“The Whole Story and other stories” is a collection of radical short stories in which Ali Smith manipulates language and voice. Multiple stories are built around generic or, at least, non-specific pronouns as protagonists. Many of the stories within this collection switch point of view midstream with no warning or acknowledgment. In brief, Smith’s writing is delightfully unconventional.
In “the universal story” Smith stage-whispers to her reader, winking while incorporating the creative process into the story itself.
“There was a man dwelt by a churchyard.
Well, no, okay, it wasn’t always a man; in this particular case it was a woman. There was a woman dwelt by a churchyard.
Though, to be honest, nobody really uses that word nowadays. Everybody says cemetery. And nobody says dwelt any more. In other words:
There was once a woman who lived by a cemetery. Every morning when she woke up she looked out of her back window and saw –
Actually, no. There was once a woman who lived by – no in – a second-hand bookshop.”
Other stories, such as “being quick”, are packed with witty observations about the complexity and asininity of modern life.
“She looked at her phone as the train went through a tunnel. So did all the other people who had been in the middles of conversations up and down the train, which was packed with people behind me and ahead of me shouting their hellos forlornly, like lost or blind people. The stray hellos reached nobody. They hung unanswered above our heads in the air and cancelled out everybody they weren’t for, then as soon as we were out of the tunnel the phones began again by themselves in a high-pitched spiraling, the signature tunes of TV shows, the simplified Beethoven symphonies.”
In every story, Smith’s directness, her audacity, and her ability to paint with bold, brash strokes that are simultaneously wild and refined, keep the reader engaged and the pace flowing.
“What do you need to know about me for this story? How old I am how much I earn a year? what kind of car I drive? Look at me now, here I am at the beginning, the middle and the end all at once, in love with someone I can’t have. The waking thought of her, sunlit and new, then the all-day hopeful lightheadedness, and behind it all, dull as a blown-out lightbulb, the fact of the word never.”
The central theme binding these stories may be Smith’s vivid imagery of people dancing precariously along the edge of sanity. As a collection of short stories, however, their cohesiveness teetered dangerously close to cliche. While Smith’s ideas as well as her writing style were fresh and intriguing, I have to admit that her unconventionality and her unique voice began to feel repetitive and rote after numerous stories were built on the same structure and recycled the same atmosphere. “The Whole Story and other stories” seemed more like a sketchbook, a collection of drafts that could ultimately result in one groundbreaking novel.