THE FIRST PERSON AND OTHER STORIES by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin), 206 pages, $30 cloth. Rating: NNN
Ali Smith's stories in the first person sometimes seem to be saying more about the art of the short story than actually constructing a narrative.
That postmodern sensibility makes many of them, though not all, big fun. The first, True Short Story, was in fact written in response to the inauguration of the UK's National Short Story Prize. Tongue in cheek, it muses on the similarities between a story and a nymph - sounds strange but it works - and suggests what might happen if a narrative were developed almost wholly by eavesdropping on a conversation in a café.
When Smith presses the absurdity button, she's hit-and-miss. In The Child, a grocery shopper finds a foul-mouthed child in her grocery cart. It's a scary tale of guilt and impotence. But another, about a mother seeking healing help in the want ad section for her son, strains credulity in ways that prevent it from taking off. The premise makes sense; it's the woman's reactions that don't
The most successful offerings are those that combine that po-mo flavour with a clear narrative arc. Writ, in which the adult author has a conversation with her 14-year-old self, has a beautiful poignancy. The title tale, The First Person, and two others, The Second Person and The Third Person, track the stages of a love affair, using dialogue and situations that are sometimes silly but totally believable.
This is the follow-up to Smith's excellent gender-bending update of the Iphus myth, Girl Meets Boy (Knopf). And here, Smith continues to pursue her quest to convey emotion via alt-sexual voices.
All the stories in The First Person, written in a clear, punchy style - no rambling sentences here - have a playful quality. And none of them exceeds 20 pages. Good for dipping.
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