Both these books are very green!
I sometimes feel that a particular piece of fiction would have worked better for me had I been in a different mood, but that feeling isn’t usually as acute as it was when I was reading two recent short story collections, Zadie Smith’s Grand Union and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other Parties. I’d pick Machado up one day and come across one of my favourite short stories of recent years, ‘Real Women Have Bodies’; the next, I’d feel baffled by a novella’s worth of redundant, rambling prose in ‘Especially Heinous’, which tries to tell the story of two pairs of dopplegangers split up in the style of episodes of CSI, but is just too clever for its own good. Similarly, Smith’s clever writing could be totally illuminating one moment, as when she writes about the inner psyche of somebody who has come upon sudden artistic success in ‘Blocked’, and lumbering and obvious the next, as in ‘Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets’.
To an extent, I expect this of Smith; her stories here have been collected across a number of years and seem to represent two modes of her writing. One is the bloated caricatures of White Teeth and On Beauty, which I always found to be too much, plus the annoying literary references that ran through her book of essays, Changing My Mind; the other is the clean brilliance of her more recent work, NW and Swing Time. Occasionally these two modes sit uneasily together, as in ‘Kelso Deconstructed’, which mixes a realist story about a black man being murdered by racists with surrealist encounters with great black thinkers such as Toni Morrison. Smith is also not afraid to try out new genres, but again, the two speculative stories here are hit and miss; the fantastical parable ‘The Canker’ is probably the best fictional take on Trump I’ve read (some of the contributors to A People’s Future of the United States could learn from this) but ‘Meet the President’, which imagines a virtual future, is wordy and confusing.
I feel even more conflicted about these two collections because it’s obvious, especially with Smith’s stories, that the individual stories I instantly ‘get’ and connect to will seem pretentious and impenetrable to other readers, and vice versa. Looking at reviews of the collection after writing the first part of this post, I can see that even two reviewers for the Times writing two days apart have received it completely differently; one calls Smith ‘an extraordinary talent’ while the other says that the collection is ‘still waiting for lift-off’. Publishers Weekly agrees with me about ‘Meet the President’ and ‘The Canker’ but not about ‘Miss Adele’. A lot of the Goodreads reviews rave about ‘The Lazy River’, which I thought was a cynical and cliched take on modern life.
However, in contrast with Smith, I was really expecting to love Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, and I’m still surprised that I didn’t. In short, most of these stories were too disconnected from reality for me, and seemed to rely too much on Machado’s incredible prose rather than on their own substance. Exceptions, alongside ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, included ‘The Resident’, a nicely unnerving tale of a writer heading for a remote mountain retreat alongside the Girl Scout camp where she was tormented as a child. You never know what’s real and what’s psychological, but there’s enough here for this to be read as a ghost story rather than something that’s just going on in the narrator’s head, and I always prefer the speculative reading. Other stories devolved into strings of lists, especially ‘Mothers’. I’ll keep an eye out for Machado, because she can obviously write; unfortunately, most of these stories reminded me of Karen Russell and George Saunders, but weren’t nearly as good.
Trying to rate these two collections on Goodreads was difficult! For me, they both contain 1 star and 5 star stories. In the end, I gave Smith 3.5 stars and Machado 3 stars because Smith had more hits than misses, and Machado more misses than hits.
I received a free proof copy of Grand Union from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 3rdOctober.