Ali Smith has this way of writing short stories that feels casual, almost conversational, as if she is telling us a story instead of writing it. Her narratives are direct and invite questions, but never confuse or over-intellectualise. Her stories are sewn together beautifully without seeming over-worked or contrived and her characters feel so real it’s almost as if she’s telling us about herself. I like Ali Smith. I like her writing.
So, when I started reading The First Person & Other Stories, I wondered whether this collection would startle me, surprise me, make me laugh as much as her others.
The opening story ‘True short story’ sets out Ali Smith’s stall. We read in the acknowledgements that this was written as a playful response to a speech at the inauguration of the National Short Story Prize, and it introduces her agenda in the collection to explore, subvert, and discuss the short story form.
Two men are overheard in a café describing the novel as a ‘flabby old whore’ and the short story as a nymph. The narrator overhears and phones her friend Kasia to ask whether she feels this is true, and we hear their debate and exploration, with quotes from various writers about what the short story means to them.
Alice Munro is quoted as saying ‘every short story is at least two short stories’. Here, we have the story of the short story, the story of Echo and the story of Kasia, who is in hospital having chemotherapy, but was refused a certain drug treatment because of cost effectiveness. It sounds an odd conjunction of subject matter, but it all makes sense and fits together seamlessly.
Many of the short stories in this collection are like this, wonderfully odd. They play with ideas of short story, narrative, and point of view, at the same time as exploring the most interesting ‘what if’ questions, and small intimate moments in characters lives.
‘The Child’ is the story of a woman who finds an angelic looking baby in Waitrose, who turns out to be a racist, porn-surfing bigot with beautiful RP pronunciation. ‘Writ’ is the story of a 14 year old turning up at the house of her 40 year old self, begging the question, how would we respond to our younger self if she knocked on the door? ‘The history of history’ explores the story a teenager writing an article about Mary Queen of Scots, at the same time as her mum is starting to go mad.
There are multiple stories in each story, and Ali Smith skilfully brings these stories together, retells them, and subverts them, without us being aware quite what might happen next.
It is clever, to write stories at the same time as provide a commentary on the writing. ‘The Third Person’, for example, begins with a story about people who make love for the first time, yet suddenly we read ‘but enough about them’ and in the middle of a paragraph we are reading about a woman who hits a dustman over the head with a garden spade, and then spring changes to summer and two women are eating a meal, then we are at the theatre with different characters, and then another couple are in bed. It could be disorientating to some readers. The reader needs to have trust that the writer knows what she is doing (and she certainly does), but I wondered how this manipulation, the playing with form, might be received by other readers. I mean, I’m a writer, I love this kind of stuff, in a geeky ‘oh how clever’ kind of way. But what if a reader is not interested in the craft of writing short fiction, or narrative or even what ‘third person’ might mean? Is it accessible, or does it create a barrier? Does it need ‘insider knowledge’? I’m not sure.
My two favourite stories in the collection focus on love affairs and show Ali Smith writing at her best. ‘The second person’ is an argument between two ex-lovers, each character brilliantly misunderstanding the other, and slinging accusations about what each believes the other would be like in an imaginary situation. It descends into one of those ridiculous arguments that perhaps we all recognise, an argument about nothing that brings out the feelings we are carrying and need to express:
‘…you think you’ve got the right to just decide, like you’re God, who I am and who I’m not and what I’m like and what I’m not and what I’d do and what I wouldn’t. Well, you don’t. Just because you’ve got, you know, a new life and a new love and a whole new day and dawn and dusk and everything shiny and new like in a glorious pop song, it doesn’t make me a fiction you can play with or some well-known used up song you can choose not to listen to or choose to keep on repeat in your ears whenever you like just so you can feel better about yourself.’
The title story, ‘The first person’ captures the playful dynamic of a new couple. The use of ‘I’ and ‘you’ is genderless, as in so many of Ali Smith’s stories. We could be reading about men or women, same sex or opposite sex couples. The play on ‘first person’ is lovely – ‘the first time I saw you…’, ‘you’re not the first person who…’ It is funny and affectionate, and brings out what is best in Ali Smith’s writing, emotional identification with the characters, a smile, a bit of fun.
Any Cop?: A must for any short story devotee. A brilliant collection, but not quite a straight-forward read.