The Whole Story and other stories by Ali Smith

The Whole Story and other storiesI don’t know if it’s just because I first read them both because of the Canongate Myths series, but for whatever reason, there is a close association in my mind between Jeanette Winterson and Ali Smith. They do seem to blurb each other’s books, and I feel like they have a bit in common in terms of their writing, though there are definitely differences too. But I’m pretty convinced of the affinity.

There are two epigraphs in Lighthousekeeping: “Remember you must die” (Muriel Spark) and “Remember you must live” (Ali Smith). And the second (sort-of) chapter begins, “A beginning, a middle and an end is the proper way to tell a story. But I have difficulty with that method.” Which immediately put me in mind of Ali Smith again.

“The Universal Story,” the first one in The Whole Story and other stories, starts with a beginning. Then another beginning, and another. It’s the story of a man, no, a woman, no, a fly, no, a copy of The Great Gatsby. &tc. The end winds us back down:

The woman who lived by a cemetery, remember, back at the very beginning? She looked out of her window and she saw—ah, but that’s another story.

And lastly, what about the first, the man we began with, the man dwelt by a churchyard?

He lived a long and happy and sad and very eventful life, for years and years and years, before he died.

Now, on the one hand, this puts me in the mind of what is a somewhat unflattering blurb on the back of my Anchor Books edition, from Elle magazine: “Smith proves herself an experimental writer even your mother could love.” Yeah, this story is in some sense an easy way of being experimental. An easy way of showing how that beginning, middle, and end thing isn’t so simple, and how “The Universal Story” has to be a story about everything it mentions, and how, in the end, what’s the point of the story anyway, when we can just say that once upon a time a man dwelt by a churchyard and he lived and he died?

But then on the other hand this story is funny and smart and Smith has got some truly, truly beautiful writing, and “experimental” in the end is just a ridiculously loaded word.

Several of the stories in this collection are about the same couple, both parties nameless, and they’re done in a style different from anything else I’ve read (though again, there’s nothing new in the world, so whatever) that makes them in their own way some of my favorite love stories ever. The way it works: the stories are in the first person, addressed to “you,” that is, the lover. Then they switch: “you” becomes “I” and vice versa. We get the lover’s quarrel and everything else from both sides. Not evenly, but so, so interestingly.

I came off [the internet] when you called me for supper, then went back on again after supper and came off again when you told me that if I didn’t come to bed immediately so you could get some sleep then you would seriously consider leaving me.

I get some work things ready for tomorrow and call you, tell you as usual that I’m off to bed, that if you don’t come now so I can put the lights out and get some sleep I’m going to leave you.

Here we’re in one of Smith’s somewhat bizarre stories, where one of the lovers has become infatuated with a tree. But later, when some real fight has happened and it may really be the end, when we get the side of the lover locked out of the house and the side of the lover doing the locking out, it begins to feel almost over-intimate. But fascinating, with a pull so strong because it’s hard to imagine an experience more different from the one we have in real life, where that second point of view is what we’re hopelessly cut off from. It makes the moments when the lovers actually leap across the gulf between them very powerful.

There is a good mix between this recurring couple and individual, unconnected stories, and a good mix between stories more and less imaginative or fantastical. They’re all propelled by Smith’s impressive prose: conversational and contemporary, but smart and perceptive. Propelled by her outlook, too, I think—“Remember you must live”—and the idea of “saying yes” to that jump across the divide between us.

3 comments to The Whole Story and other stories by Ali Smith

  • I agree that there’s an affinity between Jeanette Winterson and Ali Smith. They’re both joyous writers, with evident delight in telling non-linear tales and playing with language.

    I haven’t read Smith’s latest short story collection, but am looking forward to it. I must move it up the TBR pile!

  • nicole

    Yes, I want to tell Amazon to send me that one right away, like yesterday!

    The “joy” thing is totally right, too. It’s really not what I usually read, but boy have I been needing it lately.

  • I love Ali Smith because she is so clever and funny and joyous. Not to mention wise. And I love all authors who can do something oddball and hold you in touch with it, serenely, across the reading process. This is a great review because it gets to the essence of her unique style. Thank you!