Life, Love, and Literature: Ali smith’s The First Person and Other Stories

DSCN1329 - Version 8Smith, Ali. The First Person and Other Stories. [2009] Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2010.

This collection of short stories, some of which originally appeared in various journals and newspapers, is introduced by quotations from Grace Paley, Edwin Morgan, Katherine Mansfield, and Haruki Murakami. Murakami’s observation “Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine” and Mansfield’s “True to oneself! Which self?” spoke particularly to me as I considered these stories individually and as part of the whole collection.

DSCN1329 - Version 8Smith plays with us and with our understanding not just of what we mean or think we mean when we define the first, second, or third person but also with our understanding of what we expect of narrative and of short stories in particular. The first story of the collection, “true short story” includes at least four narratives: the frame of the two men in the café, a retelling of the myth of Echo, a brief reference to David Niven’s account of his encounter with a prostitute at fourteen, the story behind access or lack thereof to Herceptin, and “the story of the moment” (13) when the narrator Smith met Kasia. “true short story” then paraphrases thirteen definitions of the short story given by writers ranging among Franz Kafka, Elizabeth Bowen, Alice Munro, and Cynthia Ozjick, to name but a few. In fact, horror or horrors(?), I found myself thinking how useful Smith’s list of paraphrased definitions would be for classroom discussion.

DSCN1329 - Version 8So I suppose the above is a rather long-winded way of saying that Smith’s collection more than simply presenting us with short narratives, no matter how well crafted or engaging, challenges us to consider our whole understanding of narrative and of telling. Her narrators are unsure, afraid; lovers, possibly untrue or insubstantial. Nothing is quite certain. Babies are abandoned in supermarket trolleys, parcels arrive from nowhere, people are “trapped between the walls” (117), and well-known plot lines are interchanged. Who is imagining whom or what?

DSCN1329 - Version 8In counterpoint with this underlying mood of anxiety is the collection’s wit. The stories are sharp, sometimes droll, with an occasional hint of sulphur, not quite in the world of Angela Carter, perhaps, but approaching its borders. Smith’s deft handling of focalization and manipulation of events and point of view leave the reader strangely satisfied. One reason for this satisfaction is Smith’s empathic rendering of her narrators and other characters. The stories reveal a strong sensitivity to human insecurities, and, I would argue, Smith’s conclusions are somewhat optimistic. Certainly, she celebrates and validates the power of the imagination.

DSCN1329 - Version 8Overall, I enjoyed these stories not so much perhaps because of what happens or doesn’t happen but, rather, because of the way they play with my expectations of narrative, point of view, and language. Moreover, despite Smith’s calling into question our possible preconceptions of what a story should be and do, her empathy and virtuosity show what stories can do.


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