Sunday, January 25, 2009

NYTBR gets Ali Smith wrong

It's been a while since I've had the opportunity to rag on the New York Times Book Review. Today's the day, thanks to Maria Russo's review of Ali Smith's new book The First Person and Other Stories. In the review's very first line Russo refers to Ali Smith as a British writer. Ali Smith is in fact Scottish. Her country is colonized, occupied, by Britain. Pity the reviewer can't keep the two nationalities straight. I can't assert for certain that Ali Smith's identity--all of it, her working-class background, her Scottish nationality, her lesbianism--is integral to how she approaches her art, but I am sure that misunderstanding anything about this brilliant writer hampers a fair reading of her work. Now then. Russo's review of Smith's new book is generally positive, but a good one-third of it is taken up with deriding the author's world view. There are the usual complaints about Smith's "leftist politics" and "mini-lectures" and "too preachy" writing and her "stormy dismissal of the dominant culture." Wow--sounds great to me! I'll be picking this book up and adding it to my tottering to-read pile as soon as possible.

I've read several of Ali Smith's books. The one that blew me away is Hotel World, which combines breathtakingly lyrical, innovative writing with a sharp, clear-eyed, harsh class consciousness that is rare in contemporary fiction--or should I say that we in North America rarely get to see. Check out the first line, complete with loopy vertiginous echoes of Mrs. Dalloway:
hooooooo what a fall what a soar what a plummet what a dash into dark into light what a plunge what a glide thud crash what a drop what a rush what a swoop what a fright what a mad hushed skirl what a smash mush mash-up broke and gashed what a heart in my mouth what an end.
This is the first-person narrator, a hotel maid, at the moment of her death. The rest of the novel takes us through the events that brought her here, events that have everything to do with class society, with women's oppression, with heterosexism. It is a tour de force and if it were the only book Ali Smith ever wrote it would earn her a place on my favorite authors list.

The Accidental, which won the Whitbread Award a couple years ago, is, not surprisingly, Smith's one book that fell flat for me. As a purely literary exercise it is interesting. But it didn't resonate with me at all. Her next, in 2007, was the lovely but slight Girl Meets Boy. I'm hopeful, precisely because of the NYTBR's digs against it for being too overtly political, that with The First Person Ali Smith is back to passionately engaged, full-throated form.