I love Ali Smith. The first work of hers that I read was a novel called “The Accidental,” for a literature class called “Fiction and Time,” during my semester abroad in England, at University of East Anglia. I’d never read anything like it. I loved it, and list it on my favorite books list on this blog. I went on to read “Hotel World,” which I also loved, in all its “Mrs. Dalloway” canon-like homage, and then I read this short story collection, “The Whole Story,” while I was recovering from a pretty nasty break-up. After finishing two Lorrie Moore collections, I was still in the mood for some good old female-penned fiction, so of course Ali Smith was one first to come to mind. Not only does she remind me how fun it is to read stuff written by women, but how fun it is to read contemporary writers. I really should do it more often, if I can ever get myself back into a stable reading rhythm again… oh well, baby steps, right?
I like the quote that precedes the collection, by a Brazilian author called Clarice Lispector: Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It makes me think of Molly Bloom’s closing monologue in “Ulysses,” and then in turn of the sexy Kate Bush song: “mmmm, yes.” I feel like this quote is relevant to the collection because it seems to be asking when does the “story” truly begin: with the creation of molecules? With prehistory? With the prehistory of prehistory? With the “yes” uttered by God… Sophia… quantum physics… oh man, who knows.
The opening story (called “The Universal Story”–its place at the beginning definitely doesn’t feel like an accident!) is a good way to set up these themes for the rest of the book. The story asks good questions about when does a story truly begin, by using a series of false starts. “There was a man who dwelt by a churchyard. Well, no okay, it wasn’t always a man; in this particular case it was a woman. There was a woman dwelt by a churchyard.” (1) And then it goes on from there, to a woman who lived by a cemetery, to a woman who lived by–no, in–a second-hand bookshop, to the life of an edition of The Great Gatsby, to the life of a common domestic house fly, to the customer who comes in to by a copy of the book because his sister is a performance artist building a boat made solely out of editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American opus. Using the Great Gatsby is an appropriate choice, as not only is it a reflection of the book’s closing lines (“beating back ceaselessly into the past” or so on), but it’s also a nice image: a boat made entirely out of books, carrying us away (not to spoil anything, but it unsurprisingly just ends up sinking in the English channel).
Maybe this summary doesn’t make this story sound like much. In this case, I would say that this story is a good example of how it’s not so much what a story is about, but rather how it is about it. I’m really not the kind of person who’s delighted by the trumping of style over substance… in fact, I would say that I’m pretty much over magical realism altogether, unless it is very, very well done. But for some reason Ali Smith pleases rather than frustrates me. She makes reading fiction fun. These stories make me feel good about myself and happy to be alive–I really can’t think of a better reason to recommend her other than that. They’re just delightful. They’re fun to read!
For example, take the story “May,” which has one of the best examples of Smith’s enviable ability to write killer opening lines: “I tell you. I fell in love with a tree. I couldn’t not. It was in blossom.” (45) Oh man! This may very well be my favorite story in the collection. There’s just so much to unpack here, about nature and technology and alienation and capitalism. One of my favorite parts of the story is also a good example of one of my favorite things about Smith in general: she has this technique where 1) we don’t know the gender of the narrator, 2) the narrator constantly refers to an unnamed “you,” their romantic partner, and 3) the 2nd half of the story is narrated by the subject of the previous narrator’s “you,” so that the new “you” becomes the first narrator. I just find this technique to be a really unique and powerful way of narrator–what is storytelling, if not talking to a “you”? And how awesome is it that the “you” character gets to narrate themselves, at the end? So in this case, after listening to the first narrator expound upon how he/she fell in love with a tree, the 2nd half of the story is from their partner’s perspective, which is even more interesting: how do you deal with your boyfriend/girlfriend, if they claim to be in love with a tree? This is an example of a magic-realism element that is handled quite well by Smith, in a way that is sweet and realistic rather than annoying. What’s so weird about falling in love with a tree anyway? In the story it isn’t treated all too differently than if the character was having an affair with a person. I also like how Smith puts people/tree relationships in context by referring to other stories and myths, such as the one with Daphne, which in turn makes it seem less weird.
Pretty much all my favorite stories in this collection are the ones that use this “you” mid-story switching technique. The one where the narrator is trying to get home on the Tube, and thinks that they see Death (“You know he’s Death because when he smiles, your cell phone goes dead.”). The one called “Believe Me”, which opens with these lines: “I’m having an affair, I said. No you’re not, you said.” (119) There’s other stories, too: the one where the main character is haunted by a band of Scottish bagpipers in full regalia (this is the most magical realism story of the lot). The one about the three Scottish sisters, and their random dead-end jobs working in fast food restaurants or as the coffee-drink vendor on a Loch Ness monster tour ferry. The weirdest story to me is “Erosive,” which is divided in three sections, “middle,” “end,” “beginning,” but still doesn’t seem to have any order: I can’t figure out if this story is about killing ants that are killing your apple tree, what it feels to be in love with someone who doesn’t love you back, or some weird combination of the two.
My favorite passage in the entire collection comes from “Believe Me,” which reminds me of something out of a Sarah Kane monologue:
“I can read you like a book and because the thing about a beloved book, if it’s a good one, is that it shifts like music; you think you know it, you’ve read it so many times, of course you know it, of course the pleasure of it is in how well you know it, but then you hear in the background, the thing you never heard in it before, and with the turn of a page you see a combination of words you know you’ve never seen before, you thought you knew this book but it dazzles you with the different book it is, yet again, and not just that but the different person you have become, the different person you are now, reading it again, and you, my love, are an excellent book for me, and then us both together, which takes some talent with rhythm, but luckily we are quite talented at reading each other.” (127)
Aaaah! Talk about making my heart stop… man, imagine someone writing that in an e-mail for you, or a text message, or a postcard. It makes my heart hurt just to think about it. I wanna write something like this myself, but for me, rather than for some stupid boy. Maybe the highest compliment that can be paid to Ali Smith is that she makes me feel inspired enough about fiction that I want to pick up my pencil and start writing again, myself. I’m getting there… it’s like that Buddhist expression: “Wherever you go, there you are.” You have to make YOURSELF the unattainable, idealized “you” that you long for and address and narrate to… you know? It’s like what one of the many, many self-help books I have read in the past two months said: YOU have to make yourself the hero of your own story, rather than some random other person who is supposed to swoop in and save the day and make everything all better with a band-aid and a cookie and a kiss on the cheek. The things that you long that have in a relationship, the qualities that you long to see manifested in other people, are typically the qualities you want to see manifested in yourself. The best thing about this is that YOU CAN DO IT YOURSELF, rather than wait for someone else to do it FOR you!! Like: don’t wait for someone to write a poetic love letter to you comparing you to a well-read book… do it yourself! What an important realization, to think that YOU are that person to whom you are narrating and addressing and directing your life towards… not someone else.