The Beholder (Six Shorts, 6/6)

The last story of the Six Shorts anthology, which I started to discuss a few days ago, is called “The Beholder,” by Ali Smith.

My enthusiasm has been waning in post after post, and it won’t pick up today. It won’t drop to its lowest level, either.

The main character in “The Beholder” is also its narrator: a woman who goes to the doctor because she is having trouble breathing. The doctor checks her out, and then asks about her life. Fine, she says. And after a moment’s thought: “well, my dad died and my siblings went mad and we’ve all stopped speaking to each other and my ex-partner is suing me for half the value of everything I own and I got made redundant and about a month ago my next door neighbour bought a drum kit, but other than that, just, you know, the usual.”

So things aren’t peachy. She is given an antidepressant, but tosses the bottle of pills aside when she reads that one of the side effects is depression.

She moves on with her life until something appears near her collarbone: something “woody, dark browny greeny, sort of circular, ridged a bit like bark, about the size of a two pence piece.” She goes back to the doctor. She is referred to several consultants at different clinics: “Oncology Ontology Dermatology Neurology Urology Etymology Impology Expology Infomology Mentholology Ornithology and Apology.”

Do note what happened after “Urology.” That pretty much captures the rest of the story. A serious problem, which soon becomes imbued in fantasy, is treated half seriously, half not. The result is weird.

The spot begins to grow. It spreads out through her body and then grows branches and leaves. She has to prune it. We’re pretty sure it’s a literalized metaphor, and at one point we get a full-bodied description of what’s at stake: “I warn them about the thorns. I treat myself with care. I guard against pets and frost damage. I am careful with roots. I know they need depth and darkness, and any shit that comes my way I know exactly what do with. I’m composed when it comes to compost.” Composed. Ready for shit. We get it.

So it’s something akin to magical realism. The thing is that it doesn’t take itself seriously, which produced a strange brew for me. (I can only speak for my own taste buds here.) It was something like magical cynicism, or whimsical realism, or magical sentimentalism. Or something. The story came to a close, without getting me too involved in the life of the narrator.

And with it went the anthology. It’s worth it, as I said, as a portrait of contemporary fiction, not all of which takes my breath away. So it goes.


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