The Accidental

by Ali Smith
320 pages,
ISBN: 0241141907

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Caustic Light in the Dark
by Ross Wilson

The Accidental begins with a meditation on beginnings, as though we have been invited to witness the conception and gestation of the book itself. Does day begin with dawn? Does a personality begin in the womb? Is the beginning different for everyone? It would seem so, for The Accidental begins anew with each new chapter, offering the perspectives of its characters as refracted through the lens of a third-person narrator. Subtle changes within the characters become apparent as the novel progresses. They begin again and again as though reborn to grow up and grow out of themselves into different people.
Astrid is a twelve-year-old who "wants to know" things. Bullied at school, precocious, a bit of a dreamer, she sets off with her camera "taping dawns" for "research and archive". Astrid's voice catches our attention like a breeze moving to and fro in a free indirect style in which the big questions are handled with the playfulness of a young, agile mind: "Of course science can prove, typical and ironic, that her hand is not actually hitting the chair by dividing down the distance smaller and smaller. She hits it again. Ow." Everything in Astrid's world is "substandard", boring, asleep; only she is awake, inquisitive, scavenging images from the "dump" she lives in, for "there is nothing else to do here."
"Here" is the "boring nowhere" Norfolk holiday home where Astrid, her brother Magnus, mother Eve, and "wankstain" stepfather Michael are to spend the summer.
Astrid's teenage brother Magnus is even smarter than she is, but his voice is less alluring, with a repetitiveness that can be annoying. Magnus, we learn, is immobilised by guilt due to his part in the death of a girl who killed herself after he superimposed a photograph of her face onto the image of a naked woman. "They took her head. They put it on the other body. Even though it was a lie it became true. It became more her than her." As a result of his actions Magnus finds himself awakened from an "illusion of innocence", and now refers to his younger self as "Hologram Boy". His dream childhood has turned into an existential nightmare, one choice having changed everything so that now "everything is pointless".
While Magnus manipulates the images of real people online and sees words as pointless, his mother, Eve, resurrects real people through fiction, imagining what might have become of them had they lived longer. Eve has had some success with her "Genuine Article" novel series, but she is experiencing a crisis of confidence. Like Magnus, Eve feels she has fallen from innocence (her first husband was called Adam). Nostalgic for the past, Eve speaks of a golden age of perpetual summers and unlocked doors. Though her first marriage was no Garden of Eden, Eve yearns for her lost innocence, for a "hologram self". Her husband Michael "doesn't find beginnings hard, and is always beginning something new", but Eve is disturbed by unforeseen turns, preferring life to resemble the formulaic novels in which she completes the incomplete lives of World War II victims.
Michael, a philandering English lecturer, is like a guest from a Philip Roth novel; he's conscious of getting older, but does not let this, or his wife and stepchildren, stop him from sleeping with his young female students. There are parallels between Michael and Magnus to such a degree that it seems Smith is suggesting that M is for Man and all men think with an organ that plays one tune only. However, sensitivity and a sense of responsibility are present in both characters, and Smith's women are just as captivated as her men when a mysterious woman arrives to live with the family.
No one knows who Amber is or where she comes from, only that her car has broken down and that she has nowhere to stay. Or so she says. A hairy- legged neo-hippie non-conformist, Amber is the traffic light demanding we pause before convention, making us question the flow of traffic we find ourselves in, the "fixed directions" our lives are set to like "escalators going round and round". Amber has the hypnotic charisma of a manipulative politician. Everyone wants to be with her, to impress her, yet she is nasty to them all-a blatantly unpleasant, bluntly rude "demonstration of magnetic gravity". Amber sees a world in which a consumer culture consumes individuals only to regurgitate superficial uniformity. She is like an actor from the theatre of cruelty, shocking each family member out of their complacency, reminding them they need not subscribe to preconceived ideas that "girls have to be a certain way, boys have to be a certain way." Leading life differently "will mean walking against the crowd," Magnus realises as he walks out of a cinema in which he imagined a modern-day Plato's cave. Amber is like the man who turned his back on the shadows to embrace the light only to return later, disturbing those who had become adjusted to the absence of light. But the parallels in this novel are manifold, and it is Eve, not Magnus, who grasps that "Amber means lamps lit in the dark." Amber really is a lamp in the dark brightening the mirror ahead of each character, enlightening them about their personal limits and constraints, and somehow giving them the strength to smash through the false image of themselves and start anew. When the Smarts come back to their home and find an empty house, it is as though Amber has emptied their cave of its shadows both metaphorically and literally.
The Accidental is stunning in places. Near the end, however, I felt something had been lost, that the characters, poured so strongly onto the page at the outset, had been diluted by wordplay and a gimmicky sonnet sequence in the middle. At times Smith's talent seems to betray its own magic: we might not see how it's done but are made aware of it being done; the spell is broken as it is cast. However, the complexity, the willingness to take risks, the sheer ambition here are admirable, though perhaps the real accomplishment is Smith's refusal to take the same easy route that Eve takes with her "life affirming", her "Genuine Articles". As in life, nothing is ever too clear, even for the very smart Smarts, and Smith smartly refuses to shed too much light, choosing instead to leave her readers, as Dr. Chekhov once described his own readers to a friend, the jury.

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