Zadie Smith presents a collection of 23 character studies by authors from A.L. Kennedy to ZZ Packer, whose only instructions were to “make somebody up.” It’s presented as a menagerie of style to showcase the endless possibilities of portraying a character: first- or third-person, non-traditional narrative, detailed description or abstract emptiness. Smith explains that this collection “has no particular thesis or argument to convey about fictional character….The hope was that the finished book might be a lively demonstration of the fact that there are as many ways to create ‘character’… as there are writers.”
And indeed it succeeds on this front by using the shotgun approach to anthologies: Here’s a large helping of greatly varied stories, hope you like some. This book requires something of a warning, as it isn’t for all readers. Many of the stories here are more story than character study; there’s virtually nothing uniting the collection, which may be exciting for students of form and those who have a motlier palette, but others may find it heavily disappointing. There are some very good works in here, and even beyond pure craft there are bound to be several pieces that will bond to someone—the trick is how many other stories one has to read in between these gems. This isn’t, and makes no pretensions to be, a “reader” of stories. It’s simply a collection where there are bound to be weak points. When this does occur, feel no ethical obligation to stick around.
By far the most common element (though not present in many of the pieces) is a clincher ending where the bulk of the “meaning” of the story comes in the last paragraph. In almost all of the stories where this is the case, it’s to their benefit. The twist is either a combination climax-dénouement from a build-up of tension, or in the less successful ones, a welcome relief from dragging narrative. Fans of this type of ending may be more sympathetic to this collection.
Possibly most original of all the pieces is “Jordan Wellington Lint,” about a boy from birth to the age 13, told in a scattered graphic form, where the visual complexity (defined faces and movement, sophisticated shape and coloring, and angst) increase with age. As it tracks the emotional and psychological development of a young boy, it may be most deserving of the name “character study.” Other excellent stories include “Perkus Tooth” and “Theo,” the former about the gritty life of a paranoid, dingy film aficionado and the man who is fascinated by him, the latter a glimpse into the life of giants who, when asleep, form our mountainous terrain.
But be prepared for some painful reads. While some of the pieces were simply not that interesting, others are so steeped in pretension they hurt. In “Nigora,” a 32-year-old has just lost his virginity; the narrator claims “He became ontological, epistemological.” “Judge Cladys Parks-Schultz” provides another case of gratuitous word abuse: “As an ever-shifting matrix of falsely interconnected selves.” I would provide the context, but it doesn’t do anything to lessen the pseudo-intellectual shriek of that sentence. These stories, fortunately, are in the minority.
Each of the stories is named after the character it “studies,” but to stick to this too literally would deny the reader one of the subtler pleasures of reading a story: figuring out who it’s about. This is mainly the case when the narrator is not the title subject but relating the story about him or her. For example, in “Gideon,” the narrator’s final revelations make her a more interesting and emotionally evocative character than Gideon himself. While it makes sense for the stories to be titled this way, it’s important to note that there are many worthwhile “people” in this book who stand at the sidelines.
Reading The Book of Other People is a bit like inventing pasts for people you meet at a party or on a bus, something of a devious game. And as much as Smith would like to avoid it, one can (if he so chooses) intuit a statement of sorts, a reminder that the people we meet or even just casually observe, have lives all of their own. But to actually read this book, one should be prepared for the possibility of only a few stories having much appeal.