When Zadie Smith, scourge of lyrical realism (and reluctant standard bearer for its hysterical cousin), transatlantic femme de lettres and quite literally the last word in 21st-century lit, brings out a short-story collection nearly twenty years into the game, a reasonable question to begin with is: why now? We are told of a prelapsarian time when writers began their careers by publishing such books: if the reviews were okay, they might get a novel; if that did all right, a couple more; and so on it went. Despite there being plenty of talk at the moment about the short story being a form that’s somehow uniquely suited to our fragmented, time-poor, device-juggling lives, it seems not to be something significant numbers of people will pay to read – or, better maybe, that significant numbers of writers are likely to be asked to produce. In fact, it could be that you’ve got to be where Smith is – some good sales, a few gongs, an NYU professorship and several short stories already published in the New Yorker and elsewhere – for it to be viable.
However, Grand Union doesn’t quite have the flavour of a mid-career retrospective, though Smith’s many strengths are everywhere visible in it. It’s more like the boîtes-en-valise Marcel Duchamp used to make – little leather cases containing miniature copies of his best-known works – or an even more venerable