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Spring 2006

More Than a Tour de Force

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Sigrid Nunez

The Accidental
by Ali Smith.
Pantheon, 2006,
$22.95 cloth.

The Accidental, the third novel by the Scottish writer Ali Smith (she is also the author of three collections of short fiction), is a simple story—a fable, even—complicatedly told. It begins, literally and disarmingly, with a bang. A young woman in a small-town movie house, excited by the actor Terence Stamp in a movie she is watching for the third time, leaves her seat, finds a boy about to close up the theatre café for the night, and has her way with him. The scene is described by the fruit of this encounter: "I am Alhambra, named for the place of my conception." The year was 1968. The movie was Poor Cow. However, it is an altogether different Terence Stamp movie that gave Smith the idea for this novel: Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema (based on his novel of the same title). In that film, a beautiful and fantastically charismatic young man arrives out of nowhere to disrupt and transform the lives of a bourgeois family and their maid. Of the five people seduced by the stranger (the role played by Stamp), only the maid is not destroyed.

In Smith's version, as in Pasolini's, we have a family of four: mother, father, daughter, son. It is 2003. The Smarts, Eve and Michael, are on summer holiday in Norfolk with Astrid and Magnus, Eve's children from an earlier marriage. The house they have rented, though "substandard" (to use a favorite word of sardonic twelve-year-old Astrid), comes with the services of Katrina the Cleaner, the only character to remain unfazed by the appearance of the magnetic stranger who shows up one day calling herself Amber and who seems to be none other than Alhambra grown up. When she appears, Michael assumes Amber has come to visit Eve. Eve assumes Amber has come to visit Michael. The misunderstanding is never cleared up, and Amber becomes part of the household, free to work her charms, for good or for ill, on each Smart in turn.

What kind of family are the Smarts? Middle-class, ordinary, unhappy. "Everybody...in broken pieces which won't go together," in the eyes of seventeen-year-old Magnus, who, when we first meet him, is broken indeed. A math and computer whiz, he has used his skills to participate in a prank that results in the humiliation of a girl at his school. The girl has committed suicide, and Magnus, consumed with guilt, decides he must do the same. He is saved by Amber, who happens to walk into the bathroom as he's preparing to hang himself. To Magnus, "Amber = angel." He's got good reason to think so. Having saved his life, she takes his virginity and proceeds to have regular, heavenly sex with him, mostly in the village church. Like her counterpart in Teorema, Amber —less a human being than a force—uses sexuality to achieve her purposes, which remain, however, as mysterious as her coming. (Though she tells Eve a melodramatic but strangely convincing story about why she is, by choice, a vagabond, Amber later seems to forget this story—or is she just faking having forgotten in order to fuck with Eve's head, as she so obviously enjoys doing? Does Amber = con artist? The adults, at least, end up convinced she is this and—after they return to their London house to find it stripped of everything down to the doorknobs and carpeting—worse.)

Though older than his usual objects of desire, Amber is equally alluring to Magnus's stepfather. A professor of literature, Michael is an incorrigible lech who preys on young women, mostly his students. Eve knows all about it but pretends not to, a moral delinquency perhaps more corrupting to their marriage than the adultery itself. Desire for beautiful blond Amber drives Michael, already in the grip of a midlife crisis, over the edge. One effect of his breakdown is that he begins thinking in sonnets, a chance for Smith to show off her marvelous linguistic gifts, which in fact are on display throughout the novel and constitute one of its major pleasures.

Eve, a best-selling writer (Smith often writes about writers), is suffering from a block, which may have something, or perhaps everything, to do with the fact that her success has been the result of a gimmick she hit upon several years before (a series of "autobiotruefictinterviews" in which real people who died during the Second World War are made to speak of lives they might have lived had they survived), and which she's too, well, smart not to be ashamed of. Wary of Amber, whom she disdains as "a gypsy kind of person...a skillful freeloader," Eve is also irresistibly drawn to her. (Tellingly, she will receive both the mother of all kisses and a black eye from Amber before the book is finished.) Though she doesn't know about Magnus's affair (a less self-absorbed mother, of course, would), she can't help seeing that Amber has bewitched Astrid as well. Relations between mother and daughter, strained before, only worsen with Amber's visit.

Before Amber arrives, Astrid, a lonely girl who is bullied at school, is bored out of her mind. Her parents have given her a video camera (a gesture that would no doubt fall under Astrid's long list of things "typical and ironic": an expensive gift in place of parental love and attention), and she's in the process of creating a kind of visual archive or journal. Clearly a future writer or filmmaker, Astrid is learning how to see, and Smith captures perfectly the inner voice and overwrought cogitations of the budding-artist sensibility on the cusp of adolescence. When Amber destroys the camera (her point seems to be that Astrid's obsessive filming is actually getting in the way of her learning to see), Astrid is shocked but unable to stay angry. Amber is like the incarnation of a child's imaginary friend. She is fearless, outrageous, and rebellious; she has magical powers, and she's endless fun. She is also a mine of information. Like Magnus, Astrid is amazed at how much Amber seems to know about so many different things, from the habits of bees to who invented the equals sign. (For the reader, this apparent omniscience encourages the notion that Amber = supernatural being.) The night she slips into Astrid's bed and cuddles against her, Astrid almost bursts her seams for joy.

Smith is a daring acrobat of a writer, and, the better to perform her breathtaking tricks, she has given her book a sturdy structure in the form of three parts, headed "The Beginning," "The Middle," and "The End" (which is, as Astrid would say, "typical and ironic" of Smith). Each part is divided into four chapters, and each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the four Smarts in turn. All together these narratives show Smith to be, among other wonders, a master of the use of free indirect style. Hers is the kind of prose in which, as in poetry, every word counts. Line by line, all is taut; there is no slackness anywhere. And no hot air. The effect is enthralling. The prose is full of riffs—real ones, not the verbal air guitar one comes across so often now in the fiction of Smith's generation of writers from both sides of the Atlantic. Here is Alhambra/Amber seeing her life flash before her in celluloid:

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 used butter in Paris. I had a farm in Africa. I took off my clothes in the window of an apartment building and distracted the two police inspectors from watching for the madman on the roof who was trying to shoot the priest. I fell for an Italian. It was his moves on the dancefloor that did it. I knew what love meant. It meant never having to say you're sorry. It meant the man who drove the taxi would kill the presidential candidate, or the pimp...I had my legs bitten off by the shark. I stabbed the kidnapper, but so did everybody else, it wasn't just me, on the Orient Express.

My father was Terence and my mother was Julie. (Stamp. Christie.) I was born and bred by the hills (alive) and the animals (talked to). I considered myself well in, part of the furniture...I rose inch by inch with the international rise of the nose of Streisand, the zee of Liza. What good was sitting alone in my room?...

But it's all in the game and the way you play it, and you've got to play the game, you know.

I was born free, I've had the time of my life and for all we know I'm going to live forever

Smith's writing is so fine, it is naturally the first thing one wants to praise. Her cleverness and exuberance, her unflagging verbal virtuosity, delight the reader page after page. But stylistic tour de force is hardly Smith's only concern, and though The Accidental is not a realistic novel, its characters are not only believable but brimming with life. Smith goads them-and the reader as well-to confront hard questions about sin, guilt, and moral complacency. The eye she turns on the Smarts is as penetrating and as fierce as Muriel Spark's. But we never get the sense, as we do often with Spark, of Smith pecking and pecking away at her characters with a sharp little beak. Neither romantic nor sentimental, Smith is a deeply humane writer, with a heart as big as George Eliot's.

Rich as The Accidental is, I finished it still hungry. It hasn't been easy for me to figure out why. (Part of it could well be that I was simply hungry for more Smith.) But perhaps there's a clue to be found in an interview Smith gave when the book came out in the UK, where it won the Whitbread Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. (Smith's previous novel, Hotel World, also made the shortlist for the Booker, in 2001, and was shortlisted for that year's Orange Prize as well.) Smith told the Guardian Unlimited that she considered The Accidental "a war novel." This surprised me, for though the war in Iraq is mentioned a few times, I can't imagine any reader remembering this book afterwards as a war novel.

There is no bad writing in The Accidental (indeed, Smith appears to be incapable of bad writing), but there is one place where I believe she falters, and it happens to be the place where the war is referred to at greatest (if not very great) length. The passage comes toward the end of the book, when Eve, who is traveling by herself, is shown holding a copy of a New York newspaper. In the paper are photographs and reports of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners of war by members of the American military, including one photo of a young woman grinning and giving the thumbs-up sign above a corpse. "[Eve] didn't know...whether to keep looking or to stop looking. There was no answer to it. It was itself the answer. She was living in a time when historically it was permissible to smile like that above the face of someone who had died a violent death." ("Historically"?)

When I read this passage, I felt that it was not so much Eve's helplessness I was witnessing as Smith's; that it was the novelist who, having set her story at the same time as the invasion of Iraq, is unable to decide whether to look or to look away, and who fails to come up with an answer to the question haunting writers everywhere today: what should fiction make of a fact such as Abu Ghraib, which is clearly the subject of the newspaper report referred to, but which Smith for some reason does not name? I could not help thinking of the famous exchange between the poet Anna Akhmatova and a woman standing behind her as they waited in line to try to find out about loved ones arrested during Stalin's reign of terror. "Can you describe even this?" the woman whispered. To which Akhmatova tells us she replied: "I can."

Which brings me back to the hunger I was talking about, and the feeling I had that Smith might have wanted to say something more. This capacious novel seemed at moments to be reaching to embrace yet another story, something besides the mostly comic tale of one broken family or an updated variation on Pasolini's Christian-Marxist fable.

Because people of conscience still walk among us, we now know that what happened at Abu Ghraib was neither the first nor the last such incident, that American men and women have been in the habit of mentally and physically torturing Iraqis in detention, both in order to gather information and for sport, since the war began. Ali Smith is a novelist of immense skill, courage, and moral intelligence. If anyone can describe the terror that has become "permissible" in our own dark time and tell us the ugly truths that this has to say about us, maybe she can.

Sigrid Nunez’s fifth novel, The Last of Her Kind, came out in January of 2006, as did a new edition of her first novel, A Feather on the Breath of God. She lives in New York.

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