What I’m Reading: Ali Smith – Other Stories and other stories

There is a persistent prejudice that experimental literature, or really any literature that is conscious of form and plays with structure  is something merely cerebral, read: cold and unemotional. Ali Smith’s collection of stories Other Stories and other stories proves this wrong on every single of its 180 pages, almost with every single sentence even.

Take the first story, “god’s gift” – a short (10 pages) evocation of a woman numbed by the loss of her lover. We never find out whether the lover left her or died: The story sticks mainly to the present, describing the first person narrator cleaning up her garden after returning from a trip to Greece, the few, brief flashbacks never going farther back than that vacation. On her return, she finds her garden full of dead birds brought her by some neighbour’s cat; she discovers one bird that is still alive and places it on a window sill, high enough to be out of reach of the cat. And that’s it, that’s the whole story – no plot at all, and hardly any interior reflection either, there seems to be nothing to the story at all. But it ends with the narrator wondering about the bird she saved, wondering whether it fell of the sill and died or flew away and survived:

“If there is no bird on the sill what I will do is this. I will go to the window and lean out. I will look down, and it will be there. Or I will look and it’ll be gone. It will be dead. It will have flown.”

And suddenly – possibly with some small jolt going through us – we realize that this is indeed precisely the situation the reader is left with regarding the narrator’s lover, and the story is transformed into the literary equivalent of Schroedinger’s Box (which, of course, contained a cat, like the invisible one bringing all the birds). In a metafictional twist, reader and narrator mirror each other, and with everything that has gone before this moment of realization is absolutely heartrending – rarely, if ever,  has metafiction been this moving.

Contrary to what the title suggests, there is no story called “Other Stories” in this collection. But in a sense, that is what all of them (all of them, that is, except those “other stories”) are – they are about peripheral things that fit no category but “Other”, or they are about the “Other” as the other person, lover, neighbour, random stranger, and more often than not (and generally in the strongest and most deeply moving stories) there is a deep, compelling connection between the two. In another meaning, quite a few of the stories in this volume are actually two stories that intersect in a more or less (usually less) obvious way, so that they consist of a story and an other story (and it might be worth noting that Ali Smith used a similar bipartite structure for her first novel Like) – leaving it up to the reader to connect the dots, so to speak, or, in some cases, to in the first place find the dots which to connect.

This of course means that you will likely get more out of these stories if you pay some attention while reading then; attention not only to what things are said but how they are said, which will let you see how Ali Smith charges all those apparently small things, those throwaway gestures and trifling words, all that leftover, other stuff and charges it with significance and emotional depth. It is this attention to small and, to superficial look, meaningless details that characterizes this Other Stories and other stories even more than her other works. The stories in this case seem unassuming and trivial, and that all their titles are written in lower case emphasizes that even more. It is almost like a fabula docet of this collection, however, that nothing is really trivial or unimportant, and even something as utterly insignificant as a blank flower card can have life- (or at least relationship-) changing consequences. So it is only fitting the stories themselves demand a close attention to detail from their reader.

I find it hard to not think of William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” in this context:

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”

There is indeed something almost mystical about those stories – not in their content, but in the intensity of the writing, in its unremitting dedication to detail, its its embrace of the small and the neglected there is a kind of rapture that any reader who keeps a sufficiently open mind is invited to share in.

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