by Tania Hershman
Ali Smith is one of my favourite
authors. In fact, I believe she is why I began writing short stories,
why I love them. And so, before I begin, I am going to take issue with
the back cover of the book. The third quote, after wonderful praise
from Alain de Botton and the
Scotsman, is from the Daily
Telegraph: "Smith has a talen for finding unexpected
flashes of beauty and comedy in the everyday". The word I take issue
with is "everyday" (is it one word?). Ali Smith never writes about
the "everyday", whatever it is. Or, in as much as all writers who do
not write fiction that takes place in other worlds, other planets,
other dimensions, or stories about the truly abhorrent in society,
perhaps everyone writes about the "everyday". But to me, this word
demeans what Smith does so beautifully.
Smith's stories are the epitome of
the "What if...?" What if you were shopping and found a baby in your
supermarket trolley? What if you were at an opera and a character from
Gershwin arrived? What if a parcel addressed to someone else turns up
when you are ill at home? None of these brief summaries does justice to
what Smith does. She plays with the reader, twist and turn, lead you
one way and then pull the rug from under you, quietly, gently. And
leave you feeling winded, stunned, joyful.
This collection is called The First Person and Other
Stories, where "the first person" might relate to the term
in fiction which means that the story is being told by "I", and we are
in the main character's head, or it may mean being the first person
to.... and already Smith is teasing us. She includes four quotes at the
beginning, including this from Katherine Mansfield: "True to oneself!
Which self?" I take from this that Smith, who writes almost exclusively
here in the first person, except for two stories, that she is hinting
that all these selves are part of one self, and at the same time, we
are not so easily defined, labelled, boxed in. We are not just one
thing, we are many.
has her own take on
"first person" point of view: not only is the story being told by "I",
in many of the twelve stories "I" is talking to "you", which creates an
intense intimacy, intensified by her lack of quotation marks and of
names for her characters. They are particular and they are general at
the same time. We
are eavesdropping on that space between two people, often lovers or
ex-lovers, it is as if we are standing between them and they are
whispering to each other through us:
I don't know if I am up to this any
more, I say.
Yawn, you say.
(You don't actually yawn, you say
the word yawn. Then you look at me across the table and smile. I'm
still unused to your smile, and to it being directed at me. Sometimes
when you smile at me I have the urge to look over my shoulder and see
who you are smiling at.)
are those who object to the addressing of a story to "you" because the
reader can feel put upon, can think "But I'm not saying yawn", etc...
However, because there is an "I" talking to the "you", this doesn't
happen here. We are the silent witness to their conversation.
Were I to
try and outline the plots of some of these stories, this would be to
fail miserably in conveying the magic of Smith's writing and so I
won't. One thread I noticed running through these stories are questions
of identity: if everyone treats you as the mother of the baby you just
found in your supermarket trolley, do you feel like its mother? If your
lover tells you her fantasy of what you would buy in a music shop, how
does her view of you change your own view of yourself?
plays with the notion of "story": in one story we move from a set of
characters and a scene to another, apparently unconnected set of
characters elsewhere, often within the same paragraph, and we don't
return, there is no neat tying up. But there is no sense of
dissatisfaction, no yearning to find out what happened to that couple
we met at the beginning. Smith's words weave a tale so that somehow we
understand what is going on here, despite the leaps in location and
time, despite the lack of traditional narrative.
first story doesn't seem to be fiction at all, but a story about short
stories, which ends with a list of other writers' definitions of the
short story. As with other collections I have reviewed, Smith is
us what it means to her.
says that every short story is at least two stories.
Hemingway says that short stories are made by their own change and
movement, and that even when a story seems static and you can't make
out any movement in it at all it is probably changing and moving
regardless, just unseen by you.
Benjamin says that short stories are stronger than the real, lived
moment, because they go on releasing the real, lived moment after the
real, lived moment is dead.
Carlos Williams says that the short story, which acts like the flare of
a match struck in the dark, is the only real form for describing the
briefness, the brokenness and the simultaneous wholeness of people's
I could not
describe Ali Smith's stories better myself so I won't attempt
it. This is another beautiful, vital short story collection from one of
the greatest short story writers alive today. If you write short
stories, if you love to read them, this is a book that you need on your
shelf. This is the flare of that match struck in the dark.
from this collection in Prospect Magazine
is the editor of the Short Review. Her short story collection, The
White Road and Other Stories, is published by Salt Modern Fiction.
bio: Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962 and
lives in Cambridge. Her first book, Free Love, won the
Saltire First Book Award. She is also the author of Like (1997); Other Stories And Other Stories
(1999); Hotel World (2001),
which was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Booker Prize in
2001 and won the Encore Award, the East England Arts Award of the Year
and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award in 2002; The Whole Story and Other Stories
(2003) and The Accidental
(2005). Ali Smith also writes for the Guardian, the Scotsman and the
this book (used or
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The F Word