The Book of Other People

There is a peculiar pleasure in looking into an artist's notebook. Deciphering the many layers of moving parts that make a masterpiece can be somewhat mysterious, but in sketch one sees the bones. Thus, there is a pleasantly didactic quality in the 23 literary sketches presented in this anthology edited by Zadie Smith, who merely instructed other writers to "make someone up," then ordered the results alphabetically, by characters' first names. (Given that the funds generated are going to 826 New York, one of six children's writing centers originally founded by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, and now seemingly supported by every major writer in many major cities, the instructional value goes two ways.) The Book of Other People is about character (sometimes, as Smith points out in her introduction, writers chose to "deny the possibility of character.") In many cases -- among them, A. L. Kennedy's piece on a scorned husband and Z. Z. Packer's about a romance between a Pita Delicious employee and a grad student -- the stories are as rich as any in the authors' work. Others are a smart exercise in minimalism. Nick Hornby and Posy Simmonds, for example, manage to encapsulate a man's literary career in a story told entirely in faux book jacket bios and author photos. Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware provide a full-color strip each. Personality types are as specific as Hari Kunzru's portrait of the neighborhood crazy lady in her lime-green thong and as archetypal as Aleksandar Hemon's brief treatment of a man who closely resembles a certain biblical savior. Not everyone felt it necessary to equate "character" with "human": Toby Litt gives us a monster; George Saunders, a puppy. Taken together, the entire anthology provides an excellent master class in the raw materials from which fiction is made. -

April 19: "What you see first, after the starting gun's crack, is a column of bobbing runners, thousands of them, surging downhill..."

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