June 8th, 2012

Rose-coloured reviews *The Book of Other People*

I bought *The Book of Other People* (edited by Zadie Smith) in Blackwell’s Books in Oxford, because it is the best bookstore I’ve ever seen and I had to buy *something* but not more than one thing because I was in the midst of a long and thrifty trek around England, and anything I bought I had to haul upon my person.

I bought it partly because it seemed an apt souvenir of England–I’d heard Smith interviewed on the radio once so I know from the accent that she’s English, plus the price on the back was in pounds. But mainly, of course, I bought it because it looked like exactly the book I have been dreaming of all my life. I love character-based fiction–to me who people are is the essence of plot because it’s the essence of life–my brother once made me a t-shirt that says, “Character is destiny,” and I more or less believe it, with a few exceptions for happenstance, acts of gods, etc.

Mainly, I was right–*The Book of Other People* was a great pleasure, starting with a title second only to The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes for good titles I have known. The privilege of meeting a stranger, someone completely unknown and completely unlike me, is why I read fiction. I love other people.

And many of these people were fascinating folks. I truly felt for the pathos of Daniel Clowes’ pretentious film critic “Justin M. Damiano” (the characters’ names are, in most cases, the stories’ titles as well). The next story was in A. L. Kennedy’s much darker style, but her “Frank” still echoed Daniel’s pathos in an achingly sad say. I was charmed and horrified by Hari Kunzru’s “Magda Mandela”–it’s not quite so politically correct as it ought to be, certainly if this were a Canadian book, but somehow that allowed the full bawdy glory of it to be apparent. Vendala Vida, whose work I hadn’t encountered before, brought the full frustration of being 11 rushing back to me in “Soleil.”

In fact, there were actually very few pieces in this collection that I didn’t like. There was Chris Ware’s impenetrable “Jordan Wellington Lint,” but I never understand Chris Ware–I feel like we’ve sort of agreed to disagree over the years. Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Rhoda” was slight and stereotypical, with exactly one original moment–yet it was a stereotype I recognize and love, so I liked it. Miranda July’s “Roy Spivey” also struck me as pretty silly, though silliness I enjoyed, right up until the deeply heartfelt and mature ending. Who knew? Also, Nich Hornby and Posy Simmonds “J. Johnson” is surprisingly inane and, I think due to badly placed page break, incoherent.

So, yes, I enjoyed the book as I read, but after I finished a number of pieces I felt a bit ill-used. Can you guess why from what the words I’ve used above or, rather, the one I didn’t–story. The book jacket bumf doesn’t bother with that nicety–the back cover says, “A host of extraordinary characters in all-new stories by our best contemporary writers,” but “story” is certainly secondary to “character” there–the form is not made as much of as the content. In the introduction we see why–instructions were unclear. “The instruction was simple: make somebody up.” But Smith does use the word stories in her intro, seemingly as a catch-all for “piece of fiction under 20 pages.” “Magda Mandela” is a sketch not a story, albeit a brilliant one, as is Jonathan Lethem’s “Perkus Tooth.” Jonathan Safran Foer’s piece is too, without the brilliance.

Sure, those some of those pieces are great to read and might well be the gas that eventually powers a story with a tangible structure, plot, action, other characters, etc. But it seems unfair to compare them to the fully realized, complex and powerful stories like Edwidge Dandicat’s “Lele” (sorry, WordPress isn’t having the two accent aigu that word needs) or George Saunders stunning, devastating “Puppy.” If you are a fan of Saunders (I know some people can’t stand his work), this story stands up to the best he’s written. Zadie Smith herself contributes a story, though she, like many of the writers here, have no reputation in story-writing. Her “Hanwell Snr” is interesting but meandering, with the most interesting points petering out in gestures to another story not on the page. Which, though I haven’t read it, I think actually exists.

This is part of a larger tantrum I’m having over the fact even The New Yorker seems lately to think that readers can’t tell the difference between a self-contained story that provides action, insight, and a degree of resolution on one hand, and a random wad of prose of the same length on the other. If you follow that link you will get the *prologue* to Ian McEwan’s next novel, which TNY ran without any labelling as such, though clearly the excerpt is grossly unsatisfying on its own. IT MAKES ME INSANE–short stories get a bad enough rap for being enigmatic and open-ended without marketing chunks of novels as the same thing. AHHHHHH!

I digress. This is a fun book and pleasant reading, with a few genuine gems of stories (I will return to the Dandicat and the Saunders, I have not doubt). If it had just been marketed as a book of sketches and stories, or if I hadn’t overthought myself into a rage, this would be a glowing review.

*The Book of Other People* is the sixth/June book in my 2012 To Be Read Challenge.

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