Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando are driving out of Manhattan after a terrorist attack. What sounds like the opening of an urban myth is actually the zany plotline of “Escape from New York,” one of 19 tales in Zadie Smith’s first collection of short stories, Grand Union. These masterful tales impress, engage and occasionally infuriate as Smith brings her dazzling wit and acute sensitivity to bear. These stories are ready to grapple with the complex times we live in.
If anything serves this collection best, it’s the humor that runs through the stories like a lazy river. All genres are Smith’s to play with, from fables to science fiction to a realistic conversation between two friends. Even the few weaker efforts still brim with ideas and intelligence. No subjects are off-limits, from an older trans woman shopping for shapewear in “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” to a young mother remembering her sexual escapades in college in “Sentimental Education.” Smith uses the third-person plural to fine effect in one of the collection’s best, the parable “Two Men Arrive in a Village,” which explores global politics without ever mentioning a politician or country by name.
Smith has explored the complexities of families and friendships in an urban setting over the course of five award-winning novels. Those themes are reflected in the delightful “Words and Music,” in which the surviving sister of an elderly pair of siblings sits in a Harlem apartment, reminiscing about the music that shaped her life, and in “For the King,” in which two old friends catch up over a decadent Parisian meal. Grand Union is bookended by two stories of mothers and daughters—one a vignette, the other a ghost story, both with a depth that far outweighs their brevity, something that can be truthfully said for each of these stories.