violent duo invades a settlement, aspires to “perfection of parable.” Some stories, including “Just Right,” about a family in prewar Greenwich Village, and the sci-fi “Meet the President!,” in which a privileged boy meets a lower-class English girl, read more like exercises. But more surprising and rewarding are stories constructed of urban impressions and personal conversations, like “For the King,” in which the narrator meets an old friend for dinner in Paris. And the standout “The Canker” uses speculative tropes to reflect on the current political situation: people live harmoniously in storyteller Esorik’s island society, until the new mainland leader, the Usurper, inspires “rage” and the “breaking of all the cycles [Esorik] had ever known.” Smith exercises her range without losing her wry, slightly cynical humor. Readers of all tastes will find something memorable in this collection. [em]Agent: Georgia Garrett, Rogers, Coleridge and White. (Oct.) [/em]