Thoughts on how I connect with Ali Smith’s story about stories.

The Universal Story, by Ali Smith was published in her 1996 collection, The Whole Story, but I didn’t retrieve it from my TBR shelf until a couple of weeks ago. That’s me, late again.

But in a way I might claim to be mirroring the opening of this story. Because, here’s another book that I’ve subjected to a series of false starts. Having bought it, I shelved it; forgot it; passed it by on several previous searches for something to read.

Somewhere, in the past month, some mention of it triggered a memory of owning this collection, so I tracked down my copy. Thank you, whoever reminded me. I’m sorry I can’t recall in what context we discussed this. But again, that chain of events seems appropriate to my reading. Here are the opening lines:

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.

Is this a story for writers, more than readers? I wonder, remembering conversations I’ve had with readers who stress the importance of being drawn into a recognisable world. This opening could seem designed to irritate.

Or, it might suggest such confidence on the part of the writer that she can afford to let us see how her mind worries at the details: how much thought goes into getting them right. Or do I mean correct? Actually, the word I’m looking for is, ‘true’.

As you can probably tell, I’m hooked. But I’m guessing this is one of those marmite stories. The way the narrator keeps pausing to work things out will unsettle readers looking for a fixed character to engage with, or a scene to immerse themselves in.

The woman sat in the empty shop. It was late afternoon. It would be dark soon. She watched a fly in the window. It was early in the year for flies. It flew in veering triangles then settled on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to bask in what late winter sun there was.

Or – no. Wait:

There was once a fly resting briefly on an old paperback book in a second-hand bookshop window.

These changes in tack, shifting of perspectives, seem to me to mirror the way I browse a second-hand bookshop, drifting from one title to another in a random, rather than linear, fashion. Those connections are not predictable, they depend on the shape of words on a spine, or colours, or a promising illustration. Then again, they depend on where the seller has gathered their stock from, and what they’ve chosen, and how they’ve decided to arrange their shelves…

Let’s get back to Ali Smith, I’ve one last thought to add, about character. Wait, though, shouldn’t that have been at the start of my discussion? Don’t I repeatedly claim that character is at the heart of a good story?

How does that work when a story bounces around between several, and not all of them are even human? Brilliantly.

You can either trust me on that (but why would you? We don’t necessarily have the same tastes), or read it for yourself.

34 thoughts on “Thoughts on how I connect with Ali Smith’s story about stories.

  1. I would enjoy this book. I´m currently reading Graham Swift´s, Tomorrow, and he tends to jump around a bit too, especially in time. But the more I read, the more I like it. (It´s my pool book and a gust of wind blew it into the pool but it´s still readable, just swollen to twice its size.)

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  2. I confess I haven’t read any of Ali Smith’s book. That’s because I automatically switch off when so called bestseller are announced. Jealousy, I guess. I like the opening lines of The Whole Story you share, sounds intriguing. One of these days I’ll hunt again in our excellent local second hand Oxfam bookshop.

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  3. I love the sound of this, I’m fascinated by how people write, in fact I could almost say I’m as interested in their craft as the finished book. It’s one of the biggest problems I have just with writing a short review here, how do you find the right word (or anything) to get your meaning across. It should be simple and yet I agonise!

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    • I share your fascination with the writing process. I like to think everyone agonises. A sentence is such a tricky thing, as for paragraphs, sections, beginnings and conclusions…

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  4. I love the way you’ve approached this, Cath, mirroring Smith’s process. Like Jane, I am fascinated by the craft of writing, every bit as much as what a writer produces. I’m hooked. Which I find very interesting because Ali Smith has been a writer that I’ve shied away from. I don’t know why; I’ve several times felt that I should give her books a try but when it came to it, the urge wasn’t strong enough. Perhaps this is the way in. She will have a tough job convincing me to like her short stories: I’ve just finished two collections which have been sublime. A hard act to follow! But I’m strongly tempted!

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  5. I personally find the opening fascinating! Maybe it’s about shifting from the expected norm, not giving the reader what we expect from a story and in doing so making us more curious about what would happen next in this unpredictable random narrative style. I always found unreliable narrators interesting, maybe it’s a bias. Nevertheless thanks for introducing me to this book! Now I want to check it out ☺

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  6. Oh, this is so fascinating, one would not want to stop reading just to figure out what is
    exactly happening.
    I have not read Ali Smith but would like to now. “The Whole Story”, hmm, so it will all link and sync ultimately, smart.
    Thanks Cath for sharing this.

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  7. I must say that this narrative style intrigues me! I’ve always dug the unreliable narrator, one that shifts, free-styles it, which makes it all the more difficult for readers to predict what comes next. I don’t think I could go quite this far, but it would be ever so fun to try!

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