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The First Person and Other Stories, By Ali Smith
Short stories and love affairs, as this collection shows, have certain inescapable similarities. Each has a beginning, a middle and an end - though they don’t always appear in that order. Both contain multitudes of fictions. Some stories, like some love affairs, have their endings already written in their opening lines. Still, we begin them anyway; it’s something to do with human nature.
To say that Ali Smith’s new collection is all about language and stories and the nature of truth and fiction would be to do them a terrible disservice. In fact, it would make them sound pretty awful. But this is what they are about.
The first, “True Short Story”, begins with its narrator overhearing two men in a café. “The novel, [one] was saying, was like a flabby old whore… Whereas the short story, by comparison, was a nimble goddess, a slim nymph.”
Smith comes up with a neat explanation for this theory - a crisp bow tying up 17 pages of Greek myth, loving friendship, the history of the short story and a disingenuous aside about speculating about strangers in cafés: “I stopped making them up. It felt a bit wrong to.”
It’s like crowbarring open the story at the outset, and letting the reader wander around in the place where all the making-up is done. Some of the stories are more straightforward than others. “The Child” is a classic combination of myth and faeries, confusion and surprise: in it, a woman finds a beautiful baby in her shopping trolley, with eyes that were “blue and clear and blank” and a mouth like a porned-up version of the Daily Mail. Their relationship is best described as Bridget Jones meets Brothers Grimm.
Most of the stories, though, are about love affairs; ending or beginning; there is “I” and there is “you”. Many of them swim to the surface through layers of fiction. Others are set out as if they were screenplays: “It’s spring. It’s an early evening in April…” Often they switch scene mid-line, like poems, as transient as words on a page. “I think of it now and something inside me acts like a film cliché,” reads the very un-cliched “No Exit”, “like my insides are a hollow guitar, and just the disembodied thought of the movement of your hands can do anything it likes, once, then again, to the strings of it.”
These elaborate similes are a real treat throughout the collection. It is as hard to summarisethese intricate stories - with their fragile truths and flights of fancy - as it is to explain what makes them wonderful, even if they are about truth and fiction.
They are already pared down to the point of perfection. In these and her other collections, Smith has found a format in which her sly wit and dextrous storytelling sing. It might be more helpful just to say: read them.
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