May 23: “Erosive” by Ali Smith

Good day to you, Story366! It’s Monday, the second week of summer break, and yesterday, I had a horribly terrifying feeling: I thought summer school might have started today. Why is this important? Mostly because I teach two courses this summer, and the instructor of those courses is supposed to, you know, go to the classes; well, not mostly: It’s all because of that. Sure, they’re online classes and it’s not like forty students were going to be sitting and waiting in a dark classroom, but still, I would have had to have faked it for today while I scrambled and got my materials together. I had assumed there would be some time off between spring and summer semesters, but never bothered to actually check that. So last night, knowing it was Monday today (I’m at least that on board), it struck me, “Hey, maybe I should check that?” Luckily, the summer semester starts on June 6, so I have two weeks to work on syllabi and assignments and stuff, two weeks to get a freakin’ calendar. If any of my forthcoming students are reading this—because summer students taking a 200-level gen ed elective so often read short story blogs over the summer—worry yourself not: I’ll be ready.

For today’s post, I read from Ali Smith’s collection The Whole Story and Other Stories, out from Anchor Books. This is another book that I picked up in Chicago last week, at that Powell’s by the University of Chicago, and it’s also the second book (out of two) from that stack that is by a British author (Scottish, in Smith’s case). In fact, looking through that stack, a lot of the books are by non-American authors, and I’m thinking that maybe somebody at the University of Chicago recently taught a contemporary European short fiction class, and some U of C undergrad needed beer money and sold her/his books. It kind of reminds me of the time, spring ’14, that I taught Contemporary American Fiction for the first time and put One Hundred Years of Solitude on the syllabus. I didn’t notice it’s not an American book until one of the students said something after we were done reading it. I guess García-Márquez was South American, so that counts, but …..

Okay, I’m rambling: Smith is British. And she’s a good writer. I read a few stories from this collection and note a couple of things about them, some consistencies. The first two stories feature protagonists who work in vintage bookstores, and in fact, might even be the same character (though I doubt it). In the story I’m writing about today, “Erosive,” there’s mention of books and bookstores. Maybe Smith has worked in a vintage bookstore? Or maybe she likes books? I dunno. The other thing I notice about Smith’s collection is that there are a lot of elements of meta-fiction, some of it subtle, some of it in-the-face, bordering on “Lost in the Funhouse”/Deadpool. The lead story, “The Universal Story,” features a narrator writing/telling a story, editing the details across the first couple of pages, starting with a guy at a churchyard, then changing the details, one by one, until we instead get to that woman in the vintage bookstore, all the while explaining why each change is going to make a better story. I’m a fan of “Lost in the Funhouse,” the first time I’d ever read anything like it, and I like what Smith does with it here, not as invasive as Barth, but still, someone’s writing a story, and there’s communication between that writer and the reader.

“Erosive” plays with meta-fiction, too, the narrator asking readers what kind of details we need to know before he/she (we don’t know) commences with the story. What does he/she look like? What color hair does he/she have? How much do money does he/she make? In an intro fiction class (like the kind of teaching this summer, but not today), we do that exercise, make a list of character traits for your protagonist, twenty or so facts like the ones Smith lists, plus religion, political leanings, and whether they like Chicago-style pizza or the wrong kind. Not exactly sure what Smith is going for with this, because it only lasts for half the first paragraph. Then Smith gives us this line: “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 meta-fiction is short lived, as the story never goes back to it.

That line I just quoted is important in structural ways, too, because after this epigraph that lasts about a page, the story is cut into three sections, labeled “Middle,” “End,” and “Beginning” in that order. We get the nod about this structure early on, and the story plays it out. Stories are often told out of sequence—it’s a hallmark of contemporary fiction—but Smith calls it attention it here.

What does any of this have to do with the story part of this story? Not sure. Sometime choices like the ones Smith makes with voice and structure and approach set a tone more than provide any sort of logical or metaphorical significance, and certainly, all the choices she makes here definitely get a reader thinking about experimentation, about why she’s doing what she’s doing. The story is pretty interesting, too, though—I wouldn’t write about it if it wasn’t—that narrator we met early on with an aphid/ant problem around her/his apple tree. This apple tree is young and makes some good apples and the narrator doesn’t want to lose it to these pests. He/she asks advice from several different sources as to how to get rid of ants, inciting the conflict, standard protagonist vs. nature-type stuff.

But this is also where the story gets fun, as every person that is asked gives completely different advice on how to get rid of ants, including chili powder, white paint, and voodoo magic. Okay, I made up that last one, but frustration mounts as everything fails miserably, the aphids and ants only growing in number and intensity.

Remember, though, the end of the story is the “Beginning.” We get back to that person from that quoted sentence that the narrator loves but cannot be with at the end, tying things together nicely, giving us some stakes (an ant problem is a thin plot) and some unpredictable turns, not to mention some great writing and great language.

The Whole Story is like that, a writer making interesting non-traditional choices, weaving them around interesting, unpredictable narratives. Ali Smith, like so many authors I’ve read this year, writes stories I’ve never read before, and I like that. Another find.

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