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The First Person and Other Stories

Ali Smith

 
" You're something else, you really are.
This is the kind of thing you'd do. Say you were standing outside a music shop. You'd go into that shop and just buy an accordion. You'd buy one that cost hundreds of pounds, one of the really big ones. It would be huge. ....You would buy this accordion precisely because you cannot play the accordion.
"

Reviewed 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. 

Smith 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.)

There 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?

Smith also 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. 

Smith's 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 telling us what it means to her. 

Alice Munro says that every short story is at least two stories.

Ernest 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.

Walter 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.

William 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 lives.

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.

  
Read the title story from this collection in Prospect Magazine

Tania Hershman is the editor of the Short Review. Her short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories, is published by Salt Modern Fiction.
Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

Melvin J. Bukiet "A Faker's Dozen"

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Roy Kesey "All  Over"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

18 Lies and 3 Truths: StoryQuarterly 2007 Annual

Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

Lise Erdrich "Night Train"

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Alexandra Chasin "Kissed By"

Tamar Yellin "Kafka in Bronteland"

Mary Miller "Big World"

 

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

Publication Date: 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Hardback

First collection?: No

Author 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 TLS.


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If you liked this book you might also like....

Ali Smith "Other Stories and Other Stories" and "The Whole Story and Other Stories"

Aimee Bender "Willful Creatures"

Alice Munro "Runaway"

What other reviewers thought:

The Independent

The List

The Guardian

The Plain Dealer

San Francisco Chronicle

Chroma

Goodreads

Charlotte Stretch

New York Times

Band of Thebes

Mighty Ape

The F Word

Fiction Writers Review