:: Article

The View from the Cosmos

By Stephen Mortland.

Theresa Smith, L (Expat Press, 2018)

Language is a living record of all sorts of events, if one knows the necessary formulas to parse the dead facts from its shifting dynamism.

Theresa Smith’s writing reminds me that everything I see, everything I experience, everything I love is made up of small subatomic particles spinning and twirling, creating the illusion of a cohesive, ordered existence. Smith is a young writer who has obviously immersed herself and her fiction in the literature of philosophy and the hard sciences. Her slim debut collection of mind-bending stories reminds the reader how precarious the myth of ontological comfort is. I say the collection is full of stories, but I use the word story with some reservation. Though her fictions carry distinct narratives, they feel more akin to philosophies or creative theological treatises. Her writing is deeply Borgesian in its compression, its playfulness, and its insistence on folding itself into literary labyrinths. The opening story, ‘Who Among Us Has Not Stepped Through This Door’, can be read as an introduction to the work as a whole. It traps the reader in a simulation which has the aim of making us “perfectly, quiveringly aware that there is effectively no relationship between experience and its apparent causes or effects.”

 L contains ten stories split into two sections (a structure which also mirrors Borges Ficciones). The longest story is twenty pages, and half of the stories fall under ten pages. Even with such economy they demand concentration and slow, deliberate reading. In the vein of postmodern metafiction—like that of  Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover—Smith drapes her sentences in layers of interpretations. Take, for instance, the opening from ‘Barabbas’:

Barabbas is late. I had a feeling about Barabbas. I have to admit I was seduced by his resume: Herodic palace guard, Oriental astrologer and, here’s the kicker, a speaking role as Pharisee 2 in Matthew 19:7. But here we are, the masses are screaming, the Son of God’s in shackles, Pontius Pilate has to leave at 6:30—and no Barabbas.

We are left groping about even as the story surges forward. Is it a contemporary story of a man named Barabbas? Is it a retelling of the Biblical account? Are we watching actors on a stage? Have those actors been swallowed by the text? In four sentences the perceived subject goes through circuitous changes until it returns, essentially, to its starting point. This is indicative of all of Smith’s stories: they lift us into a vortex of comic and absurd ponderings, carry us around the world, and return us to the exact place we first apprehended. They leave the impression that nothing has happened and everything has happened. The reader is simultaneously unaffected and ultimately transformed.

L is concerned with these sorts of paradoxes. For very short stories, their premises are large and audacious. Each story is sprawling, suggesting countless meta-stories to be explored and considered at the reader’s discretion. This is where her compression and restraint shine. For many young writers it would be too large a temptation to take the offhanded mention of the of new creation myth and stretch the narrative thread to its furthest length. But throughout the collection, Smith shows the maturity of a more seasoned writer, willing to allow many compelling narrative details to remain shrouded in suggestion. Many of these “pocket fictions” are speculative and theoretical and maintain more power in the absence of fully realized explanations. That being said, there are plenty of instances where Smith follows certain speculative strains to more realized ends. The collection includes a story told from the perspective of a tetrahedron; it takes the Biblical crucifixion and reimagines it, and uses mathematics to explore the construct of identity. Smith writes with unmatched assuredness when employing heavy science, metaphysics, and speculative theology. Complex theories are never rendered in a cheap, exploitative manner—their complexities are carried into the fiction.

The role of science in Smith’s stories is distinct, and rendered in a way that cannot merely be assigned a label like speculative or science fiction. In her stories there is a cooperative interplay between narrative and science. In places, she allows the theories to speak for themselves—the science essentially becoming narrative. In other instances, the narrative is structured in graphs and charts, calculated in such a way as to become a science. The border between these seeming disparate disciplines is stretched and blurred as Smith uses whatever tools are available to interpret the world. In an interview with Expat Press, she explained it this way:

I want to be able, eventually, to create a fictional world without necessarily making anything up. I like to create by taking the structure of a concept – say, catastrophe theory in math – and grafting it underneath another concept, like the speech mechanism of a non-human creature, or the way someone’s facial expression changes while they’re telling a joke.

L’s propensity to deal in subject matter that is difficult to parse is not limited to science and hard mathematics. The collection is repeatedly concerned with religion and theology. Smith’s approach to religion finds a way of skirting the all-to-easy pitfalls of naiveté and cynicism. Her stories thread these by approaching religion with extreme interest and no commitments. By rejecting any sort of orthodoxy or dogmatism, she is able to pull from Christian tradition, Biblical literature, and speculative theological thought in a way that employs religion as yet another narrative tool. The plethora of religious themes also lends her writing an intuitive moral center. The subverted Christian vocabulary and imagery adds a weightiness to her stories.

Smith’s sentences are precise, well-orchestrated attacks. The language, although it is lyrical, is filled with a violent energy, an ambiguous insistence. In the same way that the content of her stories contrasts high theory and philosophy with lower subject matter (i.e. video games, planet exploration, relational disputes), she effectively juxtaposes meandering lyrical considerations with tight punchy prose. Take, as an example, her description of a crystal breaking through the pavement in ‘The Third Timekeeper.’ The story eventually reveals the crystal to be one of three timekeeping gods:

The crystal seems to possess just this sort of blind and monadic, dispersed but nonetheless fine-fingered intelligence. An explanation that explains itself, explaining nothing. He observes the singular twitching of its points and edges and duly imagines it capable of probing and perhaps even comprehending the captive language of silence; the intricate network of pauses, falterings and ellipses harbored within the spoken word. It yawns.

For all its lofty aims, there is something at the centre of this collection that is far more fundamental. L reads like one woman’s desperate deconstruction of the world around her—tearing away assumptions, preferring a cosmic vantage point—all in order to better understand the very desperation that has inspired her deconstruction. Smith explores a broad scope of worlds and possibilities in L because sometimes it is necessary to imagine a new universe in order to gain any perspective on the one you find yourself trapped in.

L is not an easy read, and it offers no apologies for its difficulty. Readers should anticipate spending more time on each story than the page count would suggest. This is a book for those who love the interplay of hard science and speculative fiction. It’s a book for admirers of Borges or Philip K. Dick. This is a book for anyone who has ever picked up a piece of philosophy, read until you ceased to understand, and then continued, undaunted, into the muddled and transcendent complexities of unbridled thought. Those who approach literature as a place to arrive at answers will leave L unsatisfied and with a great many more disturbing questions. The collection is aimed at undermining the world’s assurances and reimagining its horrors. Theresa Smith is a smart, sharp writer and her debut is impressive in its excesses and its restraint.

Get this book, read it, and reconsider everything.


Stephen Mortland lives in Indiana. His fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from various publishers including XRAY Literary Magazine, Faded Out, and Five:2:One. His book reviews have been published in or are forthcoming from CLASH Media, Necessary Fiction, and Full Stop Magazine. You can find him online @stephenmortland

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 13th, 2018.