Ali Smith - The First Person and Other Stories
In this, her fourth collection of short stories, Ali Smith sets out her philosophical stall as quickly as she can. Her opening tale, ‘True Short Story’, ponders the very nature of the form itself as two men debate the merits of the novel against the short story, overheard by a narrator who has lost her ‘voice’, ending in a string of quotes from writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges and Alice Munro, all revealing what the short story means to them.
The First Person and Other Stories is not so much a collection of shorts, as a gathering up of ideas concerning the soul of this literary genre and a forensic analysis of putting such mini-novellas together. In several of the dozen pieces, there are alternative stories being told: long-distance memories, secret histories, a meeting between a woman and her 14-year-old self, and tales of people stuck in the snow or trapped between walls which could easily cross into urban myth territory. There are also some distinct stories (Porgy and Bess, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots) recalled which drive on a main narrative while ‘Astute Fiery Luxurious’ concludes with a series of multiple endings about how to dispose of a suspect package.
These are all cunning and engrossing conceits but disappointingly, given her track record, the Smithian wit and emotional thrust are often absent, though the scientifically precise drawing of character is as potent as ever. A semi-triumphant dissertation on the mini-story form.