- - Thursday, October 13, 2016



By Ali Smith

Anchor, $16, 240 pages

While the number of libraries is gradually shrinking, Ali Smith preserves these literary sanctuaries in her short story collection, “Public Library and Other Stories,” with shifts between past and present, resembling the mechanics of our own memory.

The collection opens with a true story by Smith. A building she and her editor come across is actually a private members club, not a library, though the sign at its entrance says, “Library.” This facade leads to Ms. Smith’s disappointment. It’s not a space where free books and learning coexist.

In the United Kingdom, financial cuts on public libraries are, as Ms. Smith writes in this anecdote, “shredding away the rich and communal inheritance that this book in your hands — I could say any book in anyone’s hands — celebrates.”

Ms. Smith could fight for this cause with an impassioned speech or essay, but instead, she uses the form she has artfully mastered — fiction.

The book alternates between short stories and anecdotes from people Ms. Smith knows personally. This pattern is similar to the format of her Booker Prize-finalist novel, “How To Be Both,” which alternates two narratives, each from different time periods.

Trademark Ali Smith techniques — stream of consciousness, art references, and unique narrative structure, are all present in these short stories, painting an abstract concept such as literature in a compelling and colorful light. But for the reader who’s accustomed to plot and structure, her writing can be a doozy.

For instance, the narrator in “The human claim” suddenly changes thoughts about an instance of credit card fraud to an investigation of D.H. Lawrence’s life. The narrator in “The definite article” takes a break from work by strolling in Regent’s Park and thinks about the contribution of bees to the natural world, then remembers an Anacreon poem about bees.

Not all of the short stories are about books and literature; they touch upon the impact of fiction in our lives — how a conversation or word can trigger memories of an ex’s favorite author, a famous work of art, or a father’s favorite song. They display the power of language through time and space.

But Ms. Smith’s postmodern style leads to questions. Some characters are phantom figures whom the narrator has conversations with, and you might wonder if these figures are dead or alive.

In “The ex wife,” the dialogue of the narrator’s phantom ex is in italics, distinct from the narrator’s own dialogue. Ms. Smith omits quotation marks around dialogue, which can be confusing. Inner thoughts and what is said blur together.

In almost every story, Ms. Smith does not explicitly state the narrator’s gender. This allows the reader to insert his or herself in the narrator’s shoes — an invitation by Ms. Smith to take part in the universal experience of reading and going to the library.

Ms. Smith sticks to her style so the reader connects to the content, even if it’s obscure and from generations past.

In Ms. Smith’s speech about style versus content at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in 2012, she said, “Style isn’t the ghost of the machine, it’s the life. It disproves the machine. There’s nothing ghostly about it. It’s alive and human. Style proves not just individual human existence, but communal existence.”

It is refreshing to read an author who does not compromise her unique style and craft for storytelling. Style reigns in Ali Smith’s fight to keep a dying establishment alive.

Emily Kim is an undergraduate studying English literature at the University of Maryland.



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