It’s the commonly used coffee house criteria to define enjoyable fiction: “I identified with the characters.” If we recognize ourselves or others we know in a story, we’re more susceptible to being drawn in. But the characters in The Book Of Other People, an anthology of character sketches/short stories, aren’t exactly people you would want to identify with. There’s one person in the story “The Liar” you might want to be; that is if you have a Messiah complex. Even then, you might not want to identify with this Jesus, seeing that he has doubts about who he really is. Another character you might identify with is a monster. Really.
This gaggle of character sketches, most of them about less than admirable characters, is edited by Zadie Smith, author of Beauty and a couple other novels. Smith brought together 23 (mostly) fellow celebrity writers and instructed them to “make someone up” (the book’s proceeds benefit a children’s writing program in New York). We suspect that some of these characters aren’t made up as much as they are actual sketches of people the writers know. Take Jonatahn Safran Foer’s “Rhoda” who’s the type of smothering, busy-body mother (“Have a cookie,” is the story’s first sentence) of the type we all know.
In style, these sketches are out of The New Yorker school of short stories. Indeed, half a dozen of the stories here, including Smith’s own, were first published in the magazine and many of the book’s contributors are familiar to New Yorker readers. As such, the collection is diverse in class, race and setting. We’re not told so much what the characters look like as we are told what they’re thinking. Sometimes what they’re wearing is important as in Vendela Vida’s “Soliel” in which the lingerie-as-evening-wear look suggests feminine motives. In a sense, the collection defines the current state of the short story. Apparently, one of the characteristics that define today’s short stories is the unlikable personalities of its protagonists.
So we have Heidi Julavits’ “Judge Gladys Parks-Schutlz”, an “insincerely cheery” woman, a judge known “for her imperviousness to human context,” a person who is interested only in outcomes. Then there is A.L. Kennedy’s “Frank,” a man whose obsessive desire for repetition and familiarity is so important it drives his wife away. ZZ Packer’s “Gideon” is a gutless guy who collects crickets and doesn’t have the conviction to out his inter-racial relationship. In George Saunders’ “Puppy,” you won’t like the suburban mom with a van full of kids out to buy the puppy, or the white trash family who has the puppy available. You certainly wouldn’t identify with David Mitchell’s “Judith Castle.” You‘d never throw yourself at anyone like that. You may not end up liking any of these characters. But you’ll certainly enjoy the stories they inhabit.
The likable, innocent characters here are either children or child-like. No, not the selfish children packed into the suburban mom’s van on their way to buy a puppy. The 11-year-old who accompanies Soliel to Lake Tahoe in pursuit of a good time is extremely sympathetic, which makes the model set for her even worse. Chris Ware’s graphic childhood of “Jordan Wellington Lint” (the book has two stories in comic form) follows little Lint from his earliest perceptions on to more impressionable experiences. You won’t like what these experiences make of him. Probably the most loveable character is, well, the most loved, a crazed sex addict named “Magda Mandela” who announces to a group of construction workers, “I have a condom. Line up. I am ready.” But you wouldn’t identify with her (would you?).
The more exotic locations are populated with the best-drawn characters. Edwidge Danticat’s “Lele” is inhabited with seemingly respectable Haitians existing in a world of extreme heat, exploding frogs and a crooked judiciary. Adam Thirwell’s “Nigora”—she’s described as “a minor character”– is sympathetic until you start to question who fathered her unborn child and why she’s decides to carry it to an untimely birth.
The parodies—people you can laugh at—might be the most enjoyable. Cartoonist Daniel Clowes’ comic character “Justin M. Damiano,” chief film critic for justindamiano.com, faces an ethical decision after learning not to like anything. The author blurbs collected in Nick Hornby’s “J. Johnson,” with illustrations by Posy Simmonds, read a lot like the contributors’ bios at the end of this book, complete with those who were “short-listed” for various literary prizes.
Then there’s that monster in Toby’s Litt’s story. He has little sense of himself, no idea of what he looks like, little memory and no clue as to his sexual drive. I don’t know about you, but there’s someone that I can identify with.—Cabbage Rabbit
The Book Of Other People edited by Zadie Smith; Penguin Books, paperback 287 pages, $15
A version of this review was published in The Inland Empire Weekly