Niall Harrison (coalescent) wrote,
Niall Harrison
coalescent

The Accidental

About a quarter of the way into Ali Smith's lively tale of a disrupted family holiday and its aftermath, we learn exactly what it is that the mother, Eve Smart, does for a living. She writes 'autobiotruefictinterviews', books that take ordinary people who died young and tell their story as though they had lived on. They are marketed as Genuine Articles. They are also fashionable, attracting considerable attention (there is talk of one being chosen by Richard and Judy for their book club) and almost-unanimously favourable press notices. The dissenting voice is given to The Independent, where a reviewer says of the most recent title, which focuses on a German-born woman, secretly Jewish but outwardly a good Nazi mother:
"When will writers and readers finally stop hanging around mendacious glorified stories of a war which may as well by now have happened planets away from this one? Smart's Genuine Articles are a prime example of our shameful attraction to anything that lets us feel both fake-guilty and morally justified. No more of this murky self-indulgence. We need stories about now, not more peddled old nonsense about then." (82)
It's a viewpoint that resonates interestingly with one of the novel's epigraphs (Smith is greedy, and offers five, from sources as diverse as Austen and Chaplin):
Between the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life, the empty space, the gap, is enormous.
-- John Berger, 2002
Smith, I suspect, does not intend us to read Berger's statement ironically, because The Accidental, deserved Booker-nominee and Whitbread Best Novel-winner, can be seen as an attempt to redress the balance.

So. There is, as mentioned, a family, and aside from Eve it consists (in order of increasing interestingness and decreasing age) of Michael, a middle-aged English professor horribly aware of just how cliched his crises are; late-teen Magnus, who had a hand in a prank that led in part to the suicide of a classmate, and who is now stricken by depression as a result; and cusp-teen Astrid, whose internal monologue is one of the most vigorously exploratory voices I've encountered in ages, and whose opinion of her mother's books is almost as critical as that of The Independent ("Personally Astrid thinks there would be a lot more usefulness in finding out about things that were happening now rather than people who died i.e. more than half a century ago", 23). Smith's short stories showcase a magpie fascination with tone and structure, so it's not much of a surprise that The Accidental is similarly restless. The narrative is ironically broken up into 'The Beginning', 'The Middle', and 'The End', none of which mean what they say, and in each section each family member takes a turn in the spotlight. The dynamism and fundamental directness of Smiths' writing remains constant throughout, but each voice is individualised.

Much of their distinctness comes from their differing ages, and their differing responses to the passage of time. The children are Young, the adults Old; and the older the character, the more controlled their internal monologue, and the more trapped. Astrid's story, for example, is almost stream-of-consciousness, while at one point Michael wakes up and find his thoughts (literally) trapped into an overwrought sonnet sequence ("Amber, walking/through the world, lit the world, took the world, made it/and after her everything in it faded", 165). Astrid is aware that her family "are all more part of the old century than she is" (11); she goes to the trouble of working out that she's 25 per cent new, compared to Magnus' 17 and her parents' even smaller proportions. She ties herself in knots trying to work out the impossibility of beginnings and endings, not yet having fully worked out that the world isn't a story. She films dawns with her video camera--she captures change--while by contrast Eve is more interested in snapshots, in saving individual moments. Both Eve and Michael are acutely aware of their age, particularly in a culture that venerates youth, Eve fearing she's past-it at 42, Michael comparing himself (vainly, but unfairly) with Keats, dead at 26. For Magnus, meanwhile, there is a sense that his present is stuck in his past. He sees his past self as a hologram--another form of imaging, to go with Eve's photos and Astrid's videos; all of them are, at points, fascinated by the fact that their images are time-fixed relics, and that the people and things in them do not know what is going to happen next--and is half-convinced that it's haunting him. It represents a problem, an equation, an inconsistency in the world that needs to be solved before he can move on.

It's the summer of 2003. The four of them are on holiday near Norfolk, when one day in waltzes the fifth character: Amber, the enigma. She takes a role in each narrative, playing confidante for some and object of devotion for others. Each member of the family assumes she's someone else's business: Astrid and Michael thinks she's there to be interviewed for Eve's next book, Eve thinks she's one of Michael's student conquests, while Magnus at first thinks she's an angel and later doesn't really care. The only things we know about Amber and Amber's life are what Amber herself tells us--she gets a chance to speak directly to the reader between each section of the book--and there are good reasons to think that she's playing with us:
They shot the king in Memphis, which delayed the Academy Awards telecast for two whole days. He had a dream, he held these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal and would one day sit down together at the table of brotherhood. They shot the other brother at the Ambassador Hotel. RIGHTEOUS BROS it said in lights, above the hotel car park. Meanwhile my father was the matchmaker and my mother could fly using only her umbrella. When I was a child I ran the Grand National on my horse. They didn't know I was a girl until I fainted and they unbuttoned my jockey shirt. But anything was possible. We had a flying floating car. We stopped the rail disaster by waving our petticoats at the train my father was innocent in prison, my mother made ends meet. I sold flowers in Covent Garden. A posh geezer taught me how to speak proper and took me to the races, designed by Cecil Beaton, though they dubbed my voice in the end because the singing wasn't good enough.

But my father was Alfie, my mother was Isadora. I was unnaturally psychic in my teens, I made a boy fall off his bike and I burned down a whole school. My mother was crazy; she was in love with God. There I was at the altar about to marry someone else when my boyfriend hammered on the church glass at the back and we eloped together on a bus. My mother was furious. She'd slept with him too. The devil got me pregnant and a satanic sect made me go through with it. Then I fell in with a couple of outlaws and did me some talking to the sun. I said I didn't like the way he got things done. (104)
By the time Amber declares that "I was born free, I've had the time of my life and for all we know I'm going to live forever" (105), we are primed. We know the game; we see the lyrics and stories and history out of which she is pretending her life. She self-mythologises an order of magnitude more than any normal person, and in so doing creates a mythological ambiguity about herself. "It is as if she can actually read Astrid's mind" (116), we are told, and for a second we think, well, why not? Each member of the family marvels at her luminous and extraordinary knowledge. Amber's real story is so hidden behind all the others that make up the late twentieth century that she almost seems to have no past: she has emerged fully-formed into a life of constant immediacy. For Amber, Astrid's video camera is no better than the surveillance cameras in a supermarket car park--both capture facsimiles, not the real thing. For Amber, unlike any of the other characters, age is irrelevant and now is eternal. She wears a stopped watch.

The Accidental, then, is perhaps Smith's idea of how a public narrative for our time might be constructed. At points it certainly seems to have the urgency of argument. Amber is not going to explain herself, so we have to have at least four other peoples' best guesses to have a hope of understanding her; she is, like the modern world, too multifaceted to be seen entire by any one person. Everyone is, as Eve speculates towards the end of the book, on a different road, on a different map entirely, and each map is only an approximation of reality. Everything is subjective. What Smith adds to this, and what makes The Accidental special, is the vivid impression of how the now of the book relates to its before and after. Many writers convey a sense of place, a sense of the physicality of an environment; Smith moves up a dimension, and gives us a sense of time. Despite the section titles, The Accidental is anything but linear. 'The middle', in particular, darts back and forth, showing us either side and before and after and every angle of a particular family meal. Similarly the prologue masterfully pins down a single moment, a single evening in 1968, by looking at it through the long lens of everything else since.

Is there a danger here of ephemerality? If you fix your story squarely in time because you know the next day will be different, and would cause things to turn out a different way, are you consigning your work to speedy oblivion? Ian McEwan's Saturday, after all, already seems outdated. But if anything, it seems to me that here the opposite is the case. Smith allows herself a bit more than a single day, and captures her chosen moments so perfectly that they seem necessarily to have been real. If the effect of The Accidental is fleeting, if it's something we've seen before, it is so in the manner of a firework: a brief bright flash of beauty that lingers in the mind. It is not an attempt at explanation, but rather a portrait, and in that is perhaps more honest than anything with pretensions to eternity. Smith is saying this is the way it is, and what you take from it is up to you. If that sounds familiar, maybe it should:
[T]his is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books "slipstream."
-- Bruce Sterling, 1989
I realise that since 1989 the definition of 'slipstream' has, well, slipped, and that ultimately the term has been deprecated, but substitute "late twentieth" with "early twenty-first", and this old rhetoric fits The Accidental like a glove. Reading it you feel balanced precariously on a summit, in a moment, paused, but ready to topple back into the flow of time after the slightest nudge. Of course, a book that argues that the experience of the present is subjective is tacitly admitting that any public narrative, including itself, is only going to be true for some people some of the time. That, finally, is why Ali Smith's novel is so thoroughly and exuberantly a story about now. Between the mystery of Amber and the way the characters' thoughts chafe at their stories, it is indeed very strange, and in addition quite special--if, naturally, you are a person of a certain sensibility.

[Other reviews linked from here.]
Tags: ali smith, book review
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