The Accidental by Ali Smith
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

21/05/05, The Times

After all those sullied orthodoxies and self-serving lies about strong story and sympathetic characters mouthed by publishing gurus, Ali Smith’s third novel, The Accidental, is a shot across the bows, a clarion call, the first line of a revolutionary manifesto. For a start, there is no ‘strong plot’ so beloved of those who want readers to remain spoon-fed and infantilised forever. Instead, there is a mosaic of voices, each singing its aria in its allocated space but also, in cunning links and reverberations, illuminating the other voices and filling out other stories.

Jean-Luc Godard was once asked whether he believed a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end; he answered, ‘Yes, but not necessarily in that order’. As if to talk to that point playfully, Smith’s novel is divided into three sections titled ‘The beginning’, ‘The middle’, and ‘The end’, but within these, the microdivisions of story and sequence, the controlled release of information, are less linear than those headings would imply. And in a book where the voice that forms the interstices of the three sections pays explicit homage to the history of cinema, to its illusions and epiphanies, the story seems to be indebted to Pasolini’s 1968 film, Theorem, in which a beautiful stranger appears in the middle of a bourgeois family, seduces every single member and consigns them to insanity. (It is perhaps no coincidence that the birth of this voice is stated by Smith to be in the same year, too).

That, very briefly, is also the bare story of The Accidental: the ruptures, breakages and enlightenments caused by a stranger named Amber who turns up at the rented Norfolk holiday home of Eve and Michael Flint where they are spending the summer with Eve’s children, twelve-year old Astrid and seventeen-year old Magnus. Eve, a writer of counterfactual histories centred on the imagined afterlives of ordinary people who died young, is facing writer’s block and the nagging suspicion that she is a fraud. Michael Flint, English lecturer, urbane, overeducated, and compulsive adulterer, habitually sleeps with his female students. Astrid is sullen and bored, trying to find both escape and focus with her digital camera by filming the everyday ordinary. Magnus, budding mathematics genius, in the deepest slough of despond because he holds himself responsible for the suicide of fellow-student Catherine Masson, refuses to emerge from his bedroom.
Amber seduces Magnus, befriends Aster, bewitches Michael, looks through Eve, turns their lives inside out, then disappears. The final section of the book explores the different freedoms each has been released into, whether it’s the liberation of being able to articulate aloud one’s guilt, or of ending a life and beginning another that begins to mimic, in a wicked circular twist, the events that have pushed one to it.

As with her astonishing first novel, Like, Smith leaves out more than she puts in; it is left to the intelligence of the reader to make the connections, draw the threads together, fill in the gaps in the story. Who is Amber? From where has she materialised? What are her motives? How much contempt is felt for the middle-class morass in which Eve’s family is mired? Is there euphoria in the destruction of their lives, the way they implode and transform? There are no clear-cut answers, only teasing hints and spectral traces. It is a kind of writing that is nothing short of an enormous vote of confidence in her readers’ imagination, an invitation to a true, joyous interaction. Take for example the stream-of-consciousness in which each voice is written. It encapsulates the rush and hum and crazy dance of thought, be it the sultry ennui of a twelve-year old’s, the crippling, slow-motion, depressive reiterations of a teenager’s, or the allusive register of the lecherous literary don’s: all are magically alive, true and clear as a bell, but demanding the reader’s interception all the time to connect, unlock, look back and forth. It’s all in your hands, Smith seems to be saying to the reader. Her sentences are like tuning forks – you can use them to test the pitch of everything else.

She plays dizzying games with her story and her language, she bends and buckles her prose, breathes fire into it, lets it cool, swirls it up in unimaginable shapes. This is writing as rapture, as giddy delight. For those who subscribe to the self-flagellating critical orthodoxy that all revolutionary, groundbreaking, original fiction originates on the other side of the Atlantic, here’s a book to rethink their position.
Especially when the new novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, one of America’s true originals, appears to be such a mistake. Foer is no fool but he has rushed in where others would fear to tread and his ‘September 11’ novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is fatally marred by choosing as its subject an event that clearly requires more assimilation by history before it can be written about without an emotion that occasionally careens over into sentimentality.

Nine-year old Oskar Schell has lost his father, Thomas, in the World Trade Centre attacks. He discovers an envelope marked ‘Black’ in a corner of his closet where he has secretly stowed away some of the things owned by his father. The envelope contains a key Oskar is convinced will open a lock somewhere in the five boroughs of New York and let him into the secret that his father was prevented from disclosing to him.  As deferred grieving, this quest is a stroke of genius on Foer’s part, but this is just one of the many different narratives the novel interlaces. There is a letter to Oskar from his grandmother, survivor of the bombing of Dresden, giving him the history of her tragic life with his grandfather, Thomas, another Dresden refugee. There is yet another series of letters, from Oskar’s grandfather, the elder Thomas Schell, who fled back to Dresden when he found out his wife was pregnant, a direct contravention of the rules they had established at the beginning of their idiosyncratic and anguished marriage. From Dresden he writes long, unpunctuated letters to his son, Thomas, that he never sends. When Thomas senior does return to the US, after forty years, it is to discover that his son has died in the terrorist attack and that his only grandson, Oskar, who doesn’t know him, is trying to enlist his help to dig up his father’s grave.

‘I’m always inventing’, says Oskar, as he spins off fantasies that allow him to tolerate somehow his increasingly ‘heavy boots’ – his term for the sadness at his irreparable loss. Foer’s problem is one of frenetic invention, too. Page after page stands testimony to what can only be called the nerd’s obsessive hoarding of trivial factoids. It isn’t any less entertaining for that but it cumulatively confers on the book a posturing glibness and on the reader, a mounting irritation with its precocious protagonist. 

What Foer is stitching together is nothing short of a history of human destruction – there is a horrifying account of Hiroshima thrown in as well – and the seam that picks out a possibility of salvation in this relentlessly bleak tale is love, yet for all that his book is shot through with gold, the overall effect is of more-bangs-for-bucks trickery. There is no doubting his enormously empathetic heart but its beats are drowned out by the clamour and circus of the pervasive noise characteristic of his generation, aptly christened ‘IQs with iBooks’ by the critic James Wood. So photographs, blank pages, not-so-blank pages, pages where the type is squeezed and compacted to an illegible canvas of black ink, doodles, coloured circles marking mistakes, flick-the-pages set of pictures, hyperactive typographical high jinks, all cartwheel and strut around his clever pages, making the title of the novel also its tone and its timbre. Here is arid, hermetic experimentation, games that don’t advance either story or characterisation but just showcase its writer’s undeniably fine, engaged mind. One wants to shout for dampers, or perhaps, whisper for them.