Fat Books & Thin Women

Story Sundays: Alison Smith’s “The Specialist”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Each Sunday I write about a short story available online. If you read the story, please add your thoughts in the comments!

Alison Smith’s “The Specialist,” from a 2003 issue of McSweeney’s, is about a woman with an incurable ache, about “the little lady with the big empty.” She visits doctor after doctor in an attempt to find a cure for her pains, and with some of them there is this odd romantic or sexual interest in Alice and her internal aches. One of her doctors takes her out to dinner:

He touched her hand. She held her napkin. She could not eat. Everything tasted incurable. The rice, the saffron asparagus soufflé, the flaming liquor in the dessert—all of it, incurable.

Failing to find a doctor who can help her, Alice moves to New York. Smith’s description of the Alice’s time in New York is pitch-perfect, from her riding the subways to finding take-out to working day after day in a bookstore:

Then Alice discovered take-out. As she did not have a phone in her one-room walk-up, she had to call from the payphone on the corner when she wanted to place an order. But she did not mind. Alice liked everything about take-out. She liked the warm white boxes with their fold-away lids, the plastic utensils, the stiff paper bags that held in the gooey warmth. She believed that a city which could deliver such delicacies right to your door was a city of great promise. Alice stayed up late, ate Indian lentil soup from a box and said, out loud, “This is it. This is where I’ll find it.”

Alice tries to stop treatment but that only increases the pain inside her, and at last she visits the “specialist,” who finds that inside her body is a vast tundra. They travel from one medical conference to another, then enter the talk show circuit, and Alice’s place in all this – as an observer of her own body rather than an active participant in any of these events – is unnerving.

The central image of this story is nearly excessive and too obvious, but Smith’s understated writing style saves it and makes the image, and the story, work.

“The Specialist” was adapted as a short film, “The Big Empty,” for the first issue of Wholphin. You can watch the film here. It’s kind of interesting to watch the film and see how they’ve adapted it, though I prefer the short story.

Read “The Specialist”

1 Comment

Oh, am on holidays this week so haven’t got time to read and comment – that sounds silly doesn’t it? On holidays means I should have more time but in fact being away on a different computer rather discombobulates me. However I often read and review online stories myself so will try to read some of yours and comment. Short stories need more support I reckon.

Comment by whisperinggums

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