Sunday, September 18, 2011

Diners' Club

This appeared in today's DNA.


What if a stranger comes to dinner and turns the lives of the hosts upside down? That was the premise of Ali Smith’s last novel, The Accidental. What if an acquaintance comes to dinner and refuses to leave? That’s the premise of her new novel, There But For The.

The plot, such as it is, is pithily summed up right at the start: “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.” It’s a sentence that encompasses as well as sets off the events of book, in somewhat the same manner as the first page of Toni Morrisson’s Jazz provides the plot in a nutshell, leaving the author free to riff on it thereafter.

The setting is a tony neighbourhood in Greenwich, and Smith makes use of all the metaphorical associations of the area, from the implications of time’s passage to the underground foot tunnel. The novel comprise discrete episodes that range over past and present, delving into the lives and thoughts of those known to Miles, the intractable guest. There’s Anna, who met him during a European holiday many years ago; Mark, the acquaintance who brought Miles to the dinner in the first place; May, the elderly relative; and most of all the precocious ten-year-old Brooke, daughter of the neighbours  (reminiscent of the intelligent 12-year-old in The Accidental).  As the days pass and Miles refuses to emerge or communicate, barring through handwritten slips of paper pushed under the door, he becomes a minor celebrity in the area, with people believing that his actions mirror their individual concerns.

Smith’s style, as with her previous work, resembles nothing so much as an intelligent, loquacious conversationalist, albeit one who looks at you sideways. Truman Capote’s early novels were recently termed “the literature of the backward glance”; Smith’s writing can be said to deal with the glance that is oblique. The indirectness can prove to be a frustration on occasion, but there’s a probing intelligence and questioning of established verities that rise off almost every page. There is also much wordplay and punning, as well as some execrable ‘knock-knock’ jokes. All of this, however, indicates a concern with the way language is used to communicate as well as obfuscate. As one character says: “I only joke about really serious things”.

Smith’s targets range from the way technology shapes experience to the way we fetishize the actions of those who, in however small a way, stand out or go against the grain. A comment on Brooke’s report card, in fact, could well be a summing up of the author’s particular talents: “Her verbal dexterity is notable and she is wonderfully imaginative and of course we do not have a problem with that or with either of these things. But sometimes her infectious imagination can be vertiginous for her peers”.

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