Zadie Smith (ed.): The Book of Other People

There’s nothing like a striking cover to get me interested in a book. And what better than this?

Well, one thing that would be better is if the pink bit across the middle was just a loose paper band which comes off and leaves the cover devoid of any words at all. Of course to show you that I’d have to stop just downloading cover pics off and actually photograph my own copy. Oh all right then.

Very handsome: very McSweeney’s, in fact, and sure enough this is a production of Dave Eggers’ busy literary community, or rather from one of its offshoots, 826 New York, a non-profit organisation aimed at supporting students with creative writing. (I had to search around for the link to their site, as the one given in the book, somewhat embarrassingly, is wrong.) In this good cause, Zadie Smith has edited a collection of stories from, well, the usual McSweeney’s suspects plus a handful of others. What “Edited by” means is not quite clear. Would Smith really take the blue pencil to Colm Tóibín’s prose? Or were they simply relying on her big list of Facebook friends?

The concept of the collection is, in Smith’s words, for the writers to “make somebody up.” Thus each story is named after its main character, though the styles are varied. Some, such as the great George Saunders, use the task simply to write another story along their usual lines, and Saunders’s ‘Puppy’, while as funny as ever, risks seeming like just more of the same from him. Others have stretched themselves more: Andrew O’Hagan, whose novels I have never been able to get along with, turns a neat trick in his story ‘Gordon’ which immediately sent me back to the beginning to re-read it (no great task, as it was only four pages long).

The writers who have made their characters live most vividly seem to be those who have opted to create comic monsters. The most entertaining story in the collection, David Mitchell’s ‘Judith Castle’, is about a woman of a certain age, and particular aspects of Englishness. She discusses her search for love with us:

That Olly and I were intellectual equals was no surprise. Soulmate Solutions don’t let any old Tom, Dick or Harry sign up. But at our rendezvous in Bath, he couldn’t hide how utterly enchanté he was with little old moi on a carnal level. Once over fifty, most British women go to seed, leaving the rest of us to arise, like roses in a bombsite.

Hari Kunzru gives us something similar in ‘Magda Mandela’, and like Mitchell’s Castle, there is more than an air of sadness beneath the madness. And Jonathan Safran Foer makes good on his excellent novels by giving us a tiny but irresistible slice of ‘Rhoda’, a grandmother with all the prejudices of her time:

When we came over, in 1950, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a schwartze. Nobody told me. Nobody sat me down and said, By the way, there’s schwartzes.

Other stories, perhaps intended as comic, are less successful, such as Toby Litt’s ‘Monster’, which seemed to me predictably self-indulgent. A.L. Kennedy’s ‘Frank’ was, like the other books of hers I’ve read, technically impressive but not really enjoyable.

The collection introduced me to several writers I’d heard of but had never bothered to sample. Now I know I simply must read more ZZ Packer, whose ‘Gideon’ was confident and mesmerising, and Aleksandr Hemon, whose ‘The Liar’ was let down by its central revelation but otherwise beautifully done, set in another time and reminding me of Jim Crace (“The crowd had been looking at him all along, but now it tightens, as if each man were a blood vessel and the air has just become colder”). Similarly, Miranda July, whose debut collection of stories was recently published, gives a story both entertaining and Carveresquely touching in ‘Roy Spivey,’ about a woman who meets a Hollywood star on a plane.

Meanwhile, Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware break up the text with their comic strips: Clowes’s ‘Justin M. Damiano’ is a satirical look at internet geeks who think anyone cares what they post on their review blogs (hey…), and Ware is typically lacerating, and beautifully meticulous in his artwork, with the tale of ‘Jordan Wellington Lint’ up to the age of 13.

The two most established writers on the roster prove particularly interesting. Colm Tóibín’s ‘Donal Webster’ is a typically sober and sonorous work, probably one of the richest on show, but it looks oddly out of place among the generally more showy performances which surround it. Nick Hornby on the other hand is unexpectedly innovative, with his ‘J. Johnson’, which gives us a writer’s life told through a series of About the Author blurbs (illustrated by Posy Simmons), a teasing and clever portrait of frustration and revisionism. It’s a work of reinvention – and brevity – that some of these young whippersnappers could learn from.


  1. Go on ladies, you know you want to! I do think this is one of those books which will be much more pleasurable to hold and to read in hardback than in paperback.

  2. your text is good, but Zadie is not one of my favourite authors in English language. I tried to read “On beauty”, and found it a very boring book. I think that, today, in the 21th century, for someone pretend to have people reading his or her book for a lot of days he or she has to be a great writer – what, in my opinion, is not the case with Zadie.

    and we must remeber the the best writer alive, J. M. Coetzee, is used to release books smal in lenght and greeeeat in substance.

  3. The whole McSweeney brand strikes me as nerdy and self-regarding, but David Mitchell and George Saunders are among my favourite contemporary writers so I’m in a quandry over this one. I like Zadie Smith and thought On Beauty was great, but including your own story in an anthology you edit seems a bit rich! You mention Aleksandr Hemon and I would thoroughly recommend his two books, especially the novel Nowhere Man.

  4. I know what you mean about the self-regardingness Gavin, but then again as you say, (some of) these people have talent, so what can you do? I remember in the early days McSweeneys was launched because there wasn’t enough of a platform for modern short stories (according to Eggers) – now, it seems to me that there are too many. I subscribed to McSweeneys for a year but apart from enjoying the delightful formats of the individual issues, I never read one story published in them. And a new special collection seems to come out every month.

    Saunders is wonderful, I’m just sorry he only publishes a collection every few years so it will be a while before I can rave about him here. Unless I re-read one of his collections soon…

    Hemon recommendation noted, many thanks.

  5. Yes, George Saunders is incredible, he combines that tricksy, playful tone so beloved of McSweeneys with a heart and compassion that a lot of that of fiction lacks. And there’s a *rage*, too, that is very inspiring.

    I do respect the platform Dave Eggers has offered other writers and his Valencia scheme is hugely admirable – I even paid a visit to the office when I was in San Francisco last year – but so much of the writing I find in The Believer is straining too hard to be ‘literary’.

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