Friday, November 21, 2008

Review: The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith

The First Person and Other Stories
Ali Smith

Published by Hamish Hamilton

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson

What place do stories have in the great bloated canon of literature? Some consider them as playful side-thoughts compared to the larger in-depth novels that authors produce. Others think of them as an author's most essential ideas pared down to the bare essentials, brief and perfect in their distillation. It probably depends on what author you are reading. This is a debate Ali Smith engages with in the opening story of her latest collection and, as a staunch defender of this literary form, the stories contained in this book are robust examples of how imaginative, important and powerful short stories can be.

In this book you'll find a story which describes the seductive reactionary thoughts contained within each of us in the form of a foul-mouthed abandoned baby (First published in the Blithe House Quarterly). In `Writ' the author shows how alien we are in adult form to the child we used to be, suggesting that a constant dialogue is taking place between our present and former selves by explaining how her 14 year-old self has taken up residence in her home. There is a daring to Smith's writing which pushes the reader out of conventional ways of thinking and the comfortable, methodical way readers might ingest stories. Mythic tropes are invited to engage in the particulars of the present day. Particular people in particular places at particular times expand into what is universal. Paragraphs on the pages refuse to be justified and end on the right side of the page in jagged lines. Quotation marks are abandoned. Forms of narrative are teased and taunted to explore the meaning of points of view. Nameless voices banter back and forth in sensual, intimate, bodily play. Conclusions are written, abandoned, rewritten, erased, rewritten.

Yet these stories are not mere playful experiments with literary forms. They contain real heart. For readers who are familiar with Smith's work, they are probably the most confessional you'll find among her publications. When describing a friend who has cancer, an adulterous affair, a childhood crush on an art teacher, these stories feel immediate, emotional and true (regardless of whether they are autobiographical or not). Consequently, Smith shows in these stories that this literary form provides strategies for confronting what is most vital in our lives right now. Whether you finish reading a piece in this collection feeling touched to the bone or utterly perplexed, these stories make an impact larger than their "short" stature suggests.

Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review, Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly, Blithe House Quarterly and the anthology From Boys to Men.



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