The Book of Other People, Edited by Zadie Smith

Twenty-three characters in search of an author
Click to follow

As the editor of a charity anthology once described as "uniquely pointless and stupid" by an unkind reviewer, I'm keen not to be uncharitable to Zadie Smith's anthology, The Book of Other People. Its profits will benefit Dave Eggers's 826 New York, dedicated to fostering creative writing among six-to-18-year-olds. So I'll start by giving you the good news.

In this anthology of 23 short stories, three are superb and outstanding examples of the form, and at least one further story is, well, pretty good. AL Kennedy's "Frank" is a brilliantly nuanced study of alienation. Frank, a man on the run from the ruins of his life, goes to a cinema to see a film that fails to start on time and has no sound. The real narrative is hidden in the backstory, which the reader assembles by picking up clues: an allusion to Frank's job with its proximity to trauma, a minor accident with a vegetable knife, his shattered marriage, the use of a pronoun. It's an extraordinarily unsettling piece of writing, a lesson in sophisticated narrative techniques and deferred revelation.

Colm Tóibí*'s "Donal Webster" is narrated by an expatriate Irishman living in Texas whose mother is dying in Ireland. The narrator crosses the Atlantic to see his mother one last time. While their relationship had been a complicated one, the simple truth is that a son grieves for his dying mother, and Tóibí*'s prose powerfully evokes the particular rhythms of time spent by a hospital deathbed. In "Ron Spivey", Miranda July uses a chance meeting between her female narrator and a Hollywood heartthrob to write cleverly and plausibly about the potential for a missed opportunity to creep up long after the event.

What these three pieces have in common is an understanding that short stories do actually have to tell a story. They need internal dynamics: narrative tides and currents, even a deadly undertow. Jonathan Lethem also gets this. "Perkus Tooth" is an enjoyable story of an unlikely friendship between a former child actor and an obsessive writer on film.

Editor Zadie Smith instructed her contributors to "make somebody up". The book is "about character", she writes. All 23 writers took her at her word, but only a small handful seem to have taken the trouble to situate their character in a narrative. Most have merely drawn portraits, or scrawled pen sketches, attempting to create character Frankenstein-style from a series of tics, traits, physical descriptions or voices. There is whimsy, there's cleverness (the prime minister makes an appearance) and contrariness (stories about monsters and mountains rather than character). There are sub-Roald Dahl trick endings, slick-but-soulless acts of ventriloquism. Some of these stories sit on the page but don't go anywhere. They lack shape, development, endings. Even when they are about a character, they are not about character.

Finally, it's common for a short-story collection by a single author to reprint pieces, but unusual for a multi-author anthology. Anyone shelling out 17 quid for these 23 stories might feel short-changed if they have read one in the Independent on Sunday, two in the Guardian and another half-dozen in the New Yorker. But, as it's a charity project, anyone pointing this out will appear churlish. Too bad.

The short story is still in crisis, even after two years of the National Short Story Prize. This June, Colm Toíbí*'s success in the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, a new award for a single-author collection, went more or less unreported. Anthologies such as The Book of Other People, in which, for the most part, first-rank contemporary authors unload second-rate stuff, do not help.

Nicholas Royle's story collection 'Mortality' is published by Serpent's Tail

Hamish Hamilton £16.99 (264pp) £15.29 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897