marginalia || The Whole Story and Other Stories, by Ali Smith

We made love. We spent the rest of the morning making it, then some of the afternoon. We began when you pressed my thighs apart with a pressure so subtle and so sure that it caught me by surprise and stopped me in mid-sentence. I breathed in, and you slid between them and traced with your tongue the thing line of hairs on my stomach leading down to my groin, then shifted up and fully on to me and kissed me openly, with skill, because you know me so well, and then me on you because I can read you like a book and because the thing about a beloved book, if it’s a good one, is that it shifts like music; you think you know it, you’ve read it so many times, of course you know the pleasure of it is in how how well you know it, but then you hear, in the background, the thing you never heard in it before, you thought you knew this book but it dazzles you with the different book it is, yet again, and not just that but the different person you have become, the different person you are now, reading it again, and you, my love, are an excellent book for me, and then us both together, which takes some talent with rhythm, but luckily we are both talented in reading each other.

- From the short story “Believe Me.”

Ali Smith was recommended to me in one of the comments. I kept her in the cluttered brain-file of To-Hunt, and a couple of weeks ago, I happened upon a near-pristine PhP20 [that’s about $0.45] copy of The Whole Story and Other Stories in one of the BookSales around work.

A first impression: Ooh, how writerly. I think I’ll like this. Another first impression: Ah, writer’s writer. I am predictable this way. And, yes, I liked the collection well enough–uneven, I thought, but ultimately, well, it was good. Lovely was a word that appeared often in my note-taking. I like to think that this points to descriptive fact, and not that my imagination ends when faced with having to think of variations of Awesome Book.

It didn’t blow me away as I hoped it did–about half of the stories were the kind that makes you go, “Dammit, I should’ve thought of that first,” but half of the stories just had me going Meh. But I know I liked it for its bookishness, it’s palpable love of books and reading–most of the stories, in fact, are anchored on this palpable love. Oh, and meta-reflections on writing too. And language. Lovely, fluid language that’s still manages to escape the artsy-fartsy convolutedness.

Take “The Universal Story,” for example: A writerly exercise, playing with form, with storytelling. It’s How to Begin a Story, with the parenthetical How to Take It Back. It’s like a camera winding through the streets, looking for something to focus on, something that, through it, could tell the story properly. Let’s go to the bookstore, and then a fly in the bookstore, and then the history of the book that the fly landed on–F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby–a history of past owners, loves, indifference, and, ultimately, abandonment. Until someone walks in and buys it, and all the other The Great Gatsbys in the store. For art. There’s this woman in a bathtub in the other side of town who decides she wants to build a boat made entirely of The Great Gatsbys. It’s this kind of book-related meandering, the teasing of the narrative, that kicked off a okay-enough relationship between me and this new-to-me author.

In “Being Quick,” we are introduced to the possibility of meeting Death on the train. And, as the blurb says, “You know it’s Death because your phone dies whenever he smiles,” or something like that. But it moves from that first whimsical thought to stray into other Make Up A Story territory. Riding the train, speculating on the lives of other passengers. It’s about how we assign our impressions on people, to label them. How our daydreams to pass the time take over how we’ve always regarded the people closest to us–wives, husbands, in this story. I love that part, when, after the passengers on the train, the husband and wife start imagining what’s happening to the other–the wife making her way home, the husband waiting for her. Augh. Smith definitely makes it sound better. Bah.

The thing is, it’s very hard to describe the stories. Not because they’re un-summarize-able, but more because the language–what makes Smith’s stories hit you hard–gets lost. And as much as I want to quote snippets, most of the things I want to point out are threaded into the entire story. That is, I cannot quote, say, a precise scene in “Being Quick,” mostly because it’s so organic. I cannot tell you how much I love the last story, called “The Start of Things,” because one thing is inextricably tied to so many other things. I cannot even lift a quote. It’s that whole. So much depends upon [a red wheelbarrow] the rest of the narrative, the rest of the story. The stories I like best, well, they’re ones I want to push at people: Read this. I can’t tell you how good it is, can’t do this justice, but read it, dammit. Yep. [Friends, you’ve been warned.]

My favorite of the 12 stories would have to be “Believe Me.” I mean, see, I tried to quote it up thar. But that’s not even the most vital part of the story. It’s how this woman starts sharing her fantasy of another life, and how the man starts to humor her at first, and then it gets dangerous, and then you start to get scared, and then the end just makes you gasp. It makes you go Awww, and then it makes you gasp. Yes, that. And y’all know how much I love authors who make me gasp.

I can’t believe I’m even in bed with you, you said. You are such a cliché it’s not true.

I will, most probably, keep Ali Smith on file. A favorite-enough author, with this one collection, haha. So, yeah. I want to read the rest of her story collections, her novels later later. [Let this be a memo to all my kindhearted BookSale-haunting friends out there: I want me some Ali Smiths. Dibs!]

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14 comments

  1. Aphazia · · Reply

    I’m so envious I’m near tears. Any chance you’d sell or lend this one? Haha. Half-joking! :)

    1. If it weren’t for you, I’d never have read Ali Smith, ya know, haha. I GOT IT FOR TWENTY PESOS! :] (I’m torturing you with this, aren’t I?)

  2. OH GOD, you did not just get Ali Smith for P20. *cries*

    This I think was the first book of hers that I managed to find; I’ve been looking for Girl Meets Boy for the LONGEST TIME, and then we came across Free Love and it was gorgeous.

    I remember liking “Believe Me” as well. (Frightening and endearing) I think I remember “The Start of Things”. I’m so fond of her language.

    1. I think I am going to be BookSale-Haunters Most Hated for this book, haha. Twenty bucks! I squealed, seeing it in the stack that was just about to be pulled out. I’m definitely going to keep my eyes peeled. More peeled. Whatever, haha. I’m so intrigued by the rest of her collections. I think she’s one of those authors that’ll be okay to be bombarded with.

  3. aphazia · · Reply

    evil torturer is evil haha

    1. *insert appropriately evil torturer noises*

  4. I’m always amazed at how well you pull together ideas about collections. That seems like such a difficult thing to do for me. Great thoughts on this book, I think I’d enjoy it!

    1. Aw, shucks, Ash, haha. Thank you! If anything, I think you’d enjoy Ali Smith because of her bookishness. Book-love abounds in her stories. I’m a little envious, actually. Makes me want to try out some bibliophilic-minded fiction myself. Gahk.

  5. Natalie · · Reply

    Aw. Where did you buy those?

    1. At a BookSale. A string of secondhand shops. :]

  6. […] The Whole Story and Other Stories, by Ali Smith. […]

  7. […] Short Story Month 2010, I read Ali Smith’s collection, The Whole Story and Other Stories. I thought it was okay. I thought it was an uneven collection, mis-stepping several times yet quite […]

  8. pagesbythesea · · Reply

    :-) being quick … there is no ‘husband’. Most of Ali’s characters are lesbian as herself. Though she usually leaves them gender neutral :-)

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