ALI SMITH reading with PETER CAREY and Douglas Glover at the Premiere Dance Theatre, Friday (October 24), 8 pm.
THE WHOLE STORY by Ali Smith (Penguin), 179 pages, $27 paper. Rating: NNN
It's impossible to question Ali Smith's talent. The Scottish writer's short story collection The Whole Story, like her Booker-nominated novel, Hotel World, is full of dazzling pyrotechnics. Smith likes to play with form and expectations, leading the reader on and then yanking out the rug so cleanly that you don't quite know what's happened.
The title of the collection is misleading. There is no whole story. Instead, the reader is offered fragments, snippets of people's lives and the odd things that go on in them. A woman is chased by a herd of living bagpipes, someone falls in love with a tree, a bookshop worker has to deal with an anti-Semite, and a woman tries to convince her partner and herself that she's having an affair. The loose thread of the changing of the seasons ties the dozen stories together, but even that convention is soon twisted around and eventually tossed aside.
Narrative comes in for the roughest treatment. A story like Erosive leaves its beginning to the end and ends up being more about the attempt to tell the story than anything else.
That the tricks and turns often overwhelm the stories themselves is clearly of little concern to Smith. There's plenty of exciting wordplay and narrative scrambling, but occasionally you wonder, "To what end?" Having your brain teased and your expectations rattled is fun, but without more substance it gets tiresome.
If we can't have the whole story, what about half?