Friday, 6 March 2009

Ali Smith's genius

Well, it's been an awfully long time since I wrote anything here, and I've been reading rather a lot. I'll put a full list up later on, perhaps, but mainly I've been on an Ali Smith binge - I read Girl Meets Boy, Free Love, Like and Hotel World, and I'm going to read Other Stories and Other Stories. I also heard her reading an abridged version of her story 'The First Person' on Radio 4 over half term, and I have to say I was blown away. Her voice is so warm, she reads quickly and lightly, always a tinge of wry humour - you know that no one else could have written those words. I was taken especially by the form of Hotel World - much like The Accidental, it's episodic, divided into chapters and using several different points of view. The last chapter is one long sentence, like the 'Penelope' section of Ulysses, which frankly is a bugger to read but is hard to beat if you're going for the full realisation of stream-of-consciousness writing. Hotel World, more than The Accidental or Girl Meets Boy (both of which alternate points of view), seemed like a cross between short stories and a novel: it gives you various characters around a hotel, meeting each other, remembering the same events, although the narrative does move forward and doesn't simply repeat the story of the previous chapter. Each character has a stylised consciousness - one is even drawn in the third person, which is rare in Smith's novels - and particular, obsessive concerns.

Smith has a particularly good ear for the way in which the brain shortens language, cuts off utterances without bothering or needing to finish them, and the way in which people actually speak - for instance, writing "Fuck sake" instead of "Fuck's sake" or "For fuck's sake", to imitate how this phrase actually manifests itself. She combines this - in 'The First Person', for instance - with playful, almost insanely witty banter: one character is allowed a spiel on how "You're not the first person to ..." Characters in Smith allow each other to talk, are unembarrassed about straying into melodrama or theatricals; the conversations lift themselves above reality whilst echoing it and convincing you at every turn. A girl falling down the lift shaft of a dumb waiter in a hotel? Highly improbable. The characters around her existing and reacting in their own particular words. Unquestionable, after Smith's crafting. She never pretends to be thorough. Her writing is whimsical, it frolics, it meanders. It overjoys and it hurts and it batters you from head to toe with her personality. I want to meet her, I want to have a pint and giggle with her. Could you say that about the flinty, though brilliant, Ian McEwan? Look back at the passage I quoted at some length from Girl Meets Boy, and tell me that isn't the perfectest picture of the intense, chanting, painful joy of falling in love.

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