What a character

The Book of Other People
edited by Zadie Smith

This book caught my eye on a recent trip to one of Tim’s favourite shops, Forbidden Planet. It’s a collection of short stories written by some pretty big names in the literary world, including Jonathan Safran Foer, Miranda July, Toby Litt, David Mitchell, Vendela Vida and ZZ Packer. They were all commissioned to “make somebody up”, in aid of homelessness charity 826 New York. It’s interesting just to see the many ways that can be interpreted, but it has also resulted in a genuinely very good collection.

The 23 contributions cover a range of ages, characters, backgrounds, storytelling methods (first person, second person, third person, illustrated, comic strip, reliable narration, unreliable narration, linear, nonlinear, etc etc) and even venture beyond humanity in a few cases (“Theo” by Dave Eggers is a very touching story about a giant). There is a certain tendency to white, western, middle-class-ness, which reflects the authors involved, but beyond that the only link is the high-quality of the writing.

Not all of the characters are likeable, in fact those that stuck with me most are decidedly unlikeable. David Mitchell’s “Judith Castle” is first a snob, then increasingly unreliable until I felt so cold toward her that only Mitchell’s wonderful humour could make me want to read about her. AM Homes’s “Cindy Stubenstock” is vomit-inducingly rich, taking a private jet with her equally rich friends to Miami and gossiping about other people, art, how less rich people live. It’s darkly ironically comic.

There are also some very sad stories. “Puppy” by George Saunders was tough for me (Note to Tim: Do Not Read It, trust me.) – the story of a mother taking her children to buy a puppy from a less well-off neighbourhood than their own. The title is a little misleading because it’s not told from the dog’s perspective, but the dog is key.

For me, this book acts as a little snapshot of the writing styles of all sorts of names that I have heard great things about but not yet sampled (I mean, not all of them, I have read novels by six of the contributors, I think, and some of the names were entirely new to me). Though, Zadie Smith does mention in her introduction that she felt the brief gave writers a chance to break free from their usual style or method, if they wanted to, so maybe it’s not the best way to decide if I want to read more by any of them.

I don’t think there were any stories here that I outright disliked and I am having a little trouble choosing a favourite, but I think it has to be “Judge Gladys Parks-Schultz” by Heidi Julavits, about an old woman sat in her study with a book that she isn’t enjoying, reminiscing about her life recent and long past. Julavits uses the language of the mystery novel (good ones, that is) to make this simple evening into a fascinating tale.

Published 2007 by Penguin Books.

2 thoughts on “What a character

  1. Lloyd April 5, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Thanks for the review, Kate. I keep seeing spotting it in the book shop and wondering if its any good! Is that the book with cover art by “seth”? Not sure if you or Tim have read it but “seth” has a great graphic novel called “Its a great life if you dont weaken; which is wonderfully drawn and very wistfull story.

    Glad you enjoyed(?!) or at least had a response to the George Saunders story. Have you read his short story collection “Pastoralia”? That is really great.

  2. Nose in a book April 5, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    Lloyd I definitely liked Saunders’ style, though that particular story wasn’t one to enjoy exactly. Will look him out, certainly. Will check who did the cover art and get back to you…

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