For 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 lovely, with “fluid language that still manages to escape artsy-fartsy convolutedness.” I especially liked how that collection was dedicated to books and reading and bookishness, to the passion of intent writers, and lurve. Despite its unevenness and occasional Meh-ness, I still really, really liked it—it spoke of familiar things, and did so tenderly and charmingly.
Since then, I have amassed three more of her books—one collection and two novels—on the affective merit of that book alone. The neatness of reading Smith again for this month wasn’t lost on me, and so I tried to get comfy with her Other Stories and Other Stories. “Tried,” of course, being the predictably operative word. Oh, holy orphaned pandas, what a struggle.
And I really found all the stories odd—reading was an uncomfortable experience of polite impatience and sometime-skimming. I gave every story a chance, okay? I did it in trains, in coffee shops, in my bed. I flipped the pages back when a voice in my head insisted, “No, you’re reading it wrong.” What kept me going was that pesky voice. [But I tried.] What kept me going was the memory of me liking The Whole Story and Other Stories, despite lazily disliking some of those stories. But, dammit, compared to this, The Whole Story and Other Stories was just enchanting.
The charm fizzled. Obviously. Her hazy-vague-y tone, her flimsy narratives. True, the plus-side of her style does allow the reader access to the characters’ most tender, if occasionally saccharine, thoughts. But it was this way all the damn time. I can understand the appeal: Perhaps this is a comfortable voice, if one most accessibly to the author when she’s scrawling about a scene that’s idly lodged itself inside her head. But it still seems like a waste of lyricism.
Where is the risk? Aside from that of boring a reader who encounters you more than once? Formalistic risk? Bah. Experiments? Exploration of the short story’s capabilities to define the human condition? Gahk. Yes, boring for me, then it became tedious—this sonorous monotone, the stories and people all existing in one affectedly ephemeral plane of brusque-melodic sentences, hipster concept of cool. It was so overbearingly self-conscious, it began feeling pretentious soon enough.
Sasha, for decency’s sake, did you find one earnest thing in this collection? Yes—upon vigorous re-visiting and careful thought: I liked the story “Blank Card” well enough. A ridiculous amount of flowers sent by a stranger [the card! was! blank!] brings new life to the romance between a couple. There. I liked that story. It had action, it was sexy, I understood it, it was nice. Wait, though, earnest? Yes. I suppose, on its own—but when this okay-enough story is the highlight of a collection? Well. Well.
PSA: The Other Stories and Other Stories by Ali Smith was found during one rather crazy sale in which I amassed an embarrassing quantity of books. Embarrassing, that is, if I could still be embarrassed about anything book-ish.
Reading Begets [Cautious] Reading — I was quite excited when I found out about her new novel, the beffudlingly titled, There but for the [and maddening too: the OC in me shudders at the knowledge that, typed, it will refuse to conform to Title Case]. The playfulness in that title now appears to me quite, well, catty—hints of intertextuality and stylistic off-kilter-ness now only read Puns-Puns-Puns. Oh, I will read that novel, as well as the one other left in my shelves, The Accidental. I want to see Smith rise from the technical box she seems to enjoy being in. I mean, how long can much-buzzed novels stand on breathy sentiments and the vaguest of vague utterances?