Books May 2004

Gender-Neutral

What whole story? The point of Ali Smith's new collection would seem to be that there is no such thing. Experience is infinitely divisible; perspectives shimmer and refract. In her opening tale, for instance, "The Universal Story," the narrative shifts rapidly and repeatedly from one point of view to another; even a housefly takes a turn in the leading role. It sounds gimmicky, but Smith, the author of the remarkable and highly acclaimed novel Hotel World (2002), is not a gimmicky writer. Her simple, economical, blade-sharp prose dignifies whatever subject she chooses, and endows even the oddest human behavior with an inarguable inner logic. The British press frequently pigeonholes Smith as "Scottish" and "lesbian." Sexual orientation in these stories is usually in question, because in most of her pairings she has declined to state the sex of the protagonists. The reader is free to imagine these couples as man and woman, or as two men, or as two women: the stories work perfectly well for any of these configurations, which proves that a very large portion of the experience of love and partnership is shared by the sexes. Smith's vision, like her prose, is startlingly fresh; her stories are short and suggestive. No longer a young Turk (she is now over forty), Smith has moved smoothly into place as one of Britain's most important and established writers.

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Brooke Allen is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic.

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