Zadie Smith manages to shrink the novel

Louise Doughty in The Guardian:

Deft--Zadie-Smith-at-the-009Those who love short-form fiction have had reason to cheer recently: the success of high profile competitions such as the BBC Short Story award, Sunday Times EFG Short Story award and the new Costa Short Story award; and now Alice Munro winning the Nobel after several decades of producing quietly brilliant volumes. A literary form declared dead on the slab a few years ago has proved to have a soft but resolutely pumping pulse.

At first glance, Zadie Smith's new volume might seem part of that resurgence. Numbering 69 small pages with a lot of white space, it's an extended story that first appeared in the New Yorker earlier this year and is now being published simultaneously as an ebook, audio book read by Smith herself and handy, pocket-sized hardback. The Embassy of Cambodia isn't a short story, though. It's a novel in miniature, divided into 21 tiny “chapters”, each of which is a brief scene that encapsulates what many writers would take several thousand words to say. Reading it is a bit like having a starter in a restaurant that is so good you wish you had ordered a big portion as a main course, only to realise, as you finish it, that it was exactly the right amount. It begins in a somewhat disconcerting manner – in the narrative form of the fourth person, or first person plural: “we”. “Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It's a surprise to us, that's all… we, the people of Willesden.” At this stage, the reader might suspect Smith of having an in-joke at the expense of those who have stereotyped her as a poster girl for tales of cheery multiculturalism in a particular corner of north-west London.

Later this “we” turns out to be an elderly lady standing on a balcony of an old people's home, “barely covered” in her dressing gown: the kind of distressed yet omniscient figure who appears to command and control many an inner-city street.

More here.