– Penguin Books, London 2005 ISBN 978-141-01039-7
Read from February 3rd till 21st 2016
My rating :
Do you recall those books that make your day (your week, your year J)? Those books that laugh at you from cover to cover without malice, reminding you that art is nothing but ludic, that the pleasure of the text (to borrow Barthes’s phrase) consists in blissfully and effortlessly enjoying both form and content? Those books that do you sooo good?
Well, for example David Lodge’s novels have always done this to me. And now, I’ve just delightfully discovered Ali Smith’s Accidental, another one of those friendly-reading books that teases the reader without superficiality, that discloses its narrative techniques without becoming annoying, that challenges both the writing know-how and the oh-so-serious literary themes without trivializing them and, more important without intimidating the reader. A book that doesn’t believe in complicated channels to deliver its message, although its message is far for simple. A postmodern book that doesn’t let you forget it is postmodern, but that doesn’t let you grow an inferiority complex because of it, either.
In a way, it seems that Ali Smith succeeds in doing an impossible task – reinterpreting the postmodern novel itself (impossible, of course, because of the extremely broad sense of the term), in both form and content, i.e. by disguising and revealing repeatedly, until bringing the reader to (happy) confusion, structure, narrator and characters construction, themes development, sense of events, psychological interpretation and so on.
In fact, The Accidental is, among other wondrous things, an impish parody of a possible postmodern parody of the 20th century psychological novel, digging mercilessly in the conscience of the four characters to mimic not only the conflict between generations, but also the conflict within generations: the adolescence crisis (Astrid and Magnus), and the mid-life crisis (Eve and Michael). In fact the book is so full of “crises” that it should have been an it-breaks-my-heart drama instead of an apparently careless and desecrating approaching to serious matters as family, happiness, guilt and finally truth:
Who took the photograph? What did it show? Did it show that Michael had come home smelling, yet again, of someone else? Did it show that Magnus was a boy so like his father that Eve almost couldn’t bear to sit in the same room with him? Did it show that Astrid was infuriating to Eve, that she deserved to have no father, just as Eve had done most of her life, and was lucky to still have a mother at all?
So, meet the Smarts. First, Eve Smart, disappointed wife and mother, who speaks to herself in answer – question form (a habit taken from her "autobiotruefictinterviews”, a series of books she has been writing), who declares that she is kept motivated by Quantum (and what is Quantum if not the name of her running machine?), who suffers the writer’s block and therefore lies on the floor doing nothing but pretends to work whenever a member of her family is in hearing distance and who will give up her family to reinvent herself as Amber in the end.
Then meet Astrid and Magnus Smart, Eve’s children from a previous marriage, both either patronizing the adults’ world or reinventing theirs. Astrid, maybe the best and the most “serious” built character of the book (one review said the novel is Astrid) is a twelve-year old that studies with precocious detachment the meaning of the world and the word (isn’t this just brilliant – to subtly remind the reader, without being insufferably pedantic, that the world he has entered is made of words?). At the beginning of the novel she “tapes dawns” with her new camera and is obsessed with the word “substandard”. She takes a look around and meditates about “the greenness of the green”, she looks at the sky and imagines an asteroid hurtling towards earth and makes linguistic suppositions as deriving “hurtling” from “hurt”, or discovering that her name is only two-vowels away from “asteroid” which is “a planet on steroids”. She is happy to wander with Amber and will be hurt by her depart, which she will put in the end into the category of “preternatural” the new word she is obsessed with.
Magnus, on the other hand, is a bewildered and fairly ordinary teenager who hides his torment of contributing to the suicide of a colleague by shuttering himself from the outside world. Amber finds him trying to hang himself, saves him and will initiate him into sex and generally help him to put things back in proportion. His epiphany about his own family can also be interpreted as a metaphor of the text itself:
Everybody at this table is in broken pieces which won’t go together, pieces which are nothing to do with each other, like they all come from different jigsaws, all muddled together into the one box by some assistant who couldn’t care less in a charity shop or wherever the place is that old jigsaws go to die. Except jigsaws don’t die.
Finally, meet the funniest of all, mainly because he is most of the time involuntarily funny: Michael Smart, a university professor who has secretly slept with his students for ten years now, but only for the period they were his students, and who suddenly feels his age:
Ten years ago it had been romantic, inspiring, energizing (Harriet, Ilanna, that sweet page-boyed one whose name escaped him now but who still sent a card at Christmas). Five years ago it had been still good (for instance, Kirsty Anderson). Now Michael Smart, with twenty-year-old Philippa Knott jerking about, eyes open, on top of him on his office floor, was worried about his spine.
His happy discovery is that the clichés can be “earth-moving” and of course his life is made of such (more or less) earth-moving clichés – the husband that cheats his wife (and she knows it), the professor that sleeps with his young students (and he will be caught), the middle-aged man that ridiculously falls in love and begins to write love sonnets. One of them, mythologizing Amber’s name, is priceless:
Greek and Roman legend had it the piss
of a wild lynx produced amber. She shone,
hardened and perfected by heat and time.Cat urine everywhere became sublime!
Even though the characters reveal by turn their thoughts in a free indirect style, the novel is not only a 3rd person quartet, but also a 1st person solo. Of course, in order to better muddy the waters, the “I” voice is an unidentified one, although she claims to be named Alhambra, from the name of the cinema where she was conceived. Who is Alhambra? Is she Amber, the deus-ex-machina hammer that dashes to pieces a counterfeit family? Is she Eve, the Amber-to-be? Or is she in fact a clever personification of the silver screen, the blank page, the block of marble, the white canvas that is, the carpet that has become alive and is mercilessly turning itself upside down in order to let it show all the knots of the characters’ personalities, of the narrative techniques, of the of the themes development and so on? And the most important question of all: is The Accidental speaking about accidents that influence our lives or is it speaking about the accidents that create art?
After all, the novel (built by the way in that decisive form meant to cruelly remind us of our own predetermined limits The beginning – The middle – The end) ends with that beautiful promise (or serious warning) art has been waving in front of our eyes since the beginning of humanity:
I’m everything you ever dreamed.