January 1, 2020: “Sentimental Education” by Zadie Smith

Happy New Year, Story366! I hope your 2020 has started off quite well. Me? I started my year by having watched a very awkward feed of a midnight countdown from New Orleans, drinking sparkling grape juice with the family, making silent resolutions, and then heading up to bed with everyone. The plan was to get up rather early and knock out this first installment, get off on the right foot, but then I slept in … until 11:30.

Not sure what overcame me—the sparkling grape juice?—as I haven’t been able to sleep much past 8, not even on sleep-in days, in quite some time. But there went New Year’s Day, or half of it, before I did anything.

Fully rested, I am embarking on another continuous of Story366 entries. I’m going to try, anyway, as right now, it seems to be an even more undoable task than it did in 2016, when I succeeded in posting 366 straight days without a lapse. Back then, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. This time, I know full well what I’m getting myself into: A huge undertaking that’s going to, in a lot of ways, take over my life.

I’m ready. I slept until 11:30, after all.

This year, I’m going to make a few changes to the blog, to my self-imposed rules. In 2016, I swore I wouldn’t cover any books I’d read before, which eliminated a lot of great collections and authors from eligibility. This time, I might be more lax, as there’s books by contemporary authors I haven’t read in over ten years, if not twenty, collections that are worth revisiting. I might make room for some revisitations.

Also, I might do a second book by the same author. Before, I’ve never covered the same author twice. Seeing how there’s quite a few authors who have written more than one worthwhile collections, I think I might ease up on this rule as well.

In 2016, I was proud to have split the year’s entries evenly between men and women, 183 entries for each. This year, I’d like to recognize the fact that not all writers identify so clearly as men or women and take that into account, while still trying to be as even as I can.

Lastly (for now), I’d like to promote the blog more effectively. Not exactly sure how to do that, but it might involve me getting a Twitter account for the first time, for both the blog and myself. Don’t see that happening today, but stay tuned. Or is it #staytuned? See, I’m already getting the hang of it.

That’s the plan, January 1. Of course, we have to see how it goes. In the three years inbetween now and 2016, I thought I’d do more entries, kind of keep things going with new books, post about once a week. That turned into approximately fifty total entries, including zero in 2019—I was on sabbatical last year and committed myself to my own writing, which more or less went well. For 2020, I’d like to do an entry every day, adhere to the schedule. Long road ahead, but what a road.

Moving on to the actual story part of Story366, I wanted to start with a major author, as I did in 2016 with Adam Johnson. The Karen had just gotten me Fortune Smiles for Christmas, I’d read and loved all his previous books, and I just couldn’t resist starting the whole thing off with an Adam—even though it had been done before. The book went on to win the National Book Award (I like to think it was the Story366 bump that put him over the top), so it was a solid choice. And I still teach “Nirvana,” the subject of that very first entry, every semester in my classes.

This year, I’m starting with a story by Zadie Smith, from her collection Grand Union, out from Penguin Press in late 2019. I have to confess: I haven’t read much Zadie Smith before this, maybe a couple of stories in The New Yorker, and that’s it. Seeing as how she’s primarily a novelist and essayist, that makes sense, but still, this is a major contemporary voice who I couldn’t have said two words about before today. As good of a place to start as any, especially since Karen got me the book the other day as a gift, wishing me well on my journey.

Like always with Story366, I don’t read the entire book, as there’s no way I could actually read an entire collection in one day, every day, for a year. I try to read a good smattering of stories, which always includes: the first story in the book, the title story, and at least three stories overall, more if they’re shorts. For Grand Union, which is a combination of shorter and regularly sized pieces, I read the first three stories and then tracked down the title story, “Grand Union,” which closes the collection. I liked all the pieces, think I have a real feel for what Smith does, for her voice. I chose the longest story I read, “Sentimental Education,” the second story in the book.

“Sentimental Education” is a framed story, starting with the protagonist as an adult with semi-grown children (one teenager, at least), which, like a lot of characters in the book, places her at around the author’s age, early-to-mid-forties. Some other clues, including being in college in 1995, confirm this, which makes sense, as Smith is just a couple of years younger than I am and seems to have similar pop culture references. Anyway, the story starts off with this protagonist on the beach, looking at her own son in the water, considering him closely when her teen daughter calls her out on it, says, “You look at him like you’re in love with him. Like you want to paint him.” This invokes a lot of memories within the protagonist, as she thinks back to how she’s considered men over the years, how they’ve served as both her muse and her foil. By the middle of the second page, this leads her backwards in time, out of the frame and to the large flashback in the center, to a very specific former lover: Darryl.

Darryl is the man our narrator—Monica, we find out—spent a lot of time with in college (or, because it was England, “university.”) She met Darryl mainly because someone introduced him, though they were probably destined to cross paths, “… two of only four black faces on campus.” They quickly became close, spending a lot of time together, and in Smith’s description of Monica and Darryl’s relationship, we really see her skills with characterization. Monica has always been introspective and deep—or is it forty-something Monica retelling the story from her older perspective?—not simply dating Darryl, but evaluating every move, every choice, with astute observation and liberal metaphor. Monica is careful to keep Darryl at arm’s length in this way, as if she writing a paper about the experiment of their relationship instead of just investing herself in it, like most heavy-drinking, heavy-fucking twenty year olds would. But again, maybe this is older, beach-going, son-watching Monica framing it this way instead? Ah, third-person past tense, the mysteries you present.

Eventually, we meet Leon, who’s as lovely and functional a secondary character as can be. Leon is Darryl’s friend since, well, birth, a drug-dealing Irishman who only separates himself from Darryl so Darryl and Monica can have sex—even then, he’s right outside the door, and when he thinks he hears them having finished, he knocks and asks to come in. This means Leon is living in Darryl’s dorm room at university despite the fact he’s never taken the entrance exams and is not enrolled in any classes. He’s sleeping on a blow-up mattress on the floor, next to Darryl’s bed, in arm’s reach of Darryl, and by proxy, Monica. Every morning, they deflate the mattress and hide it so the Bedders don’t find out and report them; “bedders,” by the way, are basically dorm maids, women who come in and clean the students’ rooms when they go to class—what?! None of it matters, though, as within a few weeks, the bedders find out, don’t care, and in fact, Monica sees Leon having tea with them every morning (again, England …) in the common room, laughing it up.

Leon, in fact, has that effect on everyone: He’s the most likeable guy in town. Smith basically describes him as some sort of Ali G figure, all Kanga hats and designer track suits, Paul’s Boutique playing on his minidisc player (some of the many subtle nineties references peppered throughout the story), a guy everybody wants to be around, especially since he provides them with pot, E, and really cheap coke. I was reading this story in my house today and felt like Leon was my dealer back in college: He’s magnetic, in a nineties, twenty-something kind of way.

Leon always around doesn’t give Monica a whole lot of space to be with Darryl, and before long, despite how well things are going, she confronts Darryl about it, which, late in the story, basically serves as the inciting incident. From there, things unwind, which, by Story366 rules, I won’t reveal here.

To note, it’s not only the fact that Monica confronts Darryl with her Leon problems, it’s how she chooses to do it, what she says, that makes all that inciting so interesting. Smith employs one of her story’s themes: classism, especially the kind produced by England’s university system. That’s not really the prevalent theme in “Sentimental Education,” however, as we’d have to go back to the frame of the story for that. In this piece, and the others I read, Smith likes to invoke her characters’ past through their children, have them compare their lives as young people to what they are now, as somewhat older people in charge of younger people. All of the protagonists, in those four stories, are forty-something mothers, toddlers to teens, and all of them use their children, in one way or another, to revisit their philosophies on life, to compare who they were to who they’ve become.

Like Monica, younger or older, Zadie Smith’s characters in Grand Union embark on journeys of self-reflection, of constant evaluation, all sweetened with her particularly engrossing syntax and stark sense of description. I hadn’t read much of her work before today, but am so glad she finally released her short fiction in this collection, a helluva way to kick off 2020 and a new year of Story366. I highly recommend: It’s Zadie Smith, after all. What have we been waiting for?