Nineteen erudite stories wheel through a constellation of topics, tones, and fonts to dizzying literary effect.
After launching a quiver of short fiction in the New Yorker, Granta, and the Paris Review, Smith adds 11 new pieces to publish her first collection. A reader can enter anywhere, as with Smith’s bravura “The Lazy River,” which “unlike the river of Heraclitus, is always the same no matter where you happen to step into it.” The artificial aquatic amusement, rotating endlessly through a Spanish resort, is “a non-judgement zone” for tourists where “we’re submerged, all of us.” Wit marbles Smith’s fiction, especially the jaunty “Escape From New York,” which riffs on the urban legend that Michael Jackson—“people had always overjudged and misunderestimated him”—ferried Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in a rental car out of the smoking debris of 9/11. Even in “Two Men Arrive in a Village,” a global parable of horror and repetition, absurdity bubbles up: “After eating, and drinking—if it is a village in which alcohol is permitted—the two men will take a walk around...and, as they reach out for your watch or cigarettes or wallet or phone or daughter, the short one, in particular, will say solemn things like ‘Thank you for your gift.’ ” In the wondrous “Words and Music,” the survivor of a pair of disputatious sisters meditates on peak musical experiences. “Kelso Deconstructed” takes up the bleak, racist real-life stabbing of Kelso Cochrane in London in 1959, and “Meet the President!” is set in an even bleaker future where a wailing child interrupts a young teenager’s elaborate virtual video game, her misery “an acute high pitched sound, such as a small animal makes when, out of sheer boredom, you break its leg.” Much less successful are “Downtown” and “Parents’ Morning Epiphany,” which read like fragments trying to become essays. Still, Smith begins and ends with two arresting mother-daughter tales—the first nestled in alienation, the last, “Grand Union,” in communion with the dead.
Several of Smith's stories are on their ways to becoming classics.