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Make-up sessions

The Book of Other People Edited by Zadie Smith Penguin: 304 pp., $15 paper

January 06, 2008|Minna Proctor | Minna Proctor is the author of "Do You Hear What I Hear? Religious Calling, the Priesthood, and My Father."

Anthologies are awkward literary beasts, mottled, slightly schizophrenic, fitful -- compelling the reader to stop short between stories, as one author's voice, style, pacing sinks in and then subsides. Those failings aside, I once loved the anthology as a form of aesthetic manifesto, the editor's self-expression reflected through choice works or writers.

To wit: I was working at a literary event shortly after Phillip Lopate published the seminal "The Art of the Personal Essay" (1994). As I neared him with a plate of appetizers, I mustered up the impudence to challenge his inclusion of "He and I" by Natalia Ginzburg, which I, sagely, considered among her least gorgeous works. He amiably countered that my problem was that I (unlike he) was neither middle-aged nor married and so could not appreciate that essay's particular brilliance. With which Lopate was illuminating the personal logic that informed his choices, a logic that in some subtle, unwritten way was itself a kind of personal essay.

The latest trend in anthologies is to commission work on a given theme from an assembly of writers; the art is in the byline and the pairing of vision and voices. Produced in that vein, Zadie Smith's "The Book of Other People" is hardly self-expression; the bulk of the introduction is, in fact, a meditation on computer fonts. The bylines are alluring -- Miranda July, Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Safran Foer, to name a few, and the work is all donated, with proceeds benefiting 826NYC, a children's literacy program founded by Dave Eggers. The theme is playfully random, a literary conceit: Smith asked her contributors to "make someone up," and title the story for its protagonist. The result, says Smith, is a "lively demonstration of the fact that there are as many ways to create 'character' (or deny the possibility of 'character') as there are writers," as if the characters and their creators were, together, the "Other People" of the title.

The stories included here are wonderfully various, the styles wide-ranging, the tempers diverse. Some "people" are monsters (Toby Litt's "The Monster") or grassy knolls (Eggers' "Theo"). Some "stories" are more sketches or studies (ZZ Packer's "Gideon" or Foer's "Rhoda"). And some of the sketches are remarkably good: Andrew O'Hagan's "Gordon," a Calvino-esque dissection of a character by virtue of eight qualities, is one. Another is Vendela Vida's "Soleil," about an 11-year-old girl's first encounter with adult sexuality.

Chris Ware's graphic short story, "Jordan Wellington Lint to the Age of 13," about a little boy who loses his mother, is acerbic and devastating: "Don't touch me! Don't call me Jordan. You're not my mother . . . I am Jason." Whereas Aleksandar Hemon's treatment of the Crucifixion is acerbic and kind of . . . funny.

Adam Thirlwell's "Nigora," about a young immigrant contemplating adultery, has a compellingly restrained emotional lustiness: "Since she thought that the kiss might be her cure, she tended to believe that a kiss was innocent. It was just on the right side of morality." Hari Kunzru's stunning "Magda Mandela" -- one of those stories about the village idiot that is more a story about the village than the idiot -- has an early-1990s raucous volume to it: "Magda is coated in something that I suspect is coconut oil. She has the air of a woman who has roused herself from titanic erotic exertions to be here with us on Westerbury Road tonight. She has been INTERRUPTED. She has THINGS TO DO."

Ultimately, any anthology is only exactly as good as its best stories, and two in this collection are outstanding: Colm Toibin's "Donal Webster" and George Saunders' "Puppy." "Donal Webster" is about a man meditating on the sixth anniversary of his mother's death. It is simple and complex, moody, intimate, gorgeous and terribly sad. It's also entirely impossible to figure out who the "made up person" of the title is, the narrator or the man being addressed -- and it hardly matters.

"Puppy" similarly blurs the lines: A mother and her two children go to see a puppy advertised for adoption in the newspaper and discover that the family giving up the puppy has a difficult child who is kept on a leash in the backyard -- "Tapping with his bat, happy enough." The two mothers dominate the narration, as they ultimately also dominate the fates of both boy and puppy: "Pushing the words killing puppy out of her head, she put in her head the words beautiful sunny day wow."

Henry James once posited: "What is character, but the determination of incident? What is incident," he continued, "but the illustration of character?" Given the bounty of absorbing, transporting, delightfully readable great writing in this collection, it is curious that the simple charge to make someone up should nonetheless produce so many stories that blithely deviate from James' narrative tautology -- so many stories that divorce themselves from incident or are manifestly disinterested in the relationship between the two. It is as if the invitation to focus on character absolved the writer from interest in consequence and incitement. If James is right (he so often is), then it seems that the mission -- to make someone up -- should be greeted with stories. Here, instead, the pretense just dissolves into a game of titles; other people, some people, some writers, some characters, some names, some stories. *

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