I spent the last 48 hrs in the hospital allowing the staff to use the well-known torture technique of sleep deprivation to try to induce a seizure because apparently I’m having them and not noticing? Whatever. Why am I telling you this? To set up my review of Ali Smith’s Like, A Novel because I’m not sure whether the hallucinatory effects of this story are due to Smith’s mind-bending prose or, yanno, the torture.

I’ve raved about Smith’s work before, but I stumbled on this (sadly, out of print) novel and put it above my monitor so I could stare at it longingly while I wrote papers on neo-liberalism and (groan) Foucault. It was more than worth the tortuous wait. As I raved before Ali Smith is a fucking master of language and she uses that mastery to construct characters as fluid as her prose. Nothing (and no one) is as it seems in Like. The first section, Amy, seems at first to be told from the POV of Amy, an apparently dyslexic (or simply illiterate) working class, young mother of 8 year-old Kate, but the POV shifts dizzyingly from Amy to Kate to minor characters Smith manages to construct whole and gleaming from the literary equivalent of thin air. The second and final section is Ash’s ‘story’ and the reader must unravel their connection like a complex murder mystery (with no murder) because the characters are not much help with the big picture. Then again, what ‘character’ is? Or could be? Smith leaves ‘clues’ scattered throughout (I found myself thumbing back to some obscure ‘description repeatedly to make sure), but they’re not the kind of clues you’re used to and they point someplace so heartbreakingly clear yet elusive. Impossible. Like looking up to the sun for answers. But, like the best mysteries, you can’t help but look.

I really feel that I should write pages about this book, but I’m quite certain that it wouldn’t get any closer to making anyone understand how I feel about it, its world, its people. Words like ‘astonishing’, ‘breathtaking’, ‘hypnotic’ just don’t cut it. I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m slightly obsessed. I feel like I am still stalking these characters, trying to understand them, to find that elusive more. I am in unrequited love, with all of the terror that contains.

Here’s what Jeannette Winterson had to say about one of her story collections, but it could just as easily apply to Like:

“Her new collection of short stories The Whole Story, is an extended play on how none of us ever can know the whole story. We see by glimpses, feed on fragments, and our love-affair with narrative is a kind of self-defence. There is no narrative.

Ali Smith doesn’t experiment by refusing us our stories; she tells them vividly, beautifully, but without letting us fool ourselves that the shape made is complete. The stories in her new collection defy the rules of closure; their endings open into an unknown landscape.”

Yeah. What she said.