Digging through a used bag of narrative tricks
By Giles Harvey
Like all novels, Ali Smiths The Accidental is about the horror of families. In England it has been named Whitbread Novel of the Year and has garnered an almost unanimous praise. One critic wrote that Smith is one of our greatest imaginative writers. Another critic (myself) is not so sure.
The story takes place in and around a Norfolk cottage where the Smarts, paragons of British bourgeois complacency, are spending their summer vacation. This moneyed clan consists of mother Eve, author of vapid and popular mock-biographies; stepfather Michael, academic and talented adulterer; son Magnus, teenage and guilt-wracked; and twelve-year old daughter Astrid, who we are clearly meant to like and, for the most part, do. Into their china shop of standard neuroses and resentments lurches Amber, an unexpected visitor, barefoot, unwashed, and reeking of pharisaic hippiedom.
That we perceive only the contours of Ambers consciousness is a deliberate ploy on Smiths part: with the exception of a series of first-person interludes, which quite intentionally reveal nothing about her (other than that she knows a lot about the history of cinema), we are as much in the dark about the Smarts unannounced guest as they are. Obviously we are supposed to find Amber mysterious and captivating, and to relish the brusque method of family therapy she practices, but this reader soon tired of her bland and querulous anarchism (Cars are a very bad idea in such a polluted world) and industrial strength cynicism (Is that it? Is that the highpoint, the true-blue, the secret-that-cant-be-told everything-must-go ultimate all-singing all-dancing story-of-you?), and longed for the duped Smarts to tell this prating quack not to let the door hit her on the way out.
Artistically speaking, Amber doesnt ruin everything. From her study of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and other rarified gods of literature, Smith has acquired an impressive bag of narrative tricks, from which she duly pulls a chapter-length catechism, an entropic sonnet sequence, and a verbally astute snapshot of adolescent stream of consciousness. This last feat we have to thank for the existence of Astrid, whose restless speculations and energizing clear-sightedness are the best thing about the book. Here she is back in London:
Astrid looks down the road. Then she looks up the road. There are a few people walking around, getting into cars etc., but nobody she recognizes. It is not as if she is expecting to see anyone she recognizes. But it is what your eyes do. They look at people who are strangers to see if they arent strangers.
It is possible to have too much of a good thing, however, including narrative pyrotechnics. The treatment of Michaels sexual frustrations, for example, after he realizes he will never get to sleep with Amber, is really an imaginative deficit posing as a technical coup de théâtre. Most critics have been too dazzled by the fact that the chapter dealing with Michaels adulterous yearnings is written in verse (!) to notice that its glib whimsy (Were Ambers eyes anything like the sun?) acts as a kind of unintentional self-bowdlerization. What could have been authentically dangerous and racy becomes merely droll. Indeed, for a novel in which there is so much sex (both real and imagined), The Accidental is curiously tame, even frumpy.
Woolf once said, Let us be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind. This is a book that explicitly asks us to make such comparisons. It does not survive them.