Smith's experimentation sometimes goes wrong—especially when she's writing about rapby Josie Mitchell / October 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
This summer Zadie Smith wrote about the British rapper Stormzy’s performance at Glastonbury. “The one the people call Stormzy,” she wrote in cod-medieval dialect, is a “cocky young bwoy,” king of “the kingdom of Grime.” She does it again in her new story collection: “And lo! I was in awe. To heareth the mode in which Dead Prez doth breaketh it down, economically.” Smith can write some truly cringeworthy prose, especially about rap.
Or perhaps she’s just trying something out. One of Smith’s abiding qualities has been her tendency to show her working. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her first collection of stories: a ragtag bunch of fragments, character studies and postmodern games.
The quality varies. Smith does best giving voice to city eccentrics like Miss Adele, the old school New York drag queen who knows that, “even if you don’t mess with it—even when it’s not seven below—it’s a tough city.” Less convincing is “Parents’ Morning Epiphany,” which makes fun of a children’s worksheet about “narrative technique” with the patronising amusement of, say, a tenured professor of fiction at NYU.
“It’s true that for many years, I’ve been thinking aloud—and often wondering if I’ve made myself ludicrous in one way or another,” she worries in a previous essay. In Grand Union’s “Now More Than Ever,” a female scholar lives in fear of public ridicule: people stand at their windows holding large arrows pointing at their colleagues and neighbours. Those with unpopular or retrograde opinions risk “cancellation.”
In an era when a comment or tweet can come ricocheting back to cancel you, Smith has stuck tenaciously to her public experimentation, a position that holds the potential for failure. As such, she has offered her writing to the reader “to be used, changed, dismantled, destroyed or ignored as necessary!” Such self-deprecation, though, frustrates as much as it delights.
Grand Union by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, £20)