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.
There’s ‘Child’, a story that provides a nightmarish scenario for a woman who does not want children. She is a Guardian-reading supermarket customer who one day finds a beautiful infant sitting in her trolley. She takes him to the help-desk, but no one believes that the child isn’t hers; they merely think that she is a new mother, freaking out by the responsibility. In the face of this very public pressure, she tentatively takes him in her arms to discover that he instantly stops crying and she feels a maternal rush of love. She takes him with her, but when he is strapped into the car seat, this beautiful cherub starts talking in fully formed sentences:
You’re a really rubbish driver, a voice said from the back… I could do better than that, and I can’t even drive. Are you for instance representative of all women drivers or is it just you among all women who’s so rubbish at driving?
And that’s the mild stuff. He makes appalling statements about asylum seekers, women (“What do you call a woman with two brain cells? Pregnant”) and Iraq. When, in a panic that she will be saddled with the child forever, she deserts him at a roadside, she compulsively goes back out of guilt. He seems unbothered when she puts him back in the car: “Can we go somewhere with broadband or Wi-Fi so I can look at some porn?”
Smith’s writing can break your heart. ‘The History of History’ follows a schoolgirl as she tries to do her history homework and cling to normality while her mother is having something approaching a nervous breakdown, and her father seems to want her just to step into the motherly role.
But Smith’s writing can make your heart sing too. In this collection, as in her previous work, she is at her very strongest when she writes about love. ‘The Second Person’ sees a woman worrying in the middle of the night and phoning her ex-partner to talk and they end up sharing reminiscences from their time together. ‘Astute Fiery Luxurious’ features a couple lying in bed, talking about a girl one of them used to have a crush on. The collection’s title story, ‘The First Person’, opens in the morning after two women have spent the night together. Our narrator is initially on the defensive when she finds her lover in the garden, having dragged the kitchen table out there for them to have breakfast: “I’m not sure that there’s much room left in my life for all this.” But “you” are stoic in the face of doubt and when the nameless narrator nervously, stridently says, “You’re not the first person who ever made me feel like this,” you confidently reply, “I’m the first person today, though.”
But my favourite story is ‘The Third Person’. It plays with the very nuts and bolts of what fiction can do, as the author zooms from season to season; country to country; person to person, giving the tiniest flashes of insight into the lives of her subjects. Rarely for her, the story is told in the third person, and that is no accident. The subjects of each of the mini-stories don’t know we are there, watching them. We are the third, unseen person. And the author? She is everywhere, all-seeing, all-knowing.
The First Person and Other Stories is nothing short of a triumph. Ali Smith is a writer at the height of her powers, and I can do no better than to repeat what other reviewers have already said about these stories: just read them.