Top critical review
Uneven but Worthwhile
Reviewed in the United States on February 27, 2011
This book was published in 2007 and collected 23 works by as many contemporary authors. The pieces were contributed for free to benefit the Brooklyn chapter of a nonprofit educational group co-founded by Dave Eggers. Nine had appeared earlier in other publications, mainly the New Yorker and the Guardian.
There were eight writers from the UK, 14 from the US, including Yugoslavian-born Aleksandar Hemon and Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat, and one from Ireland (Colm Tóibín). Eight of the authors were women.
The oldest were Tóibín (1955-), Nick Hornby (1957-) and George Saunders (1958-). The youngest were Zadie Smith (1975-), Jonathan Safran Foer (1977-) and Adam Thirlwell (1978-). Others included A. L. Kennedy, David Mitchell, A. M. Homes, Jonathan Lethem, Dave Eggers, Vendela Vida, Miranda July and ZZ Packer. Of the UK writers, all but Hornby had made it into Granta magazine's 2003 issue promoting the "best of young British novelists."
All but one or two of the pieces were short stories. Two contributions (by Americans Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware) were graphic art, and another (by Hornby) contained a few illustrations.
As the editor, Zadie Smith, said in her introduction, the most interesting thing was the variety of ways in which the writers created character. About half the works were written in the first person. A few focused on action, many emphasized recollection. Most enjoyed in this regard were Tóibín's piece in which an Irishman displaced in Texas described his mother's death, which had occurred some years earlier. There were feelings of grief, loss, hollowness and resignation ("There would be no time any more for anything to be explained or said. We had used up all our time"). Anyone who's experienced the loss of a parent is likely to find this story especially moving. Lethem's work, an excerpt from the novel published later as Chronic City, introduced the free-associative world of the narrator's friend, an eccentric social critic in an atmospheric Manhattan neighborhood ("If I'm your brain you're in a whole lot of trouble ... you picked the wrong brain!").
The work by George Saunders, not clearly understood, was still interesting for its description of a woman's thoughts on love amid an atmosphere of vague menace, and for the author's ear for the way some people speak. The humorous piece by Nick Hornby -- a series of capsule biographies from an author's jacket copy -- showed the depressing arc of one writer's life, from promising debut as a young novelist to hackwork as an aging ghostwriter. David Mitchell's story shadowed the day of an unreliable, deluded narrator. In Miranda July's work, a narrator described a brief encounter with a celebrity, which seemed momentarily to offer an escape from mundane reality. The piece by Homes recounted the bored, superficial conversation of wealthy art collectors waiting for their private plane to take off.
Many of the other stories made less of an impression. They were too short (Hemon) or cryptic (O'Hagan, Litt, Thirlwell, Julavits, Eggers), faded to an ending that seemed weak, and/or had little to say that I could enjoy. The less interesting pieces have been described by another as "bright but empty," and this seemed apt.
Still, the book was worthwhile for a quick introduction to the styles of a number of younger contemporary writers. And it was far more entertaining than Granta #81: Best of Young British Novelists (2003).