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BOOK REVIEW

'The First Person and Other Stories' by Ali Smith

What is an author? Smith challenges our concepts of writing in an intriguing collection of stories about the craft.

January 04, 2009|Susan Salter Reynolds

Magicians seldom reveal their tricks. Canny cooks make sure a single ingredient is left out so the recipe remains their own. Writers who try to share their acumen risk turning their precious offerings into lumps of soggy, sanctimonious, pompous print. So when Ali Smith, out of sheer exuberance, creates a 12-story, 12-step edifice to the craft of writing, climbs to the top and plants her flag in the title story, in "the first person," there's huge potential for slippage and breakage. One, because she's clever, and two, because she's British (frequently referred to as an off-putting combination).

Each of these delightful stories is an illustration of some aspect of writing fiction. "True Short Story" reveals how writers use bits of their lives and aspects of their fragmented selves to fly off into fiction. "Present" is about sticking with characters through thick and thin. "If I went back inside," thinks the story's protagonist, an author who is thoroughly sick of the presence of two people in an otherwise deserted and depressing pub, "if I was simply there, those two people would speak to each other again, they'd be able to, even if I was just sitting reading my paper or eating my supper ignoring them."

"The third person is another pair of eyes," she writes in the story "The Third Person." "The third person is a presentiment of God. The third person is a way to tell the story. The third person is a revitalization of the dead. It's a theatre of living people." The story "Fidelio and Bess" is about revision, in life as well as in art: "Of all the dooms I ever thought I might come to, I never reckoned on middle-classness." It's also about unresolved endings.

In "The Second Person," Smith shows how easy it is for a writer to dump all her stuff -- prejudices, emotional baggage, lingering childhood issues -- on the second person. It is, in fact, a form of revenge. "You suggested I'm wasteful and whimsical," says the narrator to the author. "You suggested, in your story of me buying musical instruments I can't play, that I'm completely ridiculous and laughable." And then this exchange follows:

"No I didn't, I say. I was actually trying to suggest --

"Don't interrupt me, you say. You always --

"No I don't, I say."

And finally, "The First Person" illustrates all the virgin newness, all the fresh-start potential of the first person: "You hold me very tight in under my clothes, and if there's a library anywhere near then someone just removed its roof, the shelves just flooded with sun and all the old books just remembered what it means to be bound in skin and to have a spine." "You're not the first person I've ever felt new with," the writer tells her lover. "Won't be the last, you say. You're not the first person to think he or she could save me, I say. I'd never be so presumptuous, me, you say."

There are no quotes in these passages because all the voices are in the writer's head. What saves Smith from pedagogy is her unabashed admission that the writer is always a character in her own work -- a Heisenberg Principle for authorship.

Sure, narrative lurks somewhere in the back-back-backstory of these stories, but they are more conversations, relationships than agendas. The author, in other words, doesn't have all the answers, any more than God or your parents or the president. What she does have is tenacity, and spirit. She's not ashamed to tunnel into relationships, to end up someplace different, to come out blinking at the brightness.

--

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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