The First Person and Other Stories

The Scottish-born writer Ali Smith is best known in this country for her 2005 Whitbread award-winning novel The Accidental . That book featured an educated, upper-middle-class London family vacationing in a shabby house in Norfolk, where their lives are disrupted by the arrival of a mysterious stranger. The novel presented each character’s reaction to this person in rambling, stream-of-consciousness style. Smith became known for her heady and cerebral writing: the middle of the book coalesced into a raucous but technically exact sonnet sequence, channeling the thoughts of a sexually-frustrated, English professor father. Her 2001 novel Hotel World employed similar techniques, charting the death of a teenage hotel chambermaid through a polyphonic narration reminiscent of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.

If Smith’s novels paint kaleidoscopic portraits, endlessly breaking and reassembling language at the level of the individual sentence, her story collections are something else entirely: a quiver of arrows, aimed directly at the problem of form. Beginning with Free Love and Other Stories (1995), and continuing through two more volumes to this winter’s The First Person and Other Stories, the narrators of her tales have become more direct and plainspoken, their voices pared down to read almost like parables. Though they can sometimes lack the emotional impact of her novels, the stories in The First Person bring a different kind of pleasure — a sly and intellectual undermining of their own principles.

“True short story,” which opens the book, blurs the line between reality and artifice in an attempt to show what the short story can and can’t do. The narrator overhears two men having a conversation about the novel, which is described as “a flabby old whore . . . serviceable, roomy, warm and familiar.” The short story, by contrast, is “a slim nymph” that is still in good shape, because so few have mastered her. The narrator decides to solicit her friend Kasia’s opinion on the debate (the uniqueness of this name, and the fact that Smith’s book is dedicated in part to a Kasia Boddy alerts the reader that we may be crossing into the realm of non-fiction) because Kasia has spent her life teaching and reading stories. At the time the narrator phones her, however, Kasia is in the hospital being treated for cancer. The facts of Kasia’s illness become as important as her theoretical knowledge, to the new definition of the short story that she and the narrator settle on.

Other tales here take an interest in the fluctuating nature of the self, and show how the story form – with its open-ended-ness, its capacity for raising more questions than it resolves – is uniquely situated to explore the inner world. “Fidelio and Bess” concerns a pair of lovers who argue about the extent to which Beethoven’s only opera could be rewritten to incorporate Gershwin characters saying things like, “Jake, you ain’t plannin’ to take de Sea Gull to de Blackfish Banks, is you?” The narrator is a free spirit, the kind who thinks all art should be subject to revision and new interpretations, while her lover thinks the boundaries for such things should be rigid. “‘Culture’s fixed… That’s how it gets to be art.'” The discussion becomes a metaphor for their “doomed” relationship, and the polarized stance each person has taken within it. Similar themes of flux and stasis animate “Writ,” where the narrator is kissed by a stranger on a London street, then finds her fourteen-year-old self “roaming about in my house knocking into things, wild-eyed and unpredictable as a blunt-nosed foal.” The girl becomes a literal presence at the narrator’s kitchen table, asking for coffee in a way that makes the narrator realize how little she knows her — “her accent is so where I’m from and so unadulterated that hearing her say more than four words in a row makes my chest hurt.”

More provocative are the stories in which Smith reveals how narrative is ineluctably caught up with morality: how we use stories to champion our own interpretations of the world, and occlude our obligations to others. In the unsettling “No Exit” (a play on the drama by Sartre, of the same name) the narrator watches a woman leave through the fire-escape door in a cinema, entering a locked stairwell where she believes the woman will be trapped. Rather than notifying someone at the theater, the narrator goes home and calls her ex-lover, with whom she once had a tryst in the same stairwell. “Why did I do that, why did I just walk out of the cinema like that, without a word, even though I knew someone might be having a rough time?” the narrator asks herself. The story continues to unravel this question, rather than provide a tidy resolution. In the funny but disconcerting “The Child,” a woman turns around in the supermarket to find that someone else’s baby has been put in her cart. She is unable to convince the store manager that the child isn’t hers, and decides to take him home with her, but as soon as they are in her car the boy begins saying things like, “‘You’re a really rubbish driver, . . . Are you for instance representative of all women drivers or is it just you among all women who’s so rubbish at driving?'” The child parrots a stream of politically incorrect, adult speech at the woman until she tries to abandon him in the woods, and eventually deposits him back in another supermarket cart. The story becomes an allegory of our responsibilities to engage with those of differing beliefs.

Lastly, a trilogy of stories entitled “The first person,” “The second person,” and “The third person” point to the limits of each. The third person is shown to be “another pair of eyes” that can range widely over people and places, but perhaps doesn’t get close enough to a single one of them to say anything meaningful. “The second person” shows how the process of calling another person a “you” can be both accusatory and presumptuous-the narrator thinks she knows everything about her lover, until an unexpected parcel arrives on her doorstep. And in “The First Person,” the final and most intimate story of the book, a couple having breakfast at a table on their lawn make up stories about how they met, in preparation for encountering their partner’s friends for the first time. Their stories become more and more outlandish until one of them turns to the other and says, “How about we’re story-free? How about there is no story as to how we met?” Ali Smith’s writing demonstrates both the impossibility of this, and its ultimate undesirability.