From the Whitbread Award-winning author of The Accidental and Hotel World comes this stunning collection of stories set in a world of everyday dislocation, where people nevertheless find connection, mystery, and love.
These tales are of ordinary but poignant beauty: at the pub, strangers regale each other with memories of Christmases past; lovers share tales over dinner about how they met, their former lovers, and each other; a woman even tells a story to her fourteen-year-old self.
As Smith explores the subtle links between what we know and what we feel, she creates an exuberant, masterly collection that is packed full of ideas, humor, nuance, and compassion. Ali Smith and the short story are made for each other.
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January 12, 2010
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Excerpt from The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith
True Short Story
There were two men in the caf� at the table next to mine. One was younger, one was older. They could have been father and son, but there was none of that practised diffidence, none of the cloudy anger that there almost always is between fathers and sons. Maybe they were the result of a parental divorce, the father keen to be a father now that his son was properly into his adulthood, the son keen to be a man in front of his father now that his father was opposite him for at least the length of time of a cup of coffee. No. More likely the older man was the kind of family friend who provides a fathership on summer weekends for the small boy of a divorce-family; a man who knows his responsibility, and now look, the boy had grown up, the man was an older man, and there was this unsaid understanding between them, etc.
I stopped making them up. It felt a bit wrong to. Instead, I listened to what they were saying. They were talking about literature, which happens to be interesting to me, though it wouldn't interest a lot of people. The younger man was talking about the difference between the novel and the short story. The novel, he was saying, was a flabby old whore.
A flabby old whore! the older man said looking delighted.
She was serviceable, roomy, warm and familiar, the younger was saying, but really a bit used up, really a bit too slack and loose.
Slack and loose! the older said laughing.
Whereas the short story, by comparison, was a nimble goddess, a slim nymph. Because so few people had mastered the short story she was still in very good shape.
Very good shape! The older man was smiling from ear to ear at this. He was presumably old enough to remember years in his life, and not so long ago, when it would have been at least a bit dodgy to talk like this. I idly wondered how many of the books in my house were fuckable and how good they'd be in bed. Then I sighed, and got my mobile out and phoned my friend, with whom I usually go to this caf� on Friday mornings.
She knows quite a lot about the short story. She's spent a lot of her life reading them, writing about them, teaching them, even on occasion writing them. She's read more short stories than most people know (or care) exist. I suppose you could call it a lifelong act of love, though she's not very old, was that morning still in her late thirties. A life-so-far act of love. But already she knew more about the short story and about the people all over the world who write and have written short stories than anyone I've ever met.
She was in hospital, on this particular Friday a couple of years ago now, because a course of chemotherapy had destroyed every single one of her tiny white blood cells and after it had she'd picked up an infection in a wisdom tooth.
I waited for the automaton voice of the hospital phone system to tell me all about itself, then to recite robotically back to me the number I'd just called, then to mispronounce my friend's name, which is Kasia, then to tell me exactly how much it was charging me to listen to it tell me all this, and then to tell me how much it would cost to speak to my friend per minute. Then it connected me.
Hi, I said. It's me.
Are you on your mobile? she said. Don't, Ali, it's expensive on this system. I'll call you back.
No worries, I said. It's just a quickie. Listen. Is the short story a goddess and a nymph and is the novel an old whore?
Is what what? she said.
An old whore, kind of Dickensian one, maybe, I said. Like that prostitute who first teaches David Niven how to have sex in that book.
David Niven? she said.