Zadie Smith has persuaded an impressive roster of writers to respond to her remit to "create a character", and their names alone should encourage plenty of people to buy this collection.
The book opens with the disappointing Judith Castle by David Mitchell. I am unsure if this was a deliberate pastiche of one of those women’s magazine twist-in-the-tale stories, but it is an obvious and clichéd story about a deluded middle class, middle aged caricature of a woman who has been informed of her lover’s death. Jordan Wellington Lint by Chris Ware unexpectedly moved me. This is one of the two graphic stories, and the illustrations and text combine to produce a heartbreaking portrait of a boy up to the age of 13.
A.L Kennedy’s Frank is typically well written. This story of a broken man has depth and emotion thanks to Kennedy’s attention to detail that adds layer to layer and makes Frank "real." Hari Kunzru paints a vibrant picture of Magda Mandela. She stands in her lime-green thong shouting on her boyfriends’ doorstep, worrying the neighbours, singing and threatening. “I HAVE A CONDOM. LINE UP. I AM READY.”
Somewhat surprisingly in a book of characters, both Toby Litt and Dave Eggers chose to write about a monster. Both were well written, but neither made much of an impression on this reader. Miranda July writes a tender story of lost opportunity realized too late in Roy Spivey. Spivey, a Hollywood heart-throb who the narrator finds herself sitting next to on a flight, gives her his phone number.
"I felt warm and simple. Nothing bad could ever happen to me while I was holding hands with him, and when he let go I would have the number that ended in four. I’d wanted a number like that my whole life."
Colm Toibin writes a beautiful mournful story, Donal Webster. Andrew Sean Greer succeeds in capturing a child’s imagination in Newton Wicks. Some stories I read with a "so what?" shrug. Reading taste is subjective, everyone will have his or her own favourites and least liked. My own highlight was Puppy by George Saunders. To be honest I thought he was a writer that I did not "get", but in this dreadful aching story I was both absorbed and horrified. The two central characters remain with me, and how I wish I could change the outcome. I will definitely explore more of his work.
This book serves as a showcase that will bring new readers to some of these authors and is varied enough that there really will be something for everyone. It is a pity that it seems as if some writers dashed off a character study rather than stopping to create fully rounded stories, but the good ones shine out.