Early in 2005, in one of those literary world teacup-storms, Ali Smith and Toby Litt were castigated
for saying, in the introduction to a collection they'd jointly edited, that "On the whole the submissions from women were disappointingly domestic, the opposite of risk-taking - as if too many women writers have been injected with a special drug that keeps them dulled, good, saying the right thing, aping the right shape, and melancholy at doing it, depressed as hell." This was followed by a clarification
: it wasn't the subjects that disappointed, so much as the approaches used. "We found it hard to understand why writers with nothing to lose but time and the cost of postage were so unadventurous." Later in the year, Smith's novel The Accidental
was shortlisted for the Booker prize. nuttyxander
and others kept enthusing about it, so I bought myself a copy, but haven't quite found the time to read it yet. Fortunately, in one of those serendipitous moments that make Christmas worth it after all, hawleygriffen
sent me Smith's 2003 collection The Whole Story and Other Stories
Having more-or-less devoured it in the space of 48 hours, I think I have a slightly better understanding of where her criticisms of other women writers might be coming from. This is not an unadventurous book, and not a quiet one, either. It exults
. There are stories about the everyday world (a visit to an art gallery), about the bizarre (seeing Death at a railway station, falling in love with a tree), even one ghost story (a Scottish pipe band of ghosts, in fact); what binds them together is the energy and verve with which they are told. Smith's prose fizzes--informal, naturalistic, striking, free-associational, finding beauty in unexpected places--but what strikes you most of all is the delight she takes in (re)creating a world made of stories.
'The Universal Story', which opens the collection, could be a mission statement. The title is ironic; if you hadn't guessed from the contradictory overall title of the book, the opening lines make it pretty clear:
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 was once a woman who lived by a cemetery. Every morning when she woke up she looked out of her back window and saw--
Actually, no. There was once a woman who lived by--no, in--a second-hand bookshop. (1)
Every act of storytelling is an act of exclusion. The bookshop, once we get to it, turns out to be the real centre of this
story, or at least a moment in the life of the bookshop does. But it's not the whole story or the universal story; it can't be. The bookshop owner, a man buying a 1974 edition of The Great Gatsby
, the book itself, a fly sitting on the book, and the woman the man is buying the book for all take a turn in the spotlight, Smith showing us how every participant in a moment came to be there.
The woman the man is buying the book for is an artist (his sister, in fact), given to making boats out of unusual materials, such as flowers. Noodling around for a new project, she hits on the idea of making a similarly ephemeral boat out of copies of The Great Gatsby
. For the artist, the reasons for that particular choice are obvious (So we beat on, she'd said. Boats against the current. Borne back ceaselessly into the past. Get it? (10)); for Smith's story, the reason seems to be an argument about the partialness of stories. Gatsby
is a Great American Novel ... but it is no more universal--cannot be more universal--than any other story. None of the stories in 'The Universal Story' quite begin or end, but that's the point: every story we know or tell is made from the loose ends of the stories we don't.
For Smith, acknowledging that is important. It's not as explicit in most of the other stories in the collection, but it informs all of them. It's in the juxtaposition of bookshop customers in 'Gothic'; it's in a story like 'The Book Club', with its ramble through the corridors of memory. It's in the narrator of 'Erosive', whose first action is to ask, "What do you need to know about me for this story?" (115) And it's in the viewpoints Smith uses, which, when they're not first-person, are dizzyingly omniscient, swinging (in, for example, 'Paradise') with complete control from a wide-angle view of a Scottish town to the individual stories of three sisters who live in it, and back out again. And somehow, amid all the pyrotechnics, Smith still creates people you care about and events you remember.
There are several stories, for example, couched as dialogues between lovers. The characters are stripped of all identifying features: there is only a 'you' and an 'I'. Half-way through each of these stories, everything flips, and the you becomes the I, and the I becomes the you. What captivates is the way these stories are portrayals of the limits of intimacy and trust in relationships. The protagonists test their boundaries, and test each other. My favourite of these stories is the most romantic (although perhaps it doesn't seem so at first glance), 'Believe Me':
I am, I said. Don't you believe me?
You're not having an affair, you said behind me.
Actually, no, you're right, I said. I'm not having an affair. It's not an affair, it's much more than an affair. Actually I'm married to a man you've never met with whom I have three children you don't know about.
Ah, you said. (137)
The resolution of the story is note-perfect. But what really strikes me about it (and the other similar stories) is how their form strengthens their impact. One obvious thing is how it affects reader-identification; the absence of gender markers in most of them means that often, it's impossible to tell whether you're reading about a man and a woman, or two women, or two men. So we impose our own preconceptions, and that's always fun. But more than that, I find the way it's couched--'you said'--powerful. 'Believe Me' is a memory I've forgotten but want to remember.
Some of Smith's experiments, inevitably, fail and, of course, some of them won't work for everyone. I had to laugh at the 'review consensus' stated on this page
: "Fairly impressed, if not always clear as to what she's up to"--although perhaps the most intriguing comment quoted there is the one by Liz Jensen, from a review in the Independent (no link):
But will you have read any stories? Not stories where things happen, not stories with beginnings and middles and all that palaver. You will have read Writing, much funny, some poignant, all of it deeply, militantly unusual; a series of surreal, loosely connected fragments which somehow manage to inspire delight as well as irritation.
Perhaps she's right; perhaps these aren't really stories. But reading The Whole Story and Other Stories
, you get a clear sense of why Smith might be frustrated with work that doesn't take risks, or with too many stories that know only their own existence. Her own writing is constantly exploring, constantly finding new things to say and ways to say it. In 'The Heat of the Story', three women, mostly drunk, go to Midnight Mass, get thrown out, and tell each other stories in the cold of the early morning. 'This is true, I swear it,' they say. And it is; they all are, for certain values of 'true'. But the game can never end. Perhaps, at the end of this book, you won't have read any stories, but you'll have a better sense of the shape of the world. And that, in itself, is a satisfying thing.
She starts walking, anywhere, she doesn't know where.
The street is deserted, except for a man coming towards her on the other side of the road. He is out walking two small Jack Russell dogs in the dark at three o'clock on Christmas morning.
There's a story in that, she thinks as they pass each other by.
It's too dark to see his face. Merry Christmas, love, he calls across the road to her. Have a good one.
The words are full of thaw.
Merry Christmas, she tells him back. All the best. (192-3)
Rachel Cusk in the Guardian
Julie Myerson in the Telegraph
Ann Cummins in the San Francisco Chronicle
Interview by Jeannette Winterson: here
Other interviews: here
Another story: here
EDIT: Christmas story here