pulp (2006-02)

Staring at the Sun

Smith squints at the modern familial condition

by Jonathan B. Frey

Early in Scottish author Ali Smith’s new novel, The Accidental (Pantheon), a young girl describes the experience of staring into the sun: “One second is too much. Her eyes clam shut. Inside them is all flashing light. When she opens them she can’t see anything except the circle of the sun she looked at, bright orange. She closes them again. The outside world shifts on her eyes, like an inside photograph. The inside photograph is laid over the outside world when she opens them.” Her description reveals one meaning of the novel’s title—the lingering impact of intense brightness, its ability to alter perception—and the framework for Smith’s Booker-shortlisted and often hilarious account of one family’s oddly disrupted holiday.

England, summer 2003: The Smart family—mother Eve (writer), father Michael (English professor), son Magnus (age 17), and daughter Astrid (12)—has rented a vacation house in Norfolk. Each, in third-person singular, shares his or her perception: Astrid, bored, resorts to staring at the sun and recording a sequence of morning dawns on her Sony digital; Magnus withdraws to his room, tormented by a suicide at school for which he is indirectly responsible; Michael fluctuates between exuberance and depression after a recent student conquest; and Eve lies in bed, frustrated at the lack of progress on her next book and her husband’s continued philandering.

Into this cosseted middle-class ennui arrives Amber, unknown and uninvited, a literary riff “born in the year of the supersonic, the era of the multistory multivitamin multitonic, the highrise time of men with the technology and women who could be bionic, when jump-jets were Harrier, when the QE2 was Cunard, when thirty-eight feet tall the Princess Margaret stood stately in her hoverpad, the année érotique was only thirty aircushioned minutes away and everything went at twice the speed of sound. I opened my eyes. It was all in colour. It didn’t look like Kansas anymore. The students were on the barricades, the mode was maxi, the Beatles were transcontinental, they opened a shop. It was Britain. It was great.” Michael thinks Amber has arrived to interview Eve, Eve perceives Amber to be an older student Michael is seducing, Magnus and Astrid are too adolescent to care, and all are too self-absorbed to communicate their thoughts to each other. Somewhat predictably Amber seduces, literally or figuratively, the entire family with her intensity and sexy insouciance. The end is at turns comic and poignant as each family member is profoundly affected even well after Eve throws Amber out.

The Accidental presents a collision of classic literary archetypes: Amber, the mysterious and god-like stranger who abruptly arrives and equally abruptly departs, transforming everything in her wake; Astrid, the cranky pre-teen daughter who barely tolerates her family and finds particular fault with her mother; Magnus, the tortured male teen who achieves sexual coming of age with an older woman; Michael, the pedantic and incurable letch discovering the emptiness of his sexual skirmishing; and Eve, the mother goddess, well aware of her family’s tendencies, nevertheless protective. However, Smith salvages each from pure stereotype by enlarging them with discerning authenticity, capturing their highly individual perceptions, all the while documenting their transformation.

Witness Astrid in response to her mother’s prohibition against mentioning Amber: “This had made Astrid recite, every time the car came to a traffic light junction…green, amber, red…. When her mother worked out why she was doing it she went insane at Astrid and there were all sorts of shouting and demanding. So Astrid went undercover…. She asked Magnus questions in front of their mother about the kind of music called ambient. She talked out loud in the car about the way a cow was ambling along….” Or Michael, lusting for Amber, awakens to being a middle-aged cliché and develops a lecture on the subject: “Deeply exciting, though, cliché was, as a concept. It was truth misted by overexpression, wasn’t it, like a structure seen in a fog, something waiting to be re-felt, re-seen. Something dainty fumbled at through thick gloves. Cliché was true, obviously, which was why it had become cliché in the first place; so true that cliché actually protected you from its own truth by being what it was, nothing but cliché. Advertising, for example, loved cliché because it was a kind of pure mob truth.”

Organized into three chapters entitled “The Beginning,” “The Middle,” and “The End,” each further subdivided into the sequential perspectives of the characters, The Accidental occasionally feels programmatic, excessively deliberate. However, this minor shortcoming does not detract from Smith’s overarching achievement: a clever treatise on the pliability of human perception as revealed through an early 21st-century family’s preoccupations and discontent.