Speaking at Hay Festival Cartagena earlier this year, the English novelist Zadie Smith – who lives in New York and has taught creative writing there for almost a decade – bemoaned the incursion of identity politics into literary criticism. Some critics in the United States believe a writer should not write characters of a race to which they do not themselves belong, as this constitutes “cultural appropriation”. Smith rightly contended that this stance is antithetical to the very idea of fiction, which is premised on empathy and the infinitude of imaginative possibilities: “If someone says to me: ‘A black girl would never say that,’ I’m saying: ‘How can you possibly know?’ ”
One detects in these remarks a sense of cumulative weariness, bordering on exasperation, which is entirely consistent with having spent many years in the US higher-education milieu. This impression is corroborated by the blunt satire of Now More than Ever, one of 19 short stories gathered in Grand Union. Its narrator is a writer-turned-professor who draws opprobrium for associating with a man who has been accused of sexual misbehaviour. His transgressions were minor (“He did not have ‘victims’ so much as ‘annoyed parties’ ”) but that doesn’t matter; not long after wondering how it would feel to be “totally and finally placed beyond the pale”, the narrator learns that she has indeed been “cancelled”.
Smith is not the first English expat to be flummoxed by US campus radicalism. The definitive primer on such matters is Anthony Burgess’s The Clockwork Testament (1974), a delightfully acerbic autobiographical novella about his stint teaching creative writing in New York. Literary Brits “doing” America is almost a subgenre in itself – think Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis – and several of the stories in this collection belong in this tradition, offering a wry outsider’s take on contemporary New York and the pretensions of its affluent liberals.
In Mood, a photographer laments the art world’s fetishisation of African-Americans: “It’s this generalized ‘black body’ they’re all looking for now, and you get paid on a rising scale for how much white guilt you can squeeze out of a pound of flesh.” While picking her child up from school, the narrator of Downtown gets talking to another parent, who tells her all about his trip to Papua New Guinea: “It had taken three planes to get there, they’d gone to bed with monkeys and woken up with sloths and the whole trip had been utterly transformative.”
Affable drug dealer
Sentimental Education tells of a working-class couple, Darryl and Monica, who are undergraduates at the University of Cambridge. Darryl’s best friend, Leon, is an affable drug dealer who isn’t enrolled at the university but somehow manages to be on campus at all times, much to Monica’s irritation. She grasses him up to the dean, and he is duly kicked off the premises, whereupon Darryl, who had relied on Leon as an emotional crutch, completely crumbles. The story is a subtle commentary on social class, entwined with a meditation on sexual politics: looking back over her relationship history, Monica reflects on how successive lovers felt uncomfortable about her sexual assertiveness.
The Lazy River, about a group of British holidaymakers in the Spanish city of Almería, is less impressive. It reads like a caricature: the holidaymakers have bad tattoos and vulgar culinary tastes – “rejecting paella and swordfish in favour of sausages and chips” – and have no interest in the local culture. By the time the topical hook comes along – “most of us voted for Brexit…” – you’ve seen it coming a mile off.
The stories in Grand Union occupy a range of registers. Big Week, a poignant story about a disgraced ex-policeman whose wife leaves him, has a quiet pathos reminiscent of Raymond Carver. By contrast, Escape from New York is almost pantomimic in its playfulness: based on an urban myth that did the rounds in the early noughties, the story imagines Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando, and Elizabeth Taylor leaving New York together in the wake of 9/11; Smith’s narrator remarks, of Michael, that “people had always . . . misunderestimated him” – a winking callback to George W Bush’s infamous coinage of the time.
The collection is patchy; some of the stories are blandly middlebrow and the prose is stylistically clunky at times. Blocked, about a depressed person who gains a new lease of life after acquiring a pet dog (“each day I have a purpose, a direction”), is instantly forgettable. The protagonist of Kelso Deconstructed is “caught in the slipstream of life”, a drearily commonplace phrase if ever there was one. Such infelicities can go relatively unnoticed in a 400-page saga, but they are much more conspicuous in short-form fiction.
At one point in Sentimental Education, Monica recalls watching Leon from the window of the university library, which is described as a “stained-glass panopticon” – a reference to the circular prison designed by Jeremy Bentham in 1798, premised on panoramic surveillance. The allusion is sustained by an ironic twist – that in this instance the person being watched is swanning about at leisure, while the watcher is “imprisoned” in the library – but the metaphor feels strained and florid. Bentham would be turning in his grave if he weren’t currently sitting upright in a glass box in the South Cloisters of University College London, where he has reposed – albeit without his head – since 1850.