Ali Smith’s latest short story collection teases the reader and plays with the conventions of literature, says Kirsty McHugh
Ali Smith is “one of the most inventive writers we have. She jumps from high places and lands on her feet,” says Jackie Kay on the front cover of The First Person and Other Stories. “Inventive” is the keyword for this, Smith’s fourth collection of short stories, which sees the author muse upon the nature of fiction – the short story specifically – and upon the relationship between fiction and reality.
In the opening story, ‘True Short Story’, our narrator – Ali – is first seen sitting in a café, listening to two men discuss fiction. The novel is, according to the younger man, “a flabby old whore” while the short story is “a nimble goddess, a slim nymph”. Ali phones her friend Kasia, a literary scholar and cancer patient, and together they think about the nature of the short story. Smith then goes on to weave a clever little parallel between nymphs, Echo the Oread (“one of the earliest manifestations in literature of what we now call anorexia”), and various theories of what the short story is from famous thinkers.
Ali Smith’s style is instantly recognisable. She flits between real-time conversations and other-worldly tales. There’s ‘Writ’, the stunning and poignant conversation between a middle-aged woman and her 14-year-old self, who she discovers in her flat one day:
I want to tell her who to trust and who not to trust; who her real good friends are and who’s going to fuck her over; who to sleep with, and who definitely not to. Definitely say yes to this person, it’s one of the best things that’s going to happen to you. And don’t be alarmed, I want to say, when you find yourself liking girls as well as boys. It’s okay. It’s good. It works out very well… Don’t, by the way, vote Labour in 1997; it’s like a vote for the Tories.