Strange Short Stories

Free Love (Ali Smith)

Ali Smith’s first collection of short stories, like most of her work, is a delight and pleasure to read. Compared to her later works, a lot of these stories are fairly straightforward (for her, which is not saying much), but still quite experimental.

What most fascinated me about these stories were the abrupt, unresolved, interrupted endings and the characters’ movements through space and time. There’s a LOT of rule-breaking going on here in terms of what people say (at least in graduate school) about what a short story should be or do. But I guess that’s why you need to learn the basic building blocks of what a short story is—once you know what the rules are, you can BREAK THEM. A lot of the time in these stories, you have no idea what’s going to happen next. In “College,” a girl starts out watching a group of people put up a memorial bench on the college campus attended by her deceased sister, and ends with her catching a random lift in a gas station, heading to Bristol and playing a shoot-em-up game in an arcade. In “The unthinkable happens to people every day,” a man hangs up a phone inside a booth, smashes a bunch of TVs in a store, drives to Scotland until his car runs out of gas and makes friends with a little girl who takes him onto the roof of his house to throw stones in the lake (wow, are these stories fun to summarize). In “Scary” (probably one of the strongest and strangest pieces in the collection), we begin with a yuppie couple’s discussion of homeless people, follow them to a dinner party where the hosts are obsessed with River Phoenix, and end with the female narrator seeing a fox outside her window and then abruptly leaving the house and returning to the train station. My personal favorite in the collection was “To the cinema,” a story about, yes, going to the cinema, and also about the joys of movie going, and how stories change depending on who’s telling it.

In each of these stories, we are denied explanations of characters’ motivations and thought processes; they are not even hinted at; instead we have these giant blank spaces, these unexplained gaps. By leaving these blank spaces in the stories for readers to fill in themselves, Smith shows an incredible amount of trust in us, which is something I really respect and love about her work (it also means that there are a lot of people who would read these stories and just be like, what was the point of THAT, but hey, you need to write the kind of stories that you yourself would want to read, right?). While reading, you are constantly disoriented with no idea what to expect, but everything that happens feels completely appropriate and natural, as opposed to random.

The best thing I can say about this book is that it made me want to set fire to banks and start a revolution. Her writing often makes me feel like that. It’s a good thing.

The Secret of Evil (Bolaño)

The secret of evil is that it’s a secret. Ha! Ha! Ha! Unfortunately I didn’t come up with that myself; I read it in an interview with the translator.

This book is a collection of the files that Bolaño was working on at the time of his death, apparently for a new short story collection. What a man!! How many projects was he working on? A lesson to us all. The editors’ choice for the titular story, “The Secret of Evil,” has a good opening sentence that serves as an apt summary for the other pieces in the collection: “This story is very simple, although it could have been very complicated. Also, it’s incomplete, because stories like this don’t have an ending.” (11)

It’s fairly obvious to any discerning readers which of these pieces are incomplete fragments, though there are quite a few that stand quite well on their own and are as strong as anything else in the Bolaño canon. “Muscles” is the longest story, about a sister and her body building brother who brings home some creepy new Latin American friends (the conflict between Spaniards and Latin Americans is a motif in a lot of these pieces). I don’t know if “Muscles” is finished, but it felt complete to me, even though it ended on an abrupt, interrupted note, as even Bolaño’s polished pieces arguably tend to do. There are other pieces that definitely end on a “what was THAT all about” vibe, like “The Tour” (an anecdote about a journalist’s attempt to interview a singer who disappeared in the 60’s, though I guess the piece is more about the history of the band itself than the journalist), or “Daniela,” which is three pages about the titular character losing her virginity (apparently she is a character from both 2666 and Nazi Literature of the Americas, according to the book jacket).

The first story, “Colonia Lindavista,” feels quite complete, and is about a Chilean family moving to Mexico, and the narrator’s fascination with their next-door neighbors. It almost seems autobiographical—it’s interesting to think about how this could have been a direction pursued by Bolaño post-2666, to write stories that blur the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, a la Sebald. The next story is the title one: a journalist is awakened by a 4am phone call, and an urgent voice demands that they meet to exchange information. I would assume the information in question is “the secret of evil,” but typical Bolaño, the story ends right as they both meet, before either character gets to open his mouth. I guess the implication is that the secret of evil in unknowable, and if it is known to some, the rest of us don’t have the pleasure of hearing it. Gah, sounds accurate enough. Another story that deserves a shout out comes near the end, “The Troublemaker,” about protests against the Iraq war (it’s fascinating to think of what Bolaño would have made of the current state of the world—God, it’s been 10 years since he died!!! Isn’t that wild? God, he didn’t even get to WITNESS the worst effects of the Mexican Drug War, even though he basically predicted them. Maybe that’s for the best—lordy lord).

There are also a few stories about Belano and Lima, that rascally pair from The Savage Detectives, a book I grow more and more fond of in my old age (LOL). The stories that appear here about them made me realize more than ever how that book is about nostalgia, death and the inevitable passage of time more than the riotous revels of youth.

In both this collection and Woes of the True Policeman Bolaño displays an interesting fascination with dicks, sodomy and homosexuality. What was going on with that, huh? I suspect he’s making a commentary on masculinity. I wonder if writing that infamous chapter in 2666 had some kind of effect on him—NO, I’m not saying it made him gay, that is beyond stupid. But I wonder if spending that much time dwelling on what males did to females gave him a more cynical, bitter idea about masculinity, about what men are capable of (is this the secret of evil?). It’s certainly a theme that I noticed here.

What are the other themes or tropes in this book? Violence, chaos, the apocalypse, the end of the world, desperate attempts to take care of children, females being nervous around males, the feeling that something awful any second is about to happen. Probably the strangest story is “The Colonel’s Son,” which is about a character watching an extremely violent zombie movie that he claims is “my biography or my autobiography or a summary of my days on this bitch of a planet. It scared me so fucking shitless I tell you I just about fell off my chair.” (19) The story is basically a summary of the movie and the pandemonium that ensues from a zombie-filled world: is this an allegory for Mexico? Latin America? Life in general?

Another fun Bolaño tendency that pops up again here is his love for using literary figures (both real and imaginary) as characters: VS Naipul is the main character in “Scholars of Sodom,” while Julia Kristeva appears in a group of other French intellectuals and writers in “Labyrinth” (in this story, as in others, you are never sure who are the real authors and who are the fictional ones. This is quite a merry game often played by Bolaño, and I would argue that this tendency to blur fake author with real authors is when his membership of the Borges #1 Fan Club becomes most obvious).

I liked this book a lot and felt it was overall quite strong, despite the incomplete pieces. It felt more coherent and like it had more of a vision than Woes of the True Policeman, but maybe that’s just because I’ve been biased and more predisposed to thematically linked short story collections lately.

Quotes from this book that are gems:

[It was] as if you were watching Jurassic Park, say, except the dinosaurs never showed, no, I mean as if it was Jurassic Park and no one even mentioned the fucking reptiles, but their presence was inescapable and unbearably oppressive. (from “The Colonel’s Son,” pg. 20).

Listen: I don’t have anything against autobiographies, so long as the writer has a penis that’s twelve inches long when erect. “The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom,” pg. 72 (I think this quote is going to become my new official philosophy towards #humblebrags, LOL–this terrific essay also appears in Beyond Parentheses and really made me want to reread Roberto Arlt—if there’s another thing I love about Bolaño, it’s the way he makes me want to  read other authors)

Literature brushes past these literary creatures and kisses then on the lips, but they don’t even notice. “Labyrinths,” pg. 63

Artful (Ali Smith)

What a book! What an author! What is this book, Artful, and how to describe it? Is it a novel spliced with lectures? Is it a series of lectures interrupted by stories? My professors would say that this book is playing with form, in a manner similar Teju Cole and WG Sebald (whom I really need to read more of): blurring non-fiction with fiction, a factual academic narrator with a playful anarchic one.

I don’t know if I’d recommend this book to someone who’d never read Ali Smith before (I wonder if their reaction would just be, WTF is this?), but as a fan since 2006, I absolutely loved this book. I’m going to insert a little #humblebrag myself here (WHY NOT, HOW OFTEN DO I #HUMBLEBRAG) and say oh, no big deal, but my copy of Artful happens to be autographed and personally addressed to me by Ms. Smith herself. Yes! Along with David Lodge I now own TWO books autographed by my favorite authors! England, you have been good to me, and what’s even better is that it’s nowhere near over yet.

The book is a collection of four lectures/stories, entitled “On Time,” “On Form,” “On Edge,” and “On Offer and Reflection.” They were all really good but the last two really packed an emotional whammy for me; I was in tears by the last two pages. (The part in “On Edge,” where she talks about Orpheus’ trip to the underworld had the same result.) Smith’s writing often has that effect on me; I often feel emotionally wrenched while reading, like my heart is being wrung out like one of the nasty dirty dishrags in my kitchen. I think this effect has a lot to do with her use of ‘you,’ the way in which one narrator directly addresses another character who remains for the most part offscreen (except for the parts when she comes back from the dead, but we’ll get to that in a minute). I love this style of narrating; it feels very personal (as though you are writing a letter to another person) and the ‘you’ definitely helps to draw you in and feel implicated in the story.

Another clever technique worth commenting on in this collection is the way she has two narrators, but you are never confused about who is narrating or when. One narrator takes care of the fiction side of the story, as she relates her experiences about being (literally) haunted by her former lover; the other narrator is the lecturer (the lectures appear as notes on her desk that are read by narrator #1, so in a way there is really only one narrator in the story: when we read the lectures, we are reading along with her).

I also thought it was really clever the way Smith uusesed Oliver Twist in this book. Even though there are quotes, citations and discussions of sources from all over the place (Antigone, Orpheus, Philip Larkin, Greek films from the 1950’s, Beyoncé’s lyrics to “Halo,” a photograph of four sleeping female avant garde artists from the 60’s, a modern poem about googling—I could go on and on), Oliver Twist is used as an important source in each of the four lectures, and thus serves as a sort of bridge. It also provides the source for the story’s title (Artful–> Artful Dodger. The book never makes this explicitly clear; I figured it out all by myself, HAHA!). I haven’t read Dickens since high school, but I’m now wondering if OT is worth flipping through at some point (IDK about reading the whole thing, probably not this year!).

God, I loved this book. I’d never read anything like it before. It definitely changed the way I think about academic criticism: it definitely CAN be fun and avant-garde, and God knows I got a helluva lot more out of this than some smarty-pants article on JSTOR. What a model to follow. I also loved its tender treatment of grief and mourning; it made me cry in the same way that Cheryl Strayed advice column to a grieving father always inevitably makes me weep cathartically. I love the way the book ends with the narrator signing up for Greek lessons, finishing Oliver Twist, and looking forward to the spring. It’s simple, but hopeful, which is maybe the only way any of us can move forward out of darkness.

Ultimately, I love Ali Smith’s writing because it expresses a profound joy and optimism about being alive, despite all the shitty evil things about technology and capitalism and modernity. I also love her writing because her works are filled with characters who love books, read books, fondle books, use books, and I am unabashedly biased and predisposed to works of fiction that discuss fiction (helloooo Bolaño fandom).

In summary and conclusion, these books are all great. That is all. YAY READING!

1 Comment

Filed under Ali Smith, Bolaño, books, review

One response to “Strange Short Stories

  1. Sounds great; I will have to read me some more Ali Smith. I want to burn banks too!

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