There but for the – Ali Smith

8 February 2012
The last book I can remember that was this verbally busy was a novel for young adults by Jan Mark. It was called Handles, and it’s full of people who play word games all the time. Its main character, a girl rather like the young one in this novel, doesn’t know why the motorbike man she gets to work with is called Elsie. At the end, as she leaves the town where she’s had to spend the summer, she sees the name above his shop: L C Wainwright. Ah. In this one, Anna Hardie wonders why she is identified on a near-stranger’s email list as Anna K. Is it something from a Kafka novel, she wonders…. Much later, she remembers. The near-stranger, whom she’d only met in her teens in 1980 on a European tour with 48 others, had called her Anna K then: she’s homesick, he’d said, and she wishes she was Anna K in the UK.

It’s not all like this, but a lot of it is. How do I feel about it? I’m hoping that there’s some point to the endless wordplay. Handles uses names in an exploration of the identities and pathways that we choose in life. I’m not sure what this one’s doing yet, because Ali Smith likes to make things difficult. The untitled prologue consists of a surreal short story about – what? About a boy who prises solid identity-masking strips from a man’s eyes and mouth, then teaches him to make a paper aeroplane. Yep, got that. Then we’re somewhere else, with a woman trying to reason with a man behind a locked door. Ok. Then we’re finding out who she is – it’s Anna – and who he is, the fool’s errand she’s on. Why on earth is she on the email list on this man’s phone when she hasn’t had any contact with him since before emails existed?

As is the nature of these things, she begins to piece together some details of that tour in 1980, notably the instant rapport she’d had with Miles, the one who has now locked himself inside a different near-stranger’s spare room. The rapport is mainly to do with word-play, the same thing that gets Anna to bond with the neighbour’s child who hangs around. And, now I think of it, it’s all to do with words for her. The job she’s just resigned from forced her to précis the lives of asylum-seekers on to ‘two-thirds of a side of A4’. She’s telling this to Brooke, the girl, who confirms that she means the paper, not the road smaller than a motorway, right? Right.

As I said, it’s not all like this. It’s got stuff in it, for instance to do with the appalling self-centredness of the middle classes in London. Gen, the woman in whose house Miles has incarcerated himself, is almost beside herself in her determination to off-load the problem on to somebody else, i.e. Anna. The sitting-room looks to Anna like the stage design for a play with exactly this kind of middle-class characters in it. There’s an emerging theme of asylum seekers, and the appalling way Britain treats them. Anna remembers a couple of stories, like the one in which a group of men is discovered in a container of light-bulbs. The bulbs, in their careful packaging, are far better protected than the men. There’s multicultural Britain, in the form of Brooke and her parents, both academics. Smith has made a decision not to refer to their blackness, she lets us know anyway: ‘But it was a white woman…’ who answers the door outside which she’s been talking to Brooke.

Thinking about it now, the novel suddenly feels a bit theme-heavy. Miles is a vegetarian, and it’s part of Gen’s general crapness that she can’t cope with this at all. Mark, the man who takes him to the dinner party, is gay, although Smith hasn’t made a lot of that, although she’s gay herself so… maybe she will. Then there’s the omnipresent surveillance culture we would never have guessed at in 1980. That was the year of the European tour for the teenagers who had written winning entries in a competition about life in 2000. Anna keeps referring to that time because, apparently, Miles has come back into her life.

Near the end she remembers another detail that had been hidden for years: not long after the trip, Miles had visited her house in Scotland on the way to Ullapool. He had seemed undemonstratively considerate, like when he mopped up a spill with his socked foot, not realising she could see him do it. (Eh?) And, even nearer to the end, she gets Brooke to show her which is the window to the room he’s in. She imagines what it would be like to shut yourself away, to turn your back on, well, everything for a while. You can tell she likes the idea. And, from behind the wall at the end of the garden, she shouts to him: ‘Miles, It’s me. I’m here.’ Goodness.

Other things. That imagining of how it must have felt to lock the door on the world reminds me of other things Anna imagines: the men in the container, the hot feel of a burka in the sun. And we’re with what might be the biggest theme of all: the ways in which we hide, and the things that other people do to find us out. Miles we know about; the asylum-seekers and the street criminals under the cctv cameras we know about. But what about Anna herself? What’s she hiding from? Why does she pull Miles’ jacket – the one Gen was so keen for her to take away – over her head as she waits for Brooke in the street (the one with all the cctv cameras)? And why does she seem so nostalgic for a time and a place that isn’t here and now? It seems that Miles has unearthed something in herself she’d entirely forgotten.

In the prologue (or whatever), after he has jemmied off the strips from the man’s eyes and mouth, the boy says, ‘So now can I show you… do you want to know now?’ Ok. So what exactly are those strips? And what parts of ourselves – memory? identity? – do they block off?

9 February
Ali Smith really has it in for the middle classes. We get Gen’s self-serving version, written for the Guardian Weekend magazine, of what it’s like to have an in-house squatter. And the middle 55 pages of this section – almost exactly half of it – are taken up with a flashback to the evening when Miles absented himself from the other guests. It’s the dinner party from hell, and the unmistakable implication is that all Gen’s dinner parties are like this: she deliberately brings together people, mainly couples, who don’t know one another and who are unlikely to have anything in common. The other implication is that Miles has the best idea in turning his back on it.

Is it that obvious? Yes, I think it is. I’ll get back to it later, because in this section Smith has fast-forwarded three months and given us a new point of view. It’s Mark, and he doesn’t do word games. But he does do rhymes – or his dead mother does, mockingly in his ear, all the time. He also occasionally realises that he has just spoken his private thoughts out loud. So he’s a nutter, yes? Not necessarily. His eccentricities seem to be Smith’s way of representing his overpowering sense of loneliness. His partner, who seems to have been the only person ever to love him, died some years ago. His mother died just before the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. (This is when Anna and Ali Smith were both born. I don’t know if that’s important – but pasts and futures certainly are in the novel….) She, the mother, sounds bonkers, and it isn’t until the only cultured couple at the party – guess who? – recognise her name that we find out that she had been an artist. She had been feted as the visual equivalent of Sylvia Plath – Smith even has them referencing the name – and the work described sounds precisely as bleak and autobiographical as Plath’s in Ariel. Like Plath, she appears to use the Nazis as a starting point, although the political implications are wider. Well, you’d expect them to be in this novel. And, like Plath, she killed herself.

I realise that this novel is turning into a critique of just about everything, and what different people do to cope with how bad it is. Anna, we know, has resigned from the job which routinely led to asylum seekers failing in their applications. Miles, apparently, has simply resigned from life – which is what Mark’s mother did at a more literal level. And what about the guests at the dinner party? You can put your faith in the stupidities of right-wing prejudice, as represented by Richard, the arms and surveillance specialist (I’m not making this up), or ignorance as represented by his wife. Or you can go for a sort of National Trust heritage approach, focusing on your lovely house and your lovely things. (No prizes for guessing who that is.) Or… and so on. The only guests who seem to have any viable answers – and the only ones Smith seems to like – are the Bayoudes, the academics. His specialism is metallurgy, but he knows about culture. High culture – art, poetry – and, encyclopaedically, musical theatre. Go figure. They have brought up their daughter – Brooke, present at the table – to be questioning, curious, and as likeable as they are. Aww.

Does it feel as schematic as this as you read? Almost. The themes I was neatly ticking off as I read the first section are present in this one as well. The awful evening, a mixture of Abigail’s Party and The God of Carnage, lets Smith put thoughtless bigotry into the mouth of Richard and bottomless ignorance into the mouth of his wife. There’s the issue of surveillance, obviously, there’s immigration – he asks the Bayoudes so many stupid questions about living in Britain that another guest asks them if they’ve ever met blacks before – and, inevitably, there’s ignorance about homosexuality. I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just say that Smith is as unsubtle in this regard as she is with all the others. I suppose all of them, possibly even the Bayoudes, are satirical types and it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect too much plausibility. But I always miss plausibility when it isn’t there.

What else have I missed? Mainly, Mark’s sad little story. Brought up by an aunt following his mother’s death, and now passing his days sauntering around Greenwich Park, he’s going quietly mad. (Is the voice in his ear another coping mechanism? How should I know?) He’s had a sexual liaison with the married dinner-guest who has invited him – that’s how Gen organises these things – and is acutely embarrassed at the party and constantly wrong-footed. He’s only met Miles the week before, at a play, and… nothing much. If Miles is gay it’s irrelevant, but you can imagine the assumptions made by Gen and the dinner guests. (His name-card is ‘Mark’s partner’.) The day that frames the long flashback has him strolling over to Gen’s house, where there is a Channel 4 film-crew and, at the back of the house, a small camp of Milo well-wishers. ‘Milo’ is what Gen called him in her Guardian article, and when Mark tells them he’s called Miles, nobody listens.

That’s another thing in this book, nobody listening. Too many gaps between words – one running gag has Mark constantly referring to Gen as ‘Jan’, while another has three-letter acronyms that exclude as many listeners as they include – and too many people projecting their own prejudices. Art? Waste of time. That woman with the unmade bed, that diamond-encrusted skull – Smith can’t have Hannah, candidate for the Ignorant party, knowing the artists’ actual names – are nothing but frauds, no questions asked. Nobody ever asks. Unless, of course, you’re some kind of outsider, a Bayoude – or a Miles. Gen doesn’t even check that everyone wants wine, has simply assumed that they will all want to be served the lovely lamb dish she’s created.

You know the trouble with the middle classes? I think we’re getting the picture.

9 February, later
An interlude. For most of this section, we don’t know how, if at all, the new character we’re with relates to the ones we’ve met before. From time to time, novelists have a go at giving us what it’s like to be very old and not quite compos mentis, and this is Ali Smith doing it. May Young – now, there’s a name for an old ‘un – is rather engaging. At first I imagined her as Scottish, but I realised this was because Ali Smith has written it as though May is her, nearly 40 years on: independent, able to see through the barriers people put up. The last thing she’s going to do is suffer fools gladly.

She doesn’t suffer them at all. She’s decided never to speak again, because – what? Because she’s been betrayed. They’ve got her into hospital, dressed her in pink – pink! – and, she thinks, they’ve decided that she’ll be ok to go into Harbour House. Don’t even ask. There’s a girl sitting there. Who’s she? Not a nurse, not a regular hospital visitor…. Someone on work experience, tapping her text messages like they all do, connected to the ‘intimate’ like they all are. Intimate? They don’t know the meaning of the word. Ah, she’s got it. She’s the mysterious figure – she’d been expecting a man – who takes you away to, you know, another place. You know.

But no. The girl has let May know it took a long time for them to find her and surprisingly, when May suggests they go out of the place, she agrees. She makes a phone call and – they’re off, out, down the lift and into the car of a man clearly too old for the girl. Eventually, after an accident – poor May just couldn’t hold it in, and the man is mortified by the smell and the mess – it begins to make sense. It’s winter now, and they have brought May to Greenwich. And here’s Mark – ‘he’s the one who found you’ – and they are showing her a window at the back of a house. ‘See that one in the middle? He’s in there.’

May has been spending a lot of time within the confines of her own head, as she likes to put it. She knows about things. She knows about death, had a daughter who didn’t even reach the age of sixteen. She was the one who wanted to know what life is for – all the sections focus on the title-word like that – and there was a friend, a boy, who had come to see May every year on the anniversary. May doesn’t think of the boy’s name, but we know, don’t we? So, what does May represent, with her memories of a simpler, more genuine world of Gracie Field musicals and fun that didn’t cost anything? And will she be able to get through to Miles?

10 February
With this final section we come full circle… which might be the kind of cliché that Smith would hold up for scrutiny and find wanting, but it’s what happens anyway. The story that opens the novel is explained: we get hints early in this section, sly mentions of a paper aeroplane with a story written on it, and then we find out it’s Miles’ story, written for the precocious Brookes. We know she’s precocious from the first two sections, of course, and we have it confirmed now: we’re inside her head for the whole section. It might be written in the third person, as the whole novel has been, but the narrator writes as Brookes thinks, so we get her thought-processes and perceptions as they occur to her…

…and boy, if you thought the first section was verbally busy, it’s calm compared to this one. Smith needs a character who is the precise opposite of the closed-up, closed-down dogmatists she was making us hate so much in the dinner-party scene. Brooke Bayoude is not quite ten, and the world is completely open to her. I nearly said it was an open book, because this section is full of books and stories: the ‘History’ she is writing of the Miles affair, which has just come to an unspectacular end; the stories she and Miles write for each other; the conversations about books – between Brooke and Miles, Brooke and her parents and, it’s implied, between Brooke and Anna, who has given her a blank Moleskine book to write in. There’s an image of a book, lying unopened… but just think, someone says – it hardly matters which of the worthwhile adults says it – what happens to you as soon as you open it.

The setting for all this is Greenwich, of course, a world of gentrification for Gen’s world, a world of tourists and school parties in Mark’s – but, for Brooke, simply a world, the source of endless references and speculations. All human life is there: the quest for knowledge, the omnipresence of life and death – the public telescopes were once used to spy on executions miles away – and the poor value for money of some of the attractions in her local’s-eye-view. (We get back to commercial exploitation later.) I mentioned death, because it’s there in every part of this novel. May has died by the time we’ve reached this section, and it fills the young girl with a kind of wonder, just as it did May’s daughter during her brief life. As I’ve said, she had asked all her family to define what life is for. This section of the novel is answering the question. Communicate. Speculate. Learn.

Smith has chosen the daughter of loving parents for this quest. I mention the relationship because almost all the other relationships in this novel are dysfunctional. The insights we keep getting into the routine high-class bonding that goes on in the Bayoude family are in contrast – it strikes me as too neat a contrast – with the bickering we see between couples round the dinner table. Gen and her husband don’t bicker, but there are other ways for a marital meltdown to show itself: he hardly says a word at the party, and he’s left by the time a few months have passed. Smith doesn’t need to tell us that he has simply had enough of his wife’s all-round crapness. And while I’m on the subject, more of that comes in this final section. Gen is making money selling souvenirs of Milo – to the extent that when he leaves she swears the others to secrecy. And it’s her own daughter, the one she never talks to, who is so instrumental in bringing May to the house….

So. Some characters – including Miles, with help from Brooke and the people I call the worthwhile adults – prove that life in 21st Century Britain doesn’t have to be crap. But Smith carries on satirising the all-pervasive crapness that remains. We hear nothing directly about how Anna and Mark are going to fare, and the only hope for Miles is that optimistic story he’s written for a child. That’s something, obviously, but – but the world goes on. At the end of the novel the encampment of Milo-watchers is still there, the psychic receiving messages from him is still charging £30 a pop for insights direct from the great man – and Gen is occasionally moving the curtain in his room, just as he did, and selling her souvenirs. Bless.


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