Ali Smith, The Whole Story and Other Stories (Random House, 2003).
I’m completely dazzled by this book. The first time through, I forced myself to ration it, reading a few stories each night over the course of a week rather than devouring it in a single gulp. I was glad I’d prolonged the pleasure, but in the end it’s the cumulative effect of the stories that make the book particularly noteworthy for me. I wouldn’t single out any one story and deem it the best I’ve ever read (if anybody’s wondering, for me that laurel goes to Delmore Schwarz's brilliant story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”). Indeed, a couple of Smith’s stories ultimately strike me as failed experiments. But it’s the formal risks that she takes, and the huge payoffs those risks often yield, that lift this book into the stratosphere.
The subject matter of some of the stories is bizarre: a narrator falls in love with a tree, a woman builds a boat out of second-hand paperback copies of The Great Gatsby, two women are haunted by a pipe band in full regalia. Other stories are built round the mundane details of day-to-day life: a cell phone conversation on a train, a taxi ride home from the airport, a day at work in a bookstore. But in Smith’s expert hands the bizarre is believable and the mundane is fascinating.
Whatever their subject matter, these stories are also about stories. What do we know? How can we know anything when we never have access to the whole story? There are only fragments, multiple and sometimes conflicting versions. Smith overtly signals the constructedness of stories again and again. For example, the first story begins: “There was a man 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. Though to be honest, nobody really uses that word nowadays. Everybody says cemetery. And nobody says dwelt any more. In other words: There once was a woman who lived by a cemetery.” Another begins: “What do you need to know about me for this story? How old I am? how much I earn a year? what kind of car I drive? Look at me now, here I am at the beginning, the middle and the end all at once, in love with someone I can’t have.”
Smith also plays with point of view. In “the universal story,” the perspective shifts from that of a bookshop owner, to that of a fly that settles on one of the books, to that of the book, to that of the purchaser of the book, to that of the sister of the purchaser to whom he gives the book. In a series of stories about a pair of lovers (referred to simply as “I” and “you”), the point of view switches half way through so that the reader gets another side to the story. I saw an interview with Smith on Imprint in which she said that she had deliberately concealed the gender and sexual identity of the “I” and the “you” in these stories so as to leave it open to any reader to slot themselves in on either side. The interviewer owned up that she had initially assumed the “I” to be female and the “you” to be male, then, upon learning more about Smith (presumably the fact that she’s a lesbian), assumed both parties in the couple to be female. Smith resisted both configurations, saying that neither assumption is necessarily true. It could be a man and a woman, two women, or two men.
This mechanism should bring into sharper relief the idea of multiple, plausible stories. But here the experiment with undefined gender undermines the idea rather than enhancing it. I never got the sense of a switch in perspective because the voice doesn’t change. The “I” and the “you” are so carefully devoid of identifying details that there is nothing to distinguish them from one other. I don’t think that it’s necessary to convey the genders and sexual identities of characters to make them distinct, but here the effect of erasing gender and sexual identity is to simultaneously erase independent identity.
This is a rare failure though. For the most part, Smith is brilliant at creating fully formed characters, sometimes with only a few strokes of her pen. In “paradise” we meet three teenage sisters, the eldest just coming off a shift as night manager of a burger chain, the middle one working the concession stand of a tour boat on Loch Ness, and the youngest drunk in the graveyard in the middle of the night. These three voices are completely distinct from one another and each is pitch perfect. The rendition of the drunk twelve-year-old voice is particularly masterful.
I’ve been focussing primarily on Smith’s formal innovation. But Smith also has plenty to offer readers whose tastes in fiction are more conventional. She artfully plays with the idea of story but never deprives the reader of story. She produces strong voices, fully developed characters, and beautiful sentences. She also provides sharp insights into romantic and familial relationships. Beneath the postmodern play, there is a core of emotional truth. This may seem paradoxical, but this is Smith’s genius. She can do it all at once.
I nearly bought a copy of The Whole Story in an Edinburgh bookshop two years ago but, in a rare sensible moment, I realized that I’d already bought more books than I could transport home in my suitcase. Now, I’m wondering how different the stories I’ve written in the intervening period might have been had I read Smith’s book then. I don't feel compelled to try to write like Smith. But reading her stories makes me want to push my limits and undertake a few experiments of my own.
I’m dazzled and inspired.