31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 13: “Virtual” by Ali Smith

May 13, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Other Stories and Other Stories

How do we care for one another in a postmodern world? What constitutes human connection and how are these fragile bonds formed? In a world that is defined by its seemingly insatiable appetites – for food, for sex, for drugs, for technology – how do we know when we’ve had enough?

The collection that contains Ali Smith’s story “Virtual” was first published in 1999, just as the Internet was gaining real traction in mainstream society. Eleven years on, the story continues to resonate; its spare, almost minimalist technique seems perfectly suited to a society that has lost its ability to forge connections on a deep or meaningful level, and to a time when issues of self-image are defined by an increasingly artificial media and celebrity culture. Smith’s story addresses big issues – death, the nature of identity, loneliness, and isolation – but it eschews didacticism in favour of a quietly elliptical approach.

Practically no one is named in the story. There is a first-person narrator, whose aunt is in hospital for an unspecified operation involving “something unmentionable down there.” There is a girl in the bed opposite the aunt, with “dark hair and dark eyes and the paleness and seriousness of face of one of those painted Pre-Raphaelite heroines.” There are the girl’s mother, father, and younger brother and sister. Only Edith, a new patient in the aunt’s hospital room, is named. Edith never speaks in the story, and as a character she is insignificant; her only function is to listen to the aunt ramble on. (At one point we are told that Edith “was listening and nodding and adding her own commentary,” but this commentary is not provided for us.) What we have, then, is a series of nameless figures, differentiated only by generic identifiers.

Except for the “Pre-Raphaelite” girl in the next bed. When the narrator first spies her, she is struck by the beauty of the girl’s face, but when the covers are removed from the girl’s bed, the narrator is taken aback by what she sees: “Her arms were like the arms of a starving child. Her legs, swollen by the huge knuckles of their knees and ankles, were like the legs of one of those white bodies from the last war dead on the ground and bulldozed into a pit.” The girl is anorexic, and her condition has necessitated that she drop out of university. Or, as the aunt puts it, “There’s nothing actually wrong with her so to speak. She just won’t eat.”

The narrator becomes obsessed by this girl who “just won’t eat,” returning unnecessarily to the hospital on the pretext of visiting her aunt, but actually wanting to see the emaciated girl in the bed opposite. Her attempts to understand the girl are in vain, and she experiences a kind of transference, becoming psychologically absorbed by the hunger that she herself feels:

I was hungry too, even though I’d eaten all day. All afternoon and all that evening I had been eating things. It’s not that I ate more than I usually did, and it’s not that I eat any more than the average person. It’s just that today, for once, I had simply noticed the casual stream and variety of the things I put in my mouth. I had eaten an apple and a nectarine and some bread and coleslaw for lunch. I had chewed my fingers and the ends of several pens. I had eaten a chocolate bar and what was left of a packet of crisps and the whole of a packet of Polos. I ate a dinner of aubergine, mozzarella, tomato, garlic and pasta all mixed together, and after it I ate some lettuce and another apple.

This catalogue of foodis a minutely itemized tally of what most of us take for granted; if asked what we to had to eat over a given day, many of us would be unable to immediately recall. It takes the startling figure of an anorexic girl in a hospital bed to jar the narrator out of her complacency and make her aware of the patterns of behaviour that she previously engaged in almost unconsciously.

She also feeds her aunt’s fish, and feels compelled to keep giving them food, despite the fact that the aunt has warned her about the dangers of overfeeding. “I knew it wouldn’t be good for them,” the narrator says. “They still looked hungry.” A bit later the fish are explicitly connected the girl in the hospital – “I fed the fish more food. I thought of the thin girl.” But the narrator can’t apprehend the girl’s motivations any more than she can apprehend what drives the fish to eat, or to know when to stop.

The narrator’s lack of comprehension extends also to her aunt, who at one point refers to the narrator as her mother’s “bad daughter.”

I wondered what she could have meant, saying I was my mother’s bad daughter. My mother’s bad daughter. I couldn’t think which of the things about me it was, which of the things I might have done, and she might have heard about from someone else in that same hushed secret women’s tone, that constituted bad.

Self-awareness proves chimerical for the narrator, but this is understandable since the very nature of identity in Smith’s story is so malleable. It turns out, for example, that the aunt isn’t really related to the narrator at all, but was only a good friend of the narrator’s late mother.

On her final visit to the hospital, the thin girl engages the narrator in conversation and shows her the object she has been given by her family: a Japanese Tamagotchi, a “virtual pet” that has been proffered to her in the misguided notion that she will learn to take care of herself if she has something else to take care of. For her part, the girl finds the electronic noises the pet emits “really irritating.” “Well if you want it to shut up,” her brother suggests reasonably, “you could just take the battery out.”

Of course, humans operate differently from electronic gadgets; our needs can’t be satisfied nor can we be shut off simply by removing a battery. What will it take to satisfy us? What is required to isolate a stable identity in a world that seems diametrically opposed to such stability? The only epiphany the narrator arrives at is that she doesn’t know the answers to these questions. “I couldn’t imagine what to do next,” she says, “or how to be able to do it right.”

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