Zadie Smith might be best known as the audaciously skilled young author of “White Teeth” and “On Beauty,” but she claims her gifts lie elsewhere. “I think I’m a pretty talented writer,” she once told the poet Robert Hass. “But I’m a great reader.”
Judging by “The Book of Other People,” an anthology of stories she edited to benefit 826, Dave Eggers’ writing lab for kids, Smith might be on to something.
Who else would put graphic novelist Chris Ware and Irish novelist Colm Toibin between the same pages of a short-story anthology? Smith’s instructions to them were simple: “Make somebody up.” That permission seems to rub off on the work. “The Book of Other People” is full of writers taking chances.
Some of the characters we meet here talk their way into existence, like Rhoda, the chatterbox grandmother in Jonathan Safran Foer’s story. “Have a cookie,” her monologue starts off, and doesn’t end until she’s commented on hair, bathroom habits, the listener’s wife and the health benefits of cookies.
Other characters reveal themselves through what they don’t say. In Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Liar,” a prisoner about to be punished during the Roman Empire turns out to have a surprising identity. Zadie Smith writes of a man so obsessed by his own father, he doesn’t realize he has begun to bequeath a similar anxiety of regret and resentment to his children.
There are a finite number of ways to tell a tale, many of them descended from “Don Quixote.” But a few are new, like graphic novelist Chris Ware’s hilarious and astonishing “Jordan Wellington Lint,” which cleverly represents a young boy’s early stages of development. In one frame, the toddler sits in a sandbox outside a house. Everything in the panel is labeled, just as a young child learns to classify the world.
Not all experiments here pay off, though. David Mitchell’s opening story, which jumps from point-of-view to point-of-view, is confusing and jarring. Nick Hornby’s “J. Johnson” is somewhat arch and reliant on an inside-publishing joke.
The best risks turn out to be small ones, stories that emerge out of small shifts in a writer’s palate. In “Theo,” for example, Dave Eggers trades the verve and manic speed of his normal prose for a fabulist tone. He tells a beautiful story. Then Adam Thirwell steps outside of his usual milieu with “Nigora,” a tale about a woman falling out of love with her husband in Russia, and emerges with a poignant mood piece.
Finally, some stories are just classically good. A.L. Kennedy, a tremendous writer—if you haven’t read her, go buy “Day,” her new book—ties her story off so neatly you almost don’t feel the knife go in. Miranda July shows how a chance encounter on an airplane opened up a tiny window in the life of a woman.
In a way, characters in stories are just like the people we wind ourselves seated next to at 35,000 feet. They plop down next to us with all their baggage and annoying tics. They might collar us or spend the flight quietly weeping. The difference is, however, in stories we need only close the book to turn them away. Miraculously, in this anthology, we turn toward them and listen. (John Freeman)
“The Book of Other People”
Edited By Zadie Smith
Penguin, 287 pages, $15