January 25, 2008

Smith-edited work shows good character

The Book of Other People, Penguin’s new compilation of short stories edited by Zadie Smith, features new works by 23 of today’s most notable fiction writers, including Jonathan Lethem, Edwidge Danticat, Jonathan Safran Foer, Miranda July, Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, and Smith herself. The table of contents looks like a working guest list for a McSweeney’s surprise party, thrown by the staff of the Guardian on the Guggenheim’s tab. However, the collection is more than a group-hug celebration of how wonderful it is to be in the literary elite. All proceeds from the book’s sales go to a nonprofit organization called 826NYC that cultivates the writing skills of Brooklyn children and teenagers, with associated chapters located in six other U.S. cities, including Chicago.

Zadie Smith, the book’s taskmaster, invited these 22 authors to contribute one new work each to the collection. The only requirement was that each story must be about a fictional character and its title must be that character’s name. As she explains in the introduction, “The hope was that the finished book might be a lively demonstration of the fact that there are as many ways to create ‘character’ (or deny the possibility of ‘character’) as there are writers.”

In spite of this hope for innovation, the stories generally are true to short-story conventions of character construction. They do not experiment with the ways in which a short narrative can create a portrait, often relying on plot to carry the essence of a character rather than allowing a character to stand alone as his own subject to be investigated. Although the title character is not always the major focus of the diegesis, the stories follow the same formula of describing a single moment that changed a character in a crucial way. Given that this pattern produces a short and coherent narrative, the possibility of a character defined by more than a single experience can be raised. In any case, some of the more playful investigations of character are Toby Litt’s “The Monster,” George Saunders’s “Puppy,” and Nick Hornby’s rather cutesy “J. Johnson,” which tells the story of an author’s life through a sequence of author blurbs.

Granted, innovation was a hope and not a goal. In fact, as a “charity anthology” for which the writers are not paid, there are not really any goals for a contributing author. Ideally, this strips away a level of incentive and brings us closer to something like creative sincerity. The collection’s romantic accessory of supplying us with works by authors who are, as Smith says, “writing once again as you wrote in the very beginning, when it was still simply writing and not also a strange breed of employment,” gives us the sense that these characters have been constructed by undiluted intuition.

Although not every story will electrify, and some will give readers the urge to skip ahead, some of the works stand out as heavy-hitters. While stories about unforeseen friendships are beyond cliché, Lethem’s “Perkus Tooth” is an oddly beautiful narrative about a small-time actor’s unexpected attachment to an obscure and delusional film critic: “Perkus Tooth—his talk, his apartment, the space that had opened from the time I’d run into him at Criterion, then called him on the telephone—was my ellipsis. It might not be inborn in me, but I’d discovered it nonetheless.” Other exceptional works are Vendela Vida’s “Soleil” and Edwidge Danticat’s “Lélé.”

The collection includes two graphic shorts by Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, both representing Chicago. Even though these full-color stories stand out visually, they do not disturb the collection’s rhythm. Rather, they present a different way of reading and of processing characters. Ware’s story “Jordan Wellington Lint” demonstrates his trademark departure from a traditional comic blocking structure, a move that forces us to search through the array of frames and vignettes without clear direction and gives us a fresh take on experience and memory.

Along with some gems, The Book of Other People offers the reader short introductions to some of our language’s contemporary fiction-writing rock stars. If you have not yet experienced the awkward grace of Miranda July, or the ballsy energy of Hari Kunzru, consider this your research guide.