Reading Review: First Person and other stories, by Ali Smith

Ali Smith is another universe I’m taking a brisk walk through. I accidentally didn’t finish The Accidental – I started it on holiday with way too little time, strife of a reader, right? It’s hard to know where to start with writers like her, every time I get the thought to read her work, she seems to have a new book out. So, where to start… I was first introduced to her short fiction, so The First Person and other stories seems like the best idea.

I’d describe Smith as a zany Cormac McCarthy, without American reference points. She treats the page in a similar way to McCarthy; no punctuation above letters, no ‘ or ” to be found. The prose is bleach-clean. Dialogue relies solely the reader’s attention, the speech only distinguishable by the line breaks and the odd ‘he says… she says…’ It’s ergonomic, but unlike McCarthy, Smith delves into snapshots of human lives with a swift in/out, yet burdens your heart with each story. McCarthy paints desolate landscapes where you fight to choose humanity or abandonment or inevitable doom. These are writers of gravitational fields. Sink wisely. Smith is funnier, too. But enough with comparisons.

Good short stories for me shut out your ability to read anything else for a period of time. Smith’s world is a slow place to find your bearings, but I was immersed after two stories in this book and living with characters that I could hate/love/fear with ease. Smith interrogates person and tense in ways I’m not sure I even understand yet. She’s not afraid to leap perspective and drop you elsewhere in the turn of a line. I want call it poetry… but that’s what poets do to narrative.

There is commentary in many of these stories on how to write a story. The opener, ‘True short story,’ charts Smith’s attempt to write a short story while she edits it over in conversations with her friend who is fighting cancer. In the final pages, she even lists quotes from short story giants, my favourites being:

‘Jorge Luis Borges says that short stories can be the perfect form for novelists too lazy to write anything longer than fifteen pages.’

‘Alice Munro says that every short story is at least two short stories.’

My favourite story in the collection would have to be ‘No exit’ in terms of its character’s neurotic sprawl and how that comes to affect their everyday dialogue and interactions with the world. Smith weaves a fire exit metaphor in the story both in physicality in the character’s world and the reader’s mind. It’s a pathway story that sets up so many beginnings and endings that are all driven by character obsession. It took me a while to exit the story and get back into my body.

Smith’s writing is a constant diversion to then draw you into her key themes. There are times where I got lost and that can be a turn off in narrative, but if you can trust Smith’s writing, you will have learnt something from the path she led you down.

Ali Smith, The First Person And Other Stories, Hamish and Hamilton, 2008

Reading Review: There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Continuing in the vein of Stephen King, I’m still in a dark place this week in terms of reading, hence this collection of short stories leapt off the library shelf for me. I’m always trying to read wider into translated texts too and this short story collection by Russian writer, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, has been an expansive venture for me.

As the title suggests, this is a volume of punchy, dark stories. These are swift, eerie fairy tales, that don’t fail to deliver that gothic emptiness and slight-unsettling atmosphere. Many of the stories are about resurrection or unsuspected reanimation, my favourite being about a woman’s son who comes back from the dead in a blaze of vodka-soaking. These are funny stories, despite being dark, almost sarcastic fairy stories that derive from modern day situations.

The translation work is good, the stories are authentic and hold true to their reference points. Petrushevskaya throws us into Aesop Fable-esque lines that chart the vast passages of time in mere sentences. Some parts read almost as charming as PowerPoint summaries… and fail to grab at necessities in telling.  As a result, the pacing can be jaunty but is a trope of the genre and it’s cool to see this happen in a contemporary work of fiction.

Another trope executed by Petrushevskaya is cliff-hangered endings of the stories, sometimes to the point of ‘oh… did she just stop writing?’ But that could be down to translation. The rhythms of stories are formed by the language and I can’t make that a bad point of this reading… Also, I love jazz.

The stories are bullet size; you could finish the collection in an hour if you hit it hard, though I feel Petrushevskaya and her editors have crafted work that does benefit from laboured attention, as well as allowing the reader to pace through the work and retain stories.

There could be more shifts and pitches in the openings of the stories; they follow the trope of ‘there once lived…’ or ‘there once was…’ which can get tedious, yet again a trope of the genre… I’ve said that too many times throughout this review…

This is the first fairy tale book I’ve laughed through, whilst also being suitably arrested at points. The language isn’t playful, quite straight-cut economic, but the concepts that Petrushevskaya works with are sharp fantasy, so I think that makes up for it.

Read When: You want short stories, something from a different reference point, something dark-funny, supernatural, new fairy tales that read enough like old fairy tales.
Don’t Read When: You want language innovation, clean cut endings/resolutions, volume.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby, translated and edited by Keith Gassen and Anna Summers, Penguin Books, 2009