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Other Stories & Other Stories

Ali Smith


"  The thing is, I really need you with me in this story. But you’re not home. You won’t be home for hours yet. I stand about in the kitchen for a while not knowing what to do about it, because the story is right at the front of my head and I decide to do something, I decide to do the dishes… Standing at the sink I can imagine you, sitting up on it with your legs swinging, eating an apple. So. Listen to this. This is what happened… "

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Evolutionary science suggests that language developed beyond pure function as a method of either gaining advantage or attracting a mate. In Other Stories and Other Stories, Ali Smith’s second collection, published by Granta Books in 1999, stories are so important that they overlap each other, crowding into each other, elbowing each other out of the way. For Smith, stories are what make people love each other and are the evidence of it. They are showing off, a peacock’s tail fan, both a come-on and a reassurance.

Smith is concerned with small stories, the stories that happen at the centre of a life but do not mark the broad canvas of history. Her 2006 novel The Accidental begins with a number of quotations, including one from John Berger that equally informs an understanding of Other Stories and Other Stories: “Between the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life, the empty space, the gap, is enormous.”

Smith ignores the cultural Richter scale and knows that the passing moment changes lives as much as the detonation of bombs or encounters with historic figures, individual stories being made from small events, not large ones. For the most part, the stories in Other Stories and Other Stories are stories about nothing and everything. In God’s gift, the narrator, returned from holiday in Greece, finds a neighbourhood cat has left the offering of a still living bird for her in the garden. In Blank card, a mysterious delivery of flowers reignites the passion of a couple. Small deaths sees an infestation of fleas. Okay so far’is a short slice of a couple’s holiday travelling city to city by train.

Ali Smith’s narrators often address the ‘you’ of a partner, an intimate form more common in poetry than short fiction. Her characters tell each other stories as a way of cementing themselves to each other and revealing their vulnerabilities and hopes. Often her characters think like writers. They are trapped in their own heads by the vividness of their observation. They tell stories to connect, to make personal experience into something shared. In The theme is power, the keystone of the collection, the narrator waits for her partner to return home, so that she can be told the story of a frightening event that happened in London when she was a teenager. Doing the dishes, she imagines that her lover is there with her, listening. The story is she tells is about her and Jackie, her first love, arriving in London after three weeks travelling in Europe. They encounter a frightening woman who offers them her flat for the night then follows their bus all the way to Reading when they refuse. The narrator, still addressing her partner, then tells of her Dad staying with them, and how they visited an art gallery together, then of how, when she was young, he meted out estate justice on a man who had exposed himself to her, finishing with how his electrical shop failed after a tax investigation that broke her mother’s heart. At this point, the narrator has the imagined form of her partner interject: “(I still don’t really get the connection, you say.) Well, no. Okay. Actually you don’t say anything, you’re not home yet. But you’ll be home soon, so I imagine your key in the door.” Talking with her actual partner in bed when she finally arrives, the narrator finds reassurance in her ability to cut the stories dead and reassert the objective here-and-now reality of their love. Lying in bed, she ties the story up, and she hopes that her first love is somewhere safe. 

Despite masking it with everyday language and recognisably normal events, Smith is an experimental writer. Other Stories and Other Stories is constructed from stories filled with ‘other stories’ to such an extent that at least three of them are actually a number of unconnected stories forced into a relationship with each other by appearing under the same title. More than one story is the most obvious example, with two different characters, an older man and a teenage student, telling stories to themselves in lieu of any connection with each other. As there is no relationship between them, so there is no relationship between their stories. It is instructive the story most conventionally written story is the most outlandish in subject matter. In The hanging girl, Pauline is haunted by a hanged girl that no one else can see and forms a surprisingly welcome relationship with her.

Intense compassion and intimate delicacy run through Other Stories and Other Stories so deeply as to set Smith aside from other cold-eyed prose stylists. While playing games with narrative and consistently breaking the fourth wall by pointing out the process of writing and constructing stories, Smith never becomes separate, cynical or detached; the three greatest temptations in formal experimentation. In fact, she suffuses her writing with a generosity toward humanity, its potential for love and its daily rhythms. She eschews the other great traps for modern short story writers: self-conscious quirkiness and cod-surrealism. 

Ali Smith’s short stories are a map for a form of short story that does not begin at Carver and end at McSweeneys. If looked at in the correct light, they hold not only untapped depths as short stories themselves, but suggest another way of approaching the short story, marrying fierce exploration with burning compassion in a way that makes love seem an inevitable consequence of living and shakes up ideas of what the short story can achieve.


From Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Mark Brown now lives in south-east London. His work has appeared in Punk Planet, Aesthetica, Brittle Star, Transmission, Pen Pusher, Skive and Irk amongst others. Between September 2006 and September 2007, Mark wrote only 200 word short stories. He can be contacted at markbrown1977@googlemail.com.

Mark's other Short Reviews: Peter Wild (ed) "Perverted by Language: Fiction Inspired by The Fall"

Carys Davies "Some New Ambush" 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PublisherPenguin

Publication Date: 2004 (First published by Granta in 1999)

Paperback/Hardback?Paperback

First collection?No

Author bio: Ali Smith  was born in Inverness in 1962 and lives in Cambridge. She is author of Free Love, Like, Other Stories and Other Stories, Hotel World, The Whole Story and Other Stories, The Accidental and Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis.

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