I hate experimental fiction. Yet every now and then I feel the need to try some, just to see if I still hate it—it’s kind of like tasting anchovies every few years, even though you know you really think they are too salty and too fishy. I saw The First Person in the library and I thought “why not?” I haven’t tried any Ali Smith in a long time. It was kind of like the library was the hostess, and she was offering me a bite of anchovy crostini. Because this was a collection of short stories it seemed easier than attempting a whole novel. A bite instead of a whole dish, as it were. An experimental appetizer.
I liked the first bite and the first story. That’s because in retrospect, it’s the only story that makes any sense in the whole book. It’s the only one with a plot, and with characters who have any life. Interestingly, it’s a short story about short stories, and it opens with a conversation between two men discussing which is superior, the novel or the short story. It ends with a wonderful series of observations about the short story by authors like Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, and Alice Munro, all masters of the form. And finally Smith brings her own, equally wonderful observation:
So when is the short story like a nymph?
When the echo of it answers back.
There, I’ve just given away the best line in the whole book. I try not to do that but in this case I couldn’t help it. The rest of the stories are just pointlessly meandering concoctions about nothing, as far as I could tell. Towards the end (I really did finish this book) I couldn’t even tell if I was asleep or awake when I was reading it. Since I’m quoting, I’m going to give you this bit from Fatema Ahmed’s review of The First Person in The Guardian:
Smith's characters lack names, jobs or even personalities, but they do have time for repetitive stretches of dialogue about making tea. After a while they - and their relationships - blur into one another. Most frustratingly, though, they are constantly remarking on their keenness for narrative while failing to provide enough of it.
It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who didn’t like the crostini.
(Book 47, 2009)