[This is a journal in three sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]
28 May 2015
Prologue and The beginning
I first read this novel shortly after it was published in 2005, before I started to write these journals, so I’ve forgotten almost everything about it. This time, I’m reading it having just finished Ali Smith’s most recent novel, How to be both. Before that I read Artful, and before that I read There but for the. I mention these because it makes the reading of The accidental very different from the first time, when I’d never read anything of hers before. Those other novels are bound to keep coming up.
Nobody else writes like Ali Smith. As I read How to be both recently I decided that they are, at some level, autobiographical. Both that novel and There but for the contain characters who are Scotswomen of her own age. This earlier novel contains both a Scotswoman and a moderately successful English writer, a woman the same age as Smith with a Scottish mother. Nothing is ever accidental in an Ali Smith novel. She is a great formalist (as I write that, I can imagine her, with her Inverness accent, rebuking somebody with that phrase) and the way themes and tropes reappear from novel to novel feels highly deliberate.
In this first section, Smith has set herself some highly formal (or formalist) parameters. Four family members get a chapter each, and each opens with the words ‘the beginning’. Book-ending them are a kind of prologue consisting of a first-person account of an unknown narrator’s conception in a cinema by way of the projectionist, and at the end is a continuation of the same account. Sort of. I’ll come back to those.
The family is in crisis. Or, which might be the same thing really, each of the members of it is going through a private crisis none of the others is aware of. As we are serially locked into their individual points of view, from early morning to the early hours of the next day, we find out about the miseries of cyber-bullying, the lure of suicide, serial philandering and writer’s block. And we are, as though accidentally, introduced to an interloper. Each of the adults assumes the other invited the thirty-something Scot who turns up, and somehow she becomes important. Couldn’t it sometimes take an outsider to reveal to a family that it was a family? the mother asks herself (sort of) in the last of the main chapters in this section. Ali Smith likes to show her cards like that. In How to be both there is a Renaissance artist who likes to have a hand or a foot stepping outside the picture frame, as though to remind us that this is only a pretended reality. Like that artist, Smith likes to remind us that her novels are artefacts.
Astrid is twelve, and adolescently unhappy. She feels stuck – like all of them, it gradually transpires – in this ‘substandard’ holiday home in Norfolk. (Has Smith read Handles by Jan Mark, the definitive novel about a bored adolescent stuck far from home in a dead-end Norfolk village? There’s even a punning shop sign.) She films each successive dawn, is planning to photograph the racist vandalism recently perpetrated on the Indian restaurant, is obsessive about not touching anything in the house whose dead occupants she imagines having left their skin-cells everywhere. Her mother doesn’t know that she has thrown away her mobile phone after all the nasty texts she’s got from the girls who think she’s weird. Her mother, in the writer’s shed, is annoyed when she goes near. Her stepfather and older brother are a waste of time, and only the woman who mysteriously appears seems to be somehow immune to her industrial-strength adolescent anomie.
Magnus, the brother, thinks back to when he was the wide-eyed and innocent ‘Hologram boy’. That was before he helped some popular boys in the class to paste a picture of the head of one of the girls on to a pornographic photo so they could email it around the school. The girl killed herself, and through Magnus’s obsessive and guilt-ridden imagination, Smith riffs on the idea of death through decapitation. He hadn’t realised that through the simplest of cut-and-paste techniques he has stolen something vital of her identity, and it becomes viscerally physical for him. He has been shutting himself in his room throughout their stay, imagining himself a powerless beached whale, and reaches a (beautifully described) moment of existential crisis. He decides to do what the girl did, to hang himself in the room helpfully labelled ‘Bathroom’. He is about to do it when ‘an angel’ appears and, as the chapter ends, we don’t know whether she is going to help him kill himself or save his life. (The latter, we later find out.)
Michael, the stepfather. Womaniser. Think Howard Kirk in Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man but, in the early 21st Century, slightly less plausible. Could anybody really get away with that sort of student-trawling only ten years ago? His day consists, not necessarily in this narrative order, of his helping the Scotswoman start her car, catching a train to his university for a quick shag with the latest student (Lucinda? Some name like that) and then getting back to be brain-addled by the new woman. He cooks her a fine meal – ok, he gives the family their shares too – before riffing on the ‘new beginning’ he can feel she has brought for him. Where exactly he feels this can be left to the reader’s imagination. In Smith’s later novels scrutinising middle-class life it’s the adolescent girl who goes in for the obsessive word games, but in this one it’s the 40-something wanker. Enough of him.
Then Eve, the mother. This is Chapter 17 of Joyce’s Ulysses, the one written in question/answer catechism format. Except it’s also Eve’s trademark format, the one she’s made a name with in six slim books based on imaginary interviews with the dead. The last of these was as successful as anything the small press she writes for has ever published, and now she’s completely stalled. When Astrid hears her banging away at her laptop, it’s just for show. In the week or more they have been in the godforsaken house they’ve rented for just this purpose she’s written nothing. During a sleepless night we hear Eve asking herself, basically, what is the use of anything she’s ever done. She has earlier been surprised by Amber, the Scotswoman, shaking her by the shoulders after a whole day of their hospitality. Except, eventually, Eve realises she’s shaking her for making assumptions. No, she realises, she isn’t one of Michael’s conquests. She hasn’t even been to university. When Eve goes down to find her – she’s says she’ll be sleeping in her car – she’s under a tree, and pats the ground beside her for Eve to sit down. She tells her she used to be in banking, or something similar, but gave it all up after running over a seven-year-old in her Porsche. Now she never wants to be comfortable again. Or something. After she’s told the story she asks Eve whether she believes it.
And that’s the point. All through this section there are versions of reality, or versions of the truth, that slide around so much it’s impossible to keep a handle on them. Astrid’s endless filming and labelling of whatever it is that disgusts her; Magnus’ horror at the ease with which a simply constructed image becomes real enough to kill somebody; Michael’s self-serving versions of himself and his relationships, and his (wrong) interpretations of what is going on with his stepchildren; Eve’s sure and certain knowledge that her own success is based on as big a fraud as the advertising for the mock-Tudor shambles they are renting. And we’re with Ulysses Chapter 17 all over again. I remember those descriptions Bloom comes up with of the desirable villas he’ll never really be able to have built.
The book-ends are themselves narratives we can believe if we want to. They are told by ‘Alhambra’, named after the cinema where she was conceived after her mother sought out the startled projectionist following a torrid scene with Terence Stamp. (Sixties references are another Ali Smith trope. Just saying.) At the end of the prologue she has shown how her conception has defined both her own determination and ability to disappear. At the end of this section we get a bravura outpouring of mock-autobiographical details, consisting of recognisable world events and, more significantly, dialogue and scenes from what feels like dozens of famous movies from the late sixties and early seventies. Alhambra defines her childhood through what has passed into the subconscious of people of Ali Smith’s age, so that it could be the story of Smith’s own formative cultural development. (The more I think about it, the more convinced I am of exactly this.)
What we don’t know for sure is whether Alhambra (apparently born in 1968, if you’re interested) is the Amber who is showing this family what it is. What I didn’t mention is that she seems to be doing something positive. Astrid and Magnus are suddenly behaving like human beings, and she seems to have shaken the adults, literally or metaphorically – Smith loves such ambiguities – in ways they definitely hadn’t been expecting.
Who, or what, is Amber? If ever I feel slightly unconvinced by an Ali Smith novel, it’s because there’s a tendency for her characters to seem like animated mannequins. At these times, I’m even more aware than usual of Smith, behind them, making them do this, making them speak like this. And it’s perfectly reasonable in Smith-land for a character to have no reality in any conventional sense. Which of the characters is it who wonders whether Amber is real? Hang on. It’s Magnus, needing ‘to check that she was still there or if, as he suspected, he’d totally made her up.’ Well, if you put it like that, Ali, we can make our own minds up. She’s no more real than the adolescent who keeps behaving like an adolescent, the other adolescent who keeps behaving like an adolescent, the philanderer who keeps behaving like a philanderer (or would if Amber would let him) and the blocked writer who… etc. I’m being a bit harsh, because the middle crackles and fizzes as much as the beginning. But sometimes it feels like an exercise in writing fiction, with the added stipulation that it needs to be about the way we make fictions of our lives. You can see why I’m becoming a little unconvinced.
The format is the same as in the beginning, except this time it’s Michael who gets a chapter written in a different format, not Eve. Third-person narrator, closely mimicking the idiolect of the character whose point of view is in the frame. Astrid, Magnus, Michael, Eve, in that order, followed by one of Alhambra/Amber’s gnomic autobiographical thumbnails. Word-play, re-engineering of scenes we’ve already had from a different character’s point of view, Amber doing what the fuck she likes and getting away with it. If she isn’t the product of the other characters’ imaginations, she seems to be fulfilling a fantasy of Smith’s herself. She’s a ‘what if?’ character: what if it was possible to act without any inhibitions, and with no fear of serious consequences? I can imagine the smile on Ali Smith’s face as she thinks about it. And isn’t there always a character who behaves like this in her novels? Helena Fisker/H definitely does in How to be both. In There but for the it’s Miles/Milo. And why do Smith’s dangerous characters always have two names? (The East European cleaner says something that sounds like ‘Her name is a hammer,’ which contains an implausibly perfect piece of Ali Smith double-meaning.) I’ll come back to names.
Amber offers each character something. Astrid gets a day trip with added lessons in life. Conformity? You don’t have to cross the dual carriageway by the footbridge if you don’t want to. CCTV cameras? You can mess with the heads of the security men (it’s always men) keeping an eye on the screens. And you can outface them every time if they confront you, because – what? They don’t have any real power. And Astrid’s expensive video camera? Why record your life? What good does it do? Amber doesn’t ask these questions, but she does smash the camera by dropping it off the footbridge. Astrid goes so quiet after this she almost stops talking to Amber altogether. But she gets over it. She covers for Amber when her parents find out, pretending it was an accident. But Amber covers for Astrid by admitting what she’s done. Astrid’s fiction, the first of the in this section, isn’t believed. But neither is Amber’s truth, because it strikes the parents as so implausible. Oh dear.
Magnus. Imagine the sexual fantasy of a 17-year-old virgin, because that’s what he gets. His speechless shock at the wonder of it is just like Francescho’s ‘1000 times better’ in How to be both, and is highly engaging. Amber has a duplicate key made for the church door, and they do it mainly in there. But it doesn’t make her the ‘angel’ he saw when she saved him from suicide. She is far too physical a presence for that – with smells and hair in places that his online pornography hasn’t prepared him for. And… while Astrid muses on the meaning of her name, Magnus gets a train all the way to Michael’s university city (Cambridge, not that it’s actually named, Smith’s city of residence) to look up Amber’s reference to the saint who had his name. He seems unremarkable, but I might be missing something. Amber, just like Ali Smith, has a thing about names.
Michael: sexual frustration in free verse form, in sonnet form, then breaking up like mid-20th Century experimental poetry. Whatever Amber feels that Magnus needs, she apparently feels that Michael has had enough of it and turns the duration of the holiday into one long tease. Does he deserve it? Is Ali Smith moving the hands and arms (and other moveable parts) of her mannequin in the most satisfying ways she can think of? You decide. Meanwhile his poems – and, at some level, they are his – are the doggerel of a man who seems to have convinced himself, quite wrongly, of his own creative powers. Is there anything to like about Michael? Don’t be ridiculous.
Eve: more fictions. Or, in the case of the book she’s supposed to be writing, not. One set piece in her chapter is her visit to her publisher. How’s it going, she is asked. Fine, says Eve, ready by April – which, because it is exactly what the pretty young editor wants to hear, is what she believes. But then Eve does some teasing of her own, telling her the truth: she hasn’t started, she has doubts about her winning formula, she wants to let one of her real-life cases remain dead instead of being brought back to life in her imagination. The editor looks so sick that Eve lets her off the hook. She’s only joking.
Amber tries the truth on Eve as well. When Eve tries to undermine a party-game of Amber’s, Eve calls her a fake. Later, when Eve can’t sleep and they go for a drive, Amber encourages Eve to tell her something extraordinary about her life. (Or maybe Eve decides to do this without being asked. Like all her class in Smith-land, she’s egotistical enough.) Amber is bored by it and, being Amber, tells Eve. Eve, of course, thinks she’s joking. And then she doesn’t. It’s days or weeks later, by which time Amber seems to have entirely free rein in the house – she doesn’t mind being caught with her hand on Magnus’s crotch, and encourages Astrid in ‘pointless’ (ho ho) games and wordplay – that Eve innocently asks how she feels about ‘what happened to the child.’ We remember the story – but Amber doesn’t. Who’s the fake now?
There’s a line-break. Eve remembers some of the more disturbing things that have been said this summer, including What is it you could possibly want to know about yourself? (Is this really a question Amber has ever asked? I can’t remember.) It shakes Eve, but Amber thinks she’s safe enough. She kisses Eve ‘full on the lips,’ and the effect on Eve is as strong as what Amber does to Magnus. It takes a whole paragraph for Smith to describe the shift that happens in Eve’s consciousness… and something happens. Within the hearing of everybody else in the house, she says goodbye to Amber – who asks her where she’s going. When Eve tells her she’s going nowhere, Amber is as uninhibited as ever: ‘That’s true at least. You’re going nowhere…. You’re a dead person.’
Does Amber really only say and do what people want of her, what will get her what she wants? Or doe she simply have to tell the unvarnished truth? Whatever, this time it confirms Eve in her decision, and she tells Amber to get out of her house. When Amber reminds her it isn’t her house, she tells her to get out of the house she’s renting. Is one of these people learning to speak truthfully at last? We’ll see.
(Alhambra: a short history of cinema, and of the Alhambra in particular, until the large-scale closures in the 1970s and beyond. These sections would be wonderful stand-alone pieces if they were standing alone.)
Ali Smith novels are packed with ideas. Philosophy? Check. Current politics, and the treatment of issues in the media? Check. Memory and perception? Check. And these are only the ones I haven’t mentioned already, like the insidious appeal of pornography and the slipperiness of meanings, whether conveyed in words or video footage. This is fine – it means that along with the plays on words, the surprising things that people say to one another, the uncertainties about where the plot might go next (and so on, and on) there’s never a dull moment. What did I say about ideas? Crackle and fizz? (And what does Michael, now suspended from his job, have to say about clichés?)
The problem – and I really do see it as a problem – is that these are much more interesting than things like plot and character. Plot? Smith herself has Eve summarise it in a sentence or two. [quote] And as for character… There really hasn’t been anything in this final section to make me change my mind about those mannequins. This time it’s Michael who sums himself up as a walking cliché. (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s what he’s saying.) At her best, as I’ve already said, Smith can be like James Joyce. Except she can’t, apparently, because we care about Bloom, we care about the married couple at the end of ‘The Dead’ in Dubliners. I can’t find myself caring for any of the characters in this novel. Their nice house in Islington has been stripped of all its contents, down to the doorknobs, but this becomes little more than another ‘what if?’ idea. The most memorable thing about their first discovery is a jokey play on words: ‘The doorknobs? It’s the end,’ wails Eve – because Smith doesn’t care about them either.
This is the family that morphs into the unspeakable Gen in There but for the, published not many years later. (There’s a different kind of intrusion for her to cope with: attic-to-cellar asset stripping morphs into a squatter in the bedroom.) For Smith, the adults of the chattering classes are little more than Aunt Sallies – a point I remember making when I read that later novel. Even the children, and especially Astrid, are more interesting as mouthpieces for Smith’s cleverness. She riffs on her own name, asteroid minus two vowels, a star on steroids, and asteroids’ power to destroy… and her development as a character seems secondary, somehow.
So what happens? Does it matter? House stripped, Astrid and Magnus showing us all the good lessons they’ve learnt from Amber, Michael trying to convince himself that being publicly shamed and suspended, no doubt permanently, are going to be good for him – and Eve, on a round-the-world ‘gap year’ trip, knocking on the door of a stranger’s house (in New York State, as it happens) and letting them mistake her for someone who’s been invited. You couldn’t make it up.
Edited highlights. Astrid playing the two video tapes she has on a display model in Dixon’s, not only to discover that she has none of the interesting footage on them but to realise, good pupil that she is, that nothing beats the reality of lived experience. Magnus watching a random film in a multiplex and being unable to pretend to himself that these are anything but actors pretending. Michael realising that a new life of mountaineering is only a fantasy – but, absurdly, believing that his winter-long depression is really the result of exposure. (Geddit? Smith will do anything for a play on words. Sometimes I wonder if she might have verbal ADHD.) And Eve, ex-wife of Adam and now on that trip away from the man with the name of the angel who pushed her namesake, and her ex’s, out of Eden. (Are you keeping up with this? What did I say about names in the beginning?) She sees her dead parents in the air above the Grand Canyon, knows they aren’t there really – nobody is allowed illusions in this post-Amber world – then goes looking for the house where her father kept his American family. (Don’t ask.) It’s at a neighbour’s house that she is mistaken for the new cleaner and her name is misheard as Steve. And she starts to do to this family what Amber did to hers. Yeh, sure.
It’s better than I’m making it sound… but, while reading it, I realised the philosophical and other fireworks conceal the fact that, really, it’s a little bit glib. And I’m also genuinely concerned that Smith thinks that you can turn wish-fulfilment into literature. Everybody gets what they deserve in this novel, and it’s the Scottish truth-teller, the one a bit like a younger and more beautiful Ali Smith, who dishes out the life lessons. What if…? What if we really could take the middle classes and give them a good shaking? What if we could take the sexist, patronising men who run the culture and show them up for exactly what they are? What if we could get hold of a twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl and turn her into a human being before the culture ruins her along with all the others? What if we could do that for a whole family, to let them see what fools they’ve been? And wouldn’t it be great to learn to say exactly what we mean?
It would be nice. But this novel isn’t a patch on How to be both, and there are things in that novel, too, that aren’t perfect. Give it time, I’m thinking. Maybe Ali Smith is really going to write something truly great one of these days.