Thursday, February 16, 2006

500 books in 52 weeks: #2 <i>The Accidental</i>

At SAT tutoring this past weekend, we ran into some trouble with the term "allusion" in our course of studying confusing word pairs – in this case, Allusion v. Illusion. It's like the Marbury v. Madison of vocabulary review! Ohhhh no sense, no sense. Anyways, my kids are a tad fobby so I had some trouble coming up with examples of specific literary allusions.

Allusions, they're kinda neat; they're sort of like literary (hyper)links 'cept uhhh ... harder. Instead of the easy clicking, you have to be knowledgeable enough to make those smrt neurons a synaps-in'.

Here's where we get to the meat of the burger: #2 of 500, Ali Smith's The Accidental, finalist for the 2005 Booker (and we love the bookers, not the hookers), because this book is dizzying with allusions. The neurons will tire and say, please! We need a hot chocolate break! Everything from Plato's allegory of the cave to the Little House on the Prairie TV show and toothy Melissa Gilbert to old movies and the Sound of Music and literary theory and Beyoncé and beyond is referenced. In fact, this novel feels startingly contemporary, with a vague backdrop of the Iraq war and an overall ADD-addled postmodern (is that term passé? whatever) treatment. It's strange because we are (I am) so used to literature inhabiting either or both a timeless and historical context and this sort of 'here and now'-ness plus the improvisational style brought blogs and the internet and ritalin to mind, not necessarily (but sometimes) in a negative light.

So, The Accidental is a book that requires patience. Smith riffs on various writerly formats, mixing and matching, and generally mashing it all up. We're introduced to one of the characters in an insouciant Q&A. We whiz by clichés and self-reflexive comment on said clichés. We try not to skim through the section told through variation/disintegration of the formal sonnet. And I have no idea why I'm lapsing into the royal "we".
Despite this grabbag of literary tricks, I just had to tell myself a couple times to be patient. I did want to see more 'regular' prose or more judicious use of all those references and frankly, a little less tidy-ness of plot, a little less writerly self-consciousness, because some of the writing is just so, so good by itself, with convincing points of view and narration and scattered spikes of humor, the kind that's actually funny.
This is a story of a family. Two kids (Smith writes these particularly well), Astrid and Magnus, and their parents, Eve and Michael offer us windows into their lives. Individually and as a family, they are not floating along but in some unhealthy stasis. They are becoming stuck in the mud: Astrid has some serious growing pains, Magnus some dangerous self loathing, Eve is a frustrated writer and Michael is yet another professor who has affairs with his female students (is that all professors, always male, in literature do?). Brother-sister-mother-father-daughter-son combinations all not so close, not so good.
This begins to change with the unexplained arrival of the character of our mysterious 'accidental' – Amber (who has many other names) who claims her car has broken down. Nobody, including the reader, really knows or will get to know who she is, but she remains at the house, and her radical interactions with everybody (surprise, surprise) slowly start the family boat bobbing along the river again and these family members start to finally WAKE UP and grow into, for lack of a better description, palatable people.
Amber is supposed to be a strange character but we're left in a bog of questions, flailing arms and synapses and asking, well geez, who is she? Why is she staying there? Why aren't all the characters more curious and asking the same questions? Amber is the precipitate of all the action without providing much self or substance of her own. (Did I use 'precipitate' right there?) Is she a collective hallucination (I hate this explanation for plots)? Am I taking the character too realistically? Cuz that question sounds ridiculous. This is actually the kind of character might work better in a movie, because we see less explicitly into people's heads. Or maybe my brain's fizzling.
But the conceit, or whatever, of Amber and her role as the title - accidental - is kind of neat. The excellent Michael Shaub (from bookslut offers an explanation of 'accidental', the noun, in a SF Chronicle review: a bird who somehow doesn't belong in a place, from winds or whatever weather, is called a vagrant or accidental. But actually, what makes more sense to me is the musical term, "accidental" – a note that doesn't belong in the key of a piece, but changes the whole tone/nature/character of the sound. Amber's the brightening, enrichening accidental of this book's key but we don't know whether she's a c-sharp or e-flat or what. But the resulting music's kinda nice.

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