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Readers View Everyday Through 'The First Person'

'The First Person' by Ali Smith (Pantheon)

By April M. Van buren, Crimson Staff Writer

“You’re not the first person I ever tried to impress with my brilliant performance of not really being impressed with anything.” In “The First Person,” Ali Smith’s most recent anthology of short stories, she examines the link between her characters’ past and present, their imagination and reality. Wrapped in the familiar and seemingly plain events of day-to-day goings-on, Smith exposes deep insights into these aspects of the human experience. There are few fantastic or bold statements inside the stories, but their simplicity only intensifies their impact. Through an intimate and engaging examination of her characters, Smith ties the reader to their tales of humor, heartbreak, and change.

The stories move through a variety of lives, seen through the eyes of female narrators, leading up to the novel’s centerpiece, “The First Person,” an intimate look at a couple’s relationship. Smith’s prose flows freely through their conversation, eliminating quotation marks and explanation from the author in favor of a strong emotional connection with the reader. The barriers between writer and reader, fact and fiction are broken down. As the conversation between the two women unfolds, dream, memory and pure fiction find equal footing in the recollection of experience—that of the superfluous. “Or how about this? How about we’re story-free? How about, there is no story as to how we met?” one of the lovers says, asking how the past will play a role in our experience of the present.

Equally enticing are Smith’s descriptions of the implausible, written in such an honest and frank manner that one begins to believe that happening upon a curly-haired baby spewing obscenities or a fourteen year-old version of yourself are as routine as a couple discussing opera or a phone call to a sick friend.

In “Writ,” Smith’s protagonist confronts her childhood self at the dinner table, and struggles with the question of whether or not to divulge the details of her future. “I want to tell her who to trust and who not to trust; who her real good friends are and who’s going to fuck her over; who to sleep with and who definitely not to…But I look at her sitting there, thin and insolent and complete, and I can’t say any of it.”

The past and the way it returns to us is a recurring theme throughout the book, suturing the stories to one another and focusing the reader’s attention on the characters’ simultaneous divergence and cohesion of experience. All of Smith’s characters share a common search for a sense of identity—a sense which can only be arrived at by a reflection on the past.

Smith’s stories of life’s everyday occurrences are at once both introspective and universal. Her characters remain totally ambiguous—they are roles in which readers are free to cast themselves. At the same time, Smith writes in a strongly personal style, and her voice is channeled through each of her stories’ characters. The intimate conversations between figures in the story feel almost autobiographical in their spare, evocative detail. She entwines the reader and author rather than delineating a separate role for each. This innovative tactic forges a close connection, one which is essential in the limited frame of a short story.

Smith’s writing in this collection is honest and open—even in the span of 10 pages, readers may find themselves sympathizing deeply with a character. As she describes a late night phone call or an encounter with a nostalgic man at an empty bar, Smith makes the reader feel almost interchangeable with the characters she creates. The whispered secrets or shared laughter at once engage the reader and make them coy to look in at such intimate moments. Smith’s resonating intimacy and the role of the onlooker she assigns the reader force an examination of the relationship between spectator and spectacle. Smith engages the question of how this relationship might shape the reader’s identity. Does the mere act of observing become a part of our experience? Can a narrative strategy effectively mimic such an experience?

In posing these questions, Smith weaves together her collection of stories with an appeal to her readers’ common experiences. Exploring a compilation of everyday occurrences—from small conversations with someone sitting next to us to a misdelivered package on our doorstep—Smith’s candid style leads us to the intersection of our past and our present, forcing examination of how our experiences, real or imagined, shape both.

—Staff writer April M. Van Buren can be reached at amvan@fas.harvard.edu.

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