Smith Ali

Ali Smith: There but for the

It once occurred to me that the best books are those which absolutely divide opinion. I no longer think that’s necessarily true – if I ever did, beyond finding it a neat shorthand – but it came to mind when reading Ali Smith’s new novel. Look at the Amazon ratings for her last novel proper, the Booker-shortlisted The Accidental: an almost even spread from one to five stars. Yet I was a mixed sample myself with regard to that book: defending it from those who thought it too “complex” or (the red mist word) “pretentious”; but unconvinced by those who considered Smith the great white hope of contemporary British literature.

There but for the carries its fragmented intent from the title, so no one should be misled. The broken sentence suggests its own missing parts. That in itself – something unsaid but obvious – is a pretty good indication of what to expect with Smith. Martin Amis several years ago observed, in an attempt to take possession of a critic’s dismissal, that “someone once said of my work, and I didn’t mind it at all, that I deal with banalities delivered with tremendous force,” adding, for the avoidance of doubt that he really didn’t mind at all, “That’s fine by me.” His reclamation of the insult is not very convincing, but it’s one that might be applied to Smith also. In both The Accidental and her recent Canongate myths book, Girl Meets Boy, she has a masterly control of style but an unfortunate tendency to bash the reader over the head.

By that I mean that her sentences are just so, her structure is careful and contains enough gaps to make the reader do a manageable amount of work to fit things together. However in some important respects she leaves little to the imagination and even tends to impose thoughts on the reader. To explain that I had better go into more detail about the story. It’s somewhat high-concept, and it easily summed up by the opening sentence of the first full chapter, titled ‘There’:

was once a man who, one night between the main course and the sweet at a dinner party, went upstairs and locked himself in one of the bedrooms of the house of the people who were giving the dinner party.

The man is Miles Garth, and the book is structured in four parts from the viewpoints of four people who know him. There is Anna, who met him twenty years ago at university and on whom the dinner party hosts call to try to persuade him out of the bedroom. (He stays there for a long time.) There is Mark, the man who took Miles to the dinner party as his partner. (Miles is a vegetarian, but the owners of the house sustain him with slices of cooked meat under the door, as though appearing in a joke with no punchline.) There is May Young, an elderly woman nursing a decades-long trauma which Miles may have caused but also helped her recover from. (The lock-in lasts for months, with implausible levels of media interest, and reporters camped outside the house.) Finally there is Brooke Bayoude, a nine-year-old girl whose parents are neighbours of the dinner-party couple and who seems to be the wisest of all.

The book’s strengths are significant. Smith ties the stories together well, dripfeeding information through the viewpoints of her four central characters (the book’s true centre, Miles, doesn’t get a voice of his own but we learn plenty about him from the others). Her characters are sensitively drawn, though it’s an ability she is unwilling or unable to extend to the secondary cast, in particular the dinner party hosts and guests. Smith makes them ridiculous bourgeois stereotypes, working in Canary Wharf, obsessed with the fabric of their homes, insensitive to difference (homosexuality, vegetarianism); easy targets. Early on there is an email written by the dinner party host which made my toes curl with its petty mockery of the character’s language skills. It should not be beyond a novelist of Smith’s skill to extend empathy to unlikeable characters as well as likeable ones.

Her resistance to convention is her best quality. An allegorical prologue is one of the strongest scenes in the book. The story overall has a carefully implausible ring to it, and it is as futile to argue that the hosts should break down the (“18th century!”) door and remove Miles by force, as it would be to suggest that the characters in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go should have battled their fate. Their fate was all our fates, and Miles’s self-imposed isolation within a home says, “There but for the grace of God go I;” though Miles doesn’t go, he stays. Every story in the book has something to say about how we live with or without other people: we skip forward to see the effect Miles’s stand-off has on the family who unwillingly host him; we learn about Mark’s mother and the trauma she bequeathed to her household; we see May Young awaiting transfer to a nursing home, and dreaming of escape even at the far end of life.

There is also an interest in modernity, how we communicate now and the way our experiences shift as a result. The book’s present day is the last couple of years, and in the first part Anna observes the CCTV cameras everywhere and reflects on “what a paranoid, jealousy-maddened love affair just walking down any British street in 2009 resembled.” Smith’s attention to detail is her forte as a writer, and it is also evident in the production and paraphernalia of the book (the three dedications, the five epigraphs, the careful choice of types and formatting). Yet this penchant for detail might also be a weakness, if it is the cause of the coolness, and the lack of intimacy I felt at times. It is hard to locate the novel’s centre, and there is a sense that Smith is holding something back, tempering her talent in order to make her tantalising story neater and more palatable. She is at her best when giving the reader something to do, and taking risks. She should do it more, allow her delicious river of language to flow; publish and not be dammed.

Love Stories (Everyman Pocket Classics)

I think there’s something pretty crass about themed collections of stories. Surely the subject matter is the least interesting aspect of a piece of fiction? At the same time, however, it can be interesting to observe how tried (and tired) themes are dealt with by different writers. And there is also the analytical aspect, of seeing one person’s choices on the subject, feeling or feigning outrage at the omissions, and perhaps discovering new voices. Here, the reliable Everyman’s Library follow their recent Christmas Stories and Ghost Stories collections with the widest and riskiest theme of all: Love Stories.

Like Christmas Stories, Love Stories is edited by Diana Secker Tesdell, and it doesn’t hurt that it is a handsome volume, a solid little hardback with fully sewn cloth binding and a ribbon bookmark. The contents, for the most part, are equally impressive, and hardly any are traditional ‘love stories’ in the soppy sense of the term.

Tesdell is unafraid to challenge the reader, so the second story in the collection (after a short overture by Maupassant, ‘Clair de Lune’) is Italo Calvino’s ‘Blood, Sea’ from t-zero, the second of his Cosmicomics collections. Calvino admirers will recognise that book as one of his most rigorous, narrated by the immortal being Qwfwq and containing fictions based on scientific suppositions, and ‘Blood, Sea’ is filled with ideas, long sentences, characters who are not really characters, and intellectual delight. At the other end of the difficulty scale is Roald Dahl’s ‘Mr Botibol’, one of his underrated adult stories (though not one of his best), about a lonely man who “resembled, to an extraordinary degree, an asparagus” and who finds some sort of happiness in imagination and music.

Among recent favourites on this blog, I was delighted to see the inclusion of Tobias Wolff’s ‘Lady’s Dream’ (one of his best very short stories), and Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘A Temporary Matter’, which was praised by readers here last year when I wrote about Lahiri’s new collection, and which I was eager to read as a result. With its unsentimental detail and neatly surprising ending which stops short of tricksiness, it did not disappoint.

This lack of sentimentality is a welcome recurring theme. One of the stories, Dorothy Parker’s ‘Here We Are’, indeed is so non-slushy that it also features in Penguin Classics’ own Valentine money-spinner, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, which is themed around ‘love quarrels’. Parker’s story, of a recently married couple’s conversation as they go on honeymoon, is one of the highlights of the book, with its laconic expressiveness (“there was a silence with things going on in it”), wordplay (“‘Well, I’m not so sure I’m not sorry I didn’t,’ she said”) and blithe cynicism:

‘Everything was so mixed up, I sort of don’t know where I am, or what it’s all about. Getting back from the church, and then all those people, and then changing all my clothes, and then everybody throwing things, and all. Goodness, I don’t see how people do it every day.’

‘Do what?’ he said.

‘Get married,’ she said. ‘When you think of all the people, all over the world, getting married just as if it was nothing. Chinese people and everybody, just as if it wasn’t anything.’

Parker is one of a handful of names in the book whom I’d always meant to read but never had. Another, more prominent, was Lorrie Moore, whose stories are regularly cited (along with the likes of William Trevor, who also features here, and Alice Munro, who doesn’t) as being examples of the best of the art. Her story ‘Terrific Mother’ is the longest here at 44 pages, and makes it obvious why she’s so highly regarded. Her style is for sentence-by-sentence detail, with black wit (“Yes, I can see us growing old together,” she said, squeezing his hand. “In the next few weeks, in fact”), or some surprising expression in almost every paragraph. ‘Terrific Mother’ is about a woman who accidentally killed one of her friend’s children, and now is struggling to re-enter life (“You don’t understand,” she said. “Normal life is no longer possible for me. I’ve stepped off all the normal paths and am living in the bushes. I’m a bushwoman now”). There are times when this relentless artificial brilliance risks the story looking more like a Swarovski crystal than a diamond, but there is no denying Moore’s facility, and for me a purchase of her recently published Collected Stories can’t be far off. (Then again, even after one story I could see why Adam Mars-Jones Observed that Moore’s relentless humour is “closer to a compulsion than a talent.”)

Another revelation was Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Dead Mabelle’, about a man obsessed with a movie star.

She had an unusual way with her, qualities overlapped strangely; in that black-and-white world of abstractions she alone moved in a blur. Each movement, in unexpected relation to the movements preceding it, outraged a preconception. William sat with an angry, disordered feeling as though she were a rising flood and his mind bulrushes. She had a slow, almost diffident precision of movement; she got up, sat down, put out a hand, smiled, with a sparklingly mournful air of finality, as though she were committing herself, and every time William wanted to rise in his seat and say, ‘Don’t, don’t – not before all these people!’

When she dies, he finds he has “no power of being.” The story also has a lovely ending, an essential quality for a short story, you might have thought, but surprisingly rare still. So step further up my to-be-read pile, Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart.

It’s not just about revisiting old friends, or discovering new delights (the book is like a mail order catalogue in that sense). A collection like this is also an opportunity to cement one’s prejudices, as against T.C. Boyle (glib and forced), D.H. Lawrence (super-sincere and utterly humourless) and William Trevor (just… not that great). In addition, the story ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’ enabled me to affirm my lifelong indifference to the works of Margaret Atwood.

This volume, clearly intended for the Valentine gift market, is one I shall be keeping for myself. One niggle is the lack of biographical detail of the authors. While it’s true that most don’t require this – Fitzgerald, Marquez, Katherine Mansfield, Ali Smith even – I would have liked to be ‘reminded’ about Colette, and to know more (ie anything) about Yasunari Kawabata, whose story ‘Immortality’ is the shortest and one of the most striking here. Perhaps we’re not supposed to seek such detail, and to take the tales on trust. Love is blind.

Ali Smith: Girl Meets Boy

Ali Smith is a writer who tends to polarise opinion. Her last novel, The Accidental, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005, but I didn’t meet anyone else who liked it. I wasn’t sure I did myself to begin with, and part of my liking for it is probably a defensive reaction against violent criticism of what is, at the very least, an interesting and ambitious work that deserves credit for that. Her earlier novel Hotel World was no more conventional, a collection of stream-of-consciousness voices which angered one Amazon reader for not being a sufficiently accurate representation of life in a hotel; which is a little like the Victoria Wood character who didn’t like Fawlty Towers because it was supposed to be set in Torquay, but “could have been anywhere, frankly.”

Girl Meets Boy

For her next trick then, Smith has written Girl Meets Boy, a novella in the Canongate Myths series. The story she has chosen to update (or “remix” according to the blurb) is the story of Iphis from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I haven’t read Ovid since school and I don’t think I got as far as Iphis in Ted Hughes’ celebrated interpretation of the tales, so fortunately Smith gives us a primer midway through, though a sneak preview – if that’s the word for a story written two thousand years ago – is available here.

It’s about what tabloids would once have called gender-bending, and so the title not only recalls classic love stories, but has another primary meaning in the character of Robin, who is neither and both: girl-meets-boy. The story is narrated by two sisters, Anthea and Imogen (‘Midge’). Anthea falls in love with Robin who is protesting against Pure, the water company she works for.

My head, something happened to its insides. It was as if a storm at sea happened, but only for a moment, and only on the inside of my head. My ribcage, something definitely happened there. It was as if it unknotted itself from itself, like the hull of a ship hitting rock, giving way, and the ship that I was opened wide inside me and in came the ocean.

He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.

But he really looked like a girl.

She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.

This leads Midge to worry, in a parenthetic stream of consciousness, that “(Oh my God my sister is a GAY.) (I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset.)” She has to field awkward questions from her unreconstructed friends, Norman and Dominic, two-dimensional homophobic lads. Not that this sets them apart from other elements of the book. Politically Smith seems to feel that every reader has the right not to be confused by shades of grey, and so we have the capitalist-bastard water company executive –

Small body of irate ethnics in one of our Indian sub-interests factioning against our planned filter-dam two-thirds completed and soon to power four Pure labs in the area. They say: our dam blocks their access to fresh water and ruins their crops. We say: they’re ethnic troublemakers who are trying to involve us in a despicable religious war. Use the word terrorism if necessary. Got it?

– and Robin herself is an anarchic ‘breath of fresh air’/’pain in the arse’ akin to Amber from The Accidental, addressing well-worn issues through spray-painting statistics about male-female inequality in public places. All this reminded me of the critic who accused Martin Amis of dealing in “banalities delivered with tremendous force,” which attack Amis sought to de-barb by adopting it as his own credo (“that’s fine by me”). Smith’s issues are not subtle, and little is left under the surface, but there is something nonetheless loving about the way she presents it.

She is at her best when returning from the political to the personal, and the descriptions of love and sex in Girl Meets Boy are poetic and invigorating, and the opening pages of the final section, incorporating literary nods and winks (“Ness I said Ness I will Ness”), humorous contemporary references (“A male-voice choir from the Inverness Police Force sang a beautiful arrangement of songs from Gilbert and Sullivan. Then the Inverness Constabulary female-voice choir sang an equally beautiful choral arrangement of Don’t Cha (Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me)”), and a litany of free-association –

…we got married. I mean we here came the bride. I mean we walked down the aisle. I mean we step we gailied, on we went, we Mendelssohned, we epithalamioned, we raised high the roofbeams, carpenters, for there was no other bride, o bridegroom, like her. We crowned each other with the garlands of flowers. We stamped on the wine-glasses wrapped in the linen. We jumped the broomsticks. We lit the candles. We crossed the sticks.

– that is sure to become a source for readings at weddings and partnership ceremonies in years to come.

Smith also wastes no opportunities to reflect her themes of sexuality and equality, and the motifs of the original myth, everywhere she can in her story, so the whole has a pleasing completeness to it. She even finds time to bring back the topic of myths themselves and the “responsibility” of creating a myth. It’s a story which revels in being light-hearted and serious-minded at the same time, and for the most part manages to pull it off by force of charm alone.