Monday, November 19, 2007

THE BOOK OF OTHER PEOPLE - Hamish Hamilton - 17 pds.

Edited by Zadie Smith: a collection of 22 short stories from 22 writers with proceeds from the book sales go to a children's literary charity

Reviewed by Sophie Harrison In the Sunday Times:
Of all contemporary pastimes, charity offers the best excuse for fooling about. Without charity there would be no bathing in cold custard, no public displays of depilation and no outlet for tombola. Nobody would ever have entered a shipping lane clad only in Speedos and goosefat. And there would be no charity anthologies, which may not be a bad thing – except that occasionally, as with this book, the carnival misrule of the format produces something novel and touching and fun.

This anthology’s benefactor is 826 New York, a branch of Dave Eggers’s innovative foundation for promoting children’s literacy and creative writing. Proceeds from the book will supplement the income raised by the foundation’s fundraising shop, The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co, which sells “capes, grappling hooks, antimatter” and other superheroic essentials.

To make the collection, Zadie Smith commissioned 22 short stories from 22 writers and then added one of her own. The brief, as she explains in her introduction, was simple: “make somebody up”.

It appears that the contributors largely took this as an instruction to make up somebody fabulous. The roll call of characters includes a Jordan Wellington Lint, a Nigora, a Puppy, a Soleil, a Cindy Stubenstock, a Perkus Tooth, and a something or someone called Monster.

As the names suggest, there’s a playfulness about many of the contributions: maybe because (as Smith observes) there’s a kind of freedom that comes with doing things for free. “It is liberating to write a piece,” says Smith, “that has no connection to anything else you write, that needn’t be squished into a novel, or styled to fit the taste of a certain magazine, or designed in such a way that it is certain to please the kind of people who pay your rent.”

Like a sponsored hike in a decorated bra, the results of such liberation are aesthetically mixed but still worthwhile.

Smith’s appealing list of contributors includes David Mitchell, AL Kennedy, ZZ Packer, Nick Hornby, Edwidge Danti-cat, Vendela Vida, Eggers and Colm Toibin. Graphic novelists Chris Ware, Posy Sim-monds and Daniel Clowes have drawn their stories, and the book is pretty, with a crafty, McSweeney’s-ish feel. A few of the contributions are bright but empty and generate the feeling that comes over the recently chugged. But others would be good even if they weren’t also making you feel good.

Smith’s own contribution, about a man called Hanwell and his unfriendly dad, has her familiar lovely density. It’s a novel compressed; after reading it, it grows in your head, like those Chinese paper flowers that quadruple when dropped in a bowl of water. It’s a perfect example of one kind of short fiction: the story that tells you the whole story through miraculous compression, as opposed to the kind that just gives you a hint of something bigger outside the frame. Such glimpses or snippets form the majority of this collection.

No comments: