‘There was once a story that was told by way of other stories,’ the narrator tells a lover in ‘A story of love’, the final piece in Ali Smith’s second collection: ‘The end.’ This narrowly beats the previous shortest short story: ‘The last man on earth sat in a room. There came a knock at the door.’ In most of Smith’s stories one event sets off a glancing chain of associations that lead to a new perspective on a universal fact and a sea-change for the narrator. In ‘A story of folding and unfolding’, from her award-winning first collection, Free Love (1995), a widower wonders what to do with his wife’s hoard of underwear: Smith’s touch here is light enough to make the transition from virginal white to wifely pastel to elderly elasticated chart a life. In ‘Text for the day’, a woman alienated from her life tears her books to pieces one by one; and in so doing gives them meaning again, as strangers catch at the fragments and pore over the mystery of their incompleteness. The title-story of Free Love evokes the delight of first love-making, when life is ‘filled with possibility’; ‘A quick one’ catches the moment when a finished love affair, with all its messinesses, is finally resolved.
The pieces in Other Stories and other stories refine the connections between action and import, moment and significance. In ‘Blank card’ the narrator is sent flowers by an anonymous admirer, and the jolt of perceiving herself as the discreet object of someone else’s desire revives her feelings for her partner. The unknown leads her back to the deeper and more enduring mystery of the known; and the story ends with her delivering flowers to her partner – accompanied, naturally, by a blank card. ‘Virtual’ makes similar tentative links: a woman encounters a hospitalised anorexic playing with a tamagotchi – a human making herself inanimate and a computer pretending to be alive. But the encounter leaves the narrator baffled:
Her hand up close had been like the foot of a bird and you could see lines in it, and lines along her fingers, like the traceries in a leaf.
I couldn’t think what to do.
I couldn’t imagine what to do next, or how to be able to do it right.
Smith often leaves the connections dangling: she presents dual narratives in loose proximity, and allows conclusions to be inferred from formal placing in what are almost mood pieces. ‘More than one story’ sees two narrators’ memories of kindness joined only by their lines of sight and a wave – ‘shy acknowledgment, yes, hello, goodbye’. ‘Miracle survivors’ is a concatenation of two New Year’s Eves, two cold snaps, in which a tramp is dug out of a snowdrift and a pair of homeless girls shelter in a locked-up newsagent’s: all three emerge only in order to set off again, into the unknown.
The problem of comparison was teased out in Smith’s novel Like (1997), a story of the relationship between two women, Amy and Ash, who are simultaneously warring twins, possible lovers and polar opposites. The central mystery of the book – whether Amy returns or even acknowledges Ash’s passion for her – is never resolved, but the two women’s narratives mirror each other in language and style: Ash’s sensuality exists only in relation to Amy’s asceticism, Amy’s coolness is defined through Ash’s ardour. The book ends with Ash’s meditation on what it all meant, what it was ‘like’: ‘There was no stopping it and there was no getting near it. You say something’s like something else, and all you’ve really said is that actually, because it’s only like it, it’s different’
Fiction can make connections where in life there don’t seem to be any, as so many of Smith’s titles stress: ‘A story of love’, ‘More than one story’, ‘Kasia’s mother’s mother’s story’. At the same time, with their unresolved endings, inexplicable details and dropped stitches, these stories mimic the low-keyness of the real: the language is consciously unliterary, the subject-matter determinedly ordinary, recording the minor peaks of unremarkable lives – a holiday, a flirtation, the kindness of a stranger. Smith avoids speech marks, an attempt to forestall the distancing of dialogue from character and reader (real people speak in quotation-marks only when they’re being ironic).
The book in which ‘Kasia’s mother’s mother’s story’ appears is also dedicated to ‘Kasia’. This story, perhaps, is ‘true’. Smith’s work consists of narrative nests, tales within tales: characters ask each other for stories and present childhood moments as explicable narratives, locating intellectual value in the instinctual power of memory. Many of the stories concern pairs: lovers are the willing therapists who help you make sense of the details of your life, the only ones for whom the trivial is important. In ‘The theme is power’, the lover, even when absent, provides the necessary audience: ‘The thing is, I really need you with me in this story. But you’re not home ... So. Listen to this. This is what happened.’ As the narrator describes three discrete brushes with danger, moments when aggressive strangers tried to storm her life, the imagined lover intervenes (‘But is it connected? I’m a bit lost, are they connected?’), understanding and witnessing the ordering of the stories, the regaining of control.
While resonating delicately against their framing narratives, these stories within stories point up Smith’s dislike of tidy endings. In Like Smith has a child complain, as Smith’s reader might: ‘That’s like ruining it, not showing you what happens.’ Ash, writing out the story of her love for Amy, gasps, ‘And what a story it could be,’ as she hesitates between dramatic effect and messy, unsatisfying honesty. The two women in ‘A story of love’ – a formally daring piece in which the seasons roll round while the women tell each other bedtime stories, a metonym for a year of their waking relationship – begin by demanding ‘proper stories’ of each other, with a beginning, middle and end, but then discover that ‘half-stories’, after which both doze off wondering about the characters and filling in possible endings, are more tantalising. One mishearing – ‘there was once someone who was in love with the sky’ for ‘in love with this guy’ – sets off a congeries of narratives. Every tale demands that the hearer submit to its terms; cirrus clouds are as reasonable a love object as a handsome prince. The characters in Other Stories and other stories create subtler forms of fairy tale for each other, individual myths, parables of the progress of love.
Many of the pieces are interior monologues apostrophising a lover (‘God’s gift’ begins: ‘There are so many things that you don’t know about me now’); the devices of diary and love-letter are used to write an absent other into reality. Smith employs the second-person form to present a suggestive tranche of shared memories that the narrator takes for granted, but which are only hints and clues to the reader, who is intimately addressed, yet out of the loop. Since the second person is ungendered, Smith can often leave the sex of the lovers unstated; sometimes until the last line, sometimes throughout. This gives the monologues a tone of generous inclusiveness – lesbian love is universalised – while the reader is forced to question whatever assumptions he or she has made. The stories that deal explicitly with heterosexual relationships (‘Scary’ in Free Love, ‘The hanging girl’ in Other Stories) feel different: not least because the men are bastards, while elsewhere the tone is celebratory. The heterosexual couples fight against the differences in each other; her female lovers clash over the ways in which they are the same.
The second person is an uncommon pronoun in modern literature. The most notable examples are Beckett’s Company and Perec’s A Man Asleep, both of which are deeply unsettling, lacking, as they do, a filter between narrator and reader. Smith’s work shares this intimacy and directness. But while her structures remain elegantly spare, her language can stray too close to sweet nothings: the difference between voices in the head and reading someone else’s diary. At one point in Like, Ash’s diary runs on unedited autopilot: ‘Pathetic. I’m too tired to be writing this now, no sense, non sense. Where was I?’ Similarly, ‘God’s gift’, the first story in the new collection, augurs badly with its unearned epiphany: ‘I know, I know, I know. I know every day, every hour is a gift. I know, yes, every moment, even these ones, this one, now, here.’ This is therapy writing. As Ash admits, ‘Diaries, they’re so self-indulgent ... If you write something down, it goes away.’ In ‘God’s gift’ we don’t know enough to care about the ‘I’ circling round the subject of her lost love or the ‘you’ she’s addressing. Smith makes a virtue of avoiding endings, but this story also lacks a beginning and a middle.
The best – and most experimental – story in the collection is ‘The hanging girl’, an anatomy of one woman’s breakdown. It begins bafflingly with a young girl’s execution, articulated as sing-song music-hall:
the moment we’re waiting for ... today’s victim on – This Is My Death – yes it’s you yes this time you now from nowhere you get more much more than you bargained for me you get me scrawny broken albatross to hang round your neck in one lunge I’m off the scaffold and into your head surprise! and swinging gaudy bauble on a tree coo-ee hello it’s me.
After a dope-hazed evening spent giggling with friends as atrocities were shown on TV, Pauline finds her footsteps dogged by the hanged girl. She befriends her, lets her hang about the house (literally – her favourite pastime is swinging beneath the kitchen clock pretending to be a pendulum), shields her from the horrors of the daily news. Pauline’s behaviour is made to seem the only reasonable and humane reaction to the world. When her boyfriend says, ‘Terrible things happen all the time. You can’t be this sensitive, you just can’t,’ we know his response is inadequate.
The other stories can seem slight by comparison: self-contained worlds but also closed circuits. The diagram of a plug that decorates each story’s title-page aptly illustrates Smith’s project: she exhibits her characters’ emotional wiring. Every one of these stories is an accomplished miniature, but it would be good to see her tackle these themes on a larger scale. The richly allusive Like is proof of her ability to retain the delicacy and precision of her short pieces in a more complex and extensive work.