Review by Christopher Barzak
Ali Smith made a wonderful debut in America with her novel, Hotel World. Now she follows that up with her equally powerful collection, The Whole Story and Other Stories. It is not by accident that Smith declines to include a story entitled "The Whole Story" either, for the underlying theme of this collection is the partiality of stories, how no story, no relationship, no person even, can be completely whole.
In "The Universal Story," Smith recounts the story of a man who buys copies of The Great Gatsby for his sister, an artist who makes boats out of unlikely objects. She plans to launch a boat made out of the novel after reading Fitzgerald's lines, "So we beat on. Boats against the current. Borne back ceaselessly into the past." Though this is the central story told in this fiction, Smith also includes partial narratives about a man in a churchyard, a bookshop owner, a woman who dwells by a cemetery, and the life of a fly. This is only just the opening, a meditation, really, on what the book is going to become.
"Gothic" takes us into a day in the life of a bookshop clerk dealing with the eccentricities of her customers. We peek into many lives, and by the end are left with a most peculiar sense that humans are by far the strangest creatures imaginable. "Being Quick" is a riff on Emily Dickinson's poem "Because I Could Not Stop for Death," in which a couple, one riding home from work on the subway, the other waiting at home for the other to arrive, are cut off mid-conversation when the first narrator (the story is divided between their perspectives) sees death on the train platform. He grins at her and her phone goes dead. The remaining evening details the sexless narrator's plight in getting home, then switches to the sexless partner's agonizing wait for the other to arrive safely. By the end, we've had both sides of the story, and many possible stories invented by each other about what the other one is doing. Described as such doesn't do the story justice. Upon finishing it, the reader is left with a sense that, indeed, even the grocery store clerks and shoppers where the stranded narrator has found him or herself at the end of the night, are full of mystery and intimacy.
"Paradise" follows the lives of three sisters who live in Scotland, one a fast food restaurant manager, one a hostess on a boat that tours Loch Ness, the other drunk and wandering a cemetery, shooting the faces of angels with a stranger she meets. They live in a tourist town, but the tour Smith takes us on through their own lives is anything but beautiful. "The Heat of the Story" is perhaps the most affecting fiction in the book, but perhaps only so because the book accumulates weight and substance as you read it, as you might read a novel. It narrates the story of three drunken women, strangers who have become friends that night, stepping into a church service at Christmastime to get warm. The ladies share stories on an icy field after being kicked out by the priest, and as two of them leave towards the end, catching a taxi, we are dipped coldly into the third woman's perspective alone. Before this, it was a shared perspective, with distance, mostly dialogue, then a cold descent into the inner world of the woman who has been left to wander in the night alone. As she comes across a man walking his dogs at three in the morning, Smith writes, "There's a story in that, she thinks as they pass each other by," and indeed by the time you reach the end of the collection, you've met an array of characters, glimpsed their lives, and in that glimpse have been given a deeper sense of their humanity than we generally allow ourselves to have of people we meet on our daily journeys into the social world.
Smith's genius is in the quiet details that accumulate and take on layers of meaning in a meandering fashion. At her best she is as thoughtful and meditative as Virginia Woolf, using many of the same methods Woolf used to carve out the caves behind her characters. In contemporary fiction it's a bit old fashioned to focus on the inner life of characters, but Smith makes those inner lives fresh and refreshing.
23 October 2004