In her novel shortlisted for the Booker and Whitbread Awards, a strange woman infiltrates, bewitches, and screws over a family's vacation. So why should The Accidental be read for what it says about Iraq?
After terrorism gestated in the national consciousness awhile and the war in Iraq pulled the wool over eyes here and abroad, literature finally quit its silence. 2005 will be remembered as the inaugural year of the post-9/11 novel. Heavyweights Ian McEwan, Jonathan Safran Foer, Frederic Beigbeder, and Michael Cunningham penned subjective worlds in the shadow of terrorism that captured this afterworld or missed their targets, depending on whether you dig Saturday. So far, this year has seen two books follow suit: Deborah Eisenberg's short story collection, Twilight of the Superheros, and Jay McInerney's The Good Life, which even has cover art with photos from 9/11 — Pompeii-like scenes of an abandoned bowl with utensils and a closet of hung clothes, all covered with pulverized concrete from the collapsed towers.
This self-serious club hardly seems the type for Ali Smith, who told Jeanette Winterson in 2003 that she, Smith, looked like a troll. For that matter, Smith's The Accidental, a prismatic stream of conscious about a vacationing middle-class British family and a weird uninvited guest, does not fit this pall-draped category either. The book does, however, tiptoe through the backdoor into territory beyond the post-9/11 novel: the war in Iraq or, more precisely, life on the homefront. (True, Saturday takes place on the day of the real-life protest against the imminent war, but it wrestles more with the anxiety of an era, and the scale of the botched operation in Iraq is only the glimmer of a red dawn.)
The Accidental is by no means about Iraq. Rather, the conflict flickers in the back of the Smart family's minds and disappears or becomes fodder for a self-centered observation about the increasingly bizarre summer in the "substandard" rented house in the boring, rundown town of Norfolk.
The war drifts from the TV to 12-year-old Astrid, obscuring more than it reveals: "The newscasters and the people they are interviewing keep saying that a man went missing and that they have found a body, but nobody will say that the body is anything to do with the man who went missing or vice versa though it is obviously what they mean. It is something to do with the war. The prime minister comes on surrounded by cheering Americans and having his hand shaken by men in suits. After the news a woman in a tv studio talks for ages about what happened to her bowel movements since she started putting her food into special combinations... "
For Astrid's older brother Magnus, left-brained and smitten with the houseguest, Amber, war news is an exercise in reducing things to their core essences: math and sex. When Saddam's sons are killed, Smith writes (i.e., Magnus thinks), "This is a turning point, the tv says. It has broken the back of the war, which will be over in a matter of weeks... They were tyrants = all sorts of torturing, raping, systematic or random killings. A typical human being contains about one hundred billion neurones. A human being = a cell which divides into two then four then etc. It is all a case of multiplication or division... Now to other news: more unrest in the Middle East. Magnus thinks about Amber's middle, her waist, her abdomen, how doing it with her smells like wax melting into heated-up fruit, how the kisses taste of aquarium."
Their mother, Eve, writes popular "autobiotruefictinterviews" (Q&As with real people from World War II who died, imagining they had gone on living) that been criticized as running over with "murky self-indulgence." The war for Eve is evidence of her fussy guilt and difference between her and Magnus, "a boy so strange and unfamiliar that he even announced himself, one night at the dinner table earlier this year, as pro the Iraq war — a war about which Eve still felt a bit guilty, albeit in a measured way, about not doing more, about not having concentrated on more, what with being so busy worrying about being unable to start the new book."
These passages are about as far as the war goes in The Accidental, barely constituting the characters' mental wallpaper. Smith is interested in Amber recklessly insinuating herself into the life of each character and, irrevocably but inevitably, changing it, like the music notation that alters tone whose name the title borrows. Yet because the war is happening right now, and since the book never escapes one mind except to slide mercurially inside another, this leitmotif of a brutal, faraway saga stands out with objective weight and detail. Not just Amber becomes an accidental — a feature that is out of place — but the war does as well.
One of the book's epigraphs by Nick Cohen draws a bead on the one element that the war sets in relief: "Shallow uniformity is not an accident but a consequence of what Marxists optimistically call late capitalism." Coddled by middle-class complacency, mired in creative and sexual dysfunction, the Smarts are the model for today's bourgeoisie. They have the luxury of not fully apprehending their lives, since they are too bent on avoiding one another and falling under the devil-may-care spell of Amber, so how could they ever take meaningful notice of the war, much less action? For that matter, how, as readers, could we? the book asks, cheekily.
The idea of truly seeing things without illusions and screens — television, movie, self-imposed, and socially created ones — is a big deal in The Accidental, especially for Astrid. She has been "taping dawns" each morning with her digital camera until Amber hurls it off a pedestrian bridge into traffic. She thinks that Magnus says "example of very similitude" about a drawing by Amber. She is obsessed with "i.e." for clarification the way Magnus is with "=." She muses on a family photo: "It is a moment of what Amber literally saw through the tiny camera window. That is amazing to think of it like that, like them all fixed like that, standing outside the house like that forever, but really being something no more than a split second long inside Amber's head." For so much meditation on seeing and understanding, it adds up to very little until the book is about to snuff itself out, and images of the war almost show Eve how she truly sees everything.
While on a U.S. book tour, Eve takes a trip to locate her father's home, where he mostly lived during her childhood with a second family he preferred. She finds a likely ramshackle candidate for it, then idly glances at her newspaper. "There was a picture on the front of it in a bodybag. The man was clearly dead. He had the empty clayey look of the not-long-gone," writes Ali. "There was a report about a woman in her seventies. One day they took her out of her cell. They snarled a dog at her and they made her go down on all fours like a dog. A soldier sat on her back and rode her round the prison courtyard like a horse. There were pictures of a lot of prisoners-of-war who were made, by dog and at gunpoint, to strip. Then the soldiers put bags over their heads. Then they were piled up, naked, one on top of the other into a hive of live bodies and the soldiers had had their photographs taken smiling as if at a family party over the top of the pile of people."
For the first time, by absorbing Abu Gharib, Eve's mid-life self-scrutiny is replaced by honest receptivity and awareness. And then "something quite mysterious happened the more she looked at the pictures. She knew it was supposed to happen like that, that although these photographs were a signal to the eyes about something really happening, the more she looked the less she felt or thought." Images of torture are not torture, so Eve does not know "whether to keep on looking or stop looking. There was no answer to it. It was itself an answer."
The devastation of "There was no answer to it. It was itself an answer" sounds remarkably like Samuel Beckett's "I can't go on. I go on." Eve writes her books in the style of the second to last chapter of Ulysees, with pithy queries to the dead of another war (a structure that Smith uses for Eve's first chapter). But when faced with a similarly incisive question reflected inward, she cannot answer it, and neither can the reader.
Almost as startling is the strikingly American scene, suffused with an anti-war aura, that Smith paints almost out of nowhere. Sitting in the dead of night in a foreign country on a stranger's property, Eve thinks again of "of the dead man in the bodybag whose dead face, made of miniscule dots of print, had been reproduced millions of times and sent all round the world and was, right now, folded under her arm, already outdated. She thought of the smiling girl soldier. She thought of the girl's own eyes, her erect obscene thumb. They were reproduced in the same kind of ink and in the same kind of tiny dots as the man's dead eye. The dead weren't the problem. The dead could look after themselves. Eve was beginning to grieve for the living. Was there any point in it, sitting outside on the porch of a dark empty house with its rag of flag hung by its front door?" Contemporary American fiction lacks a moment as delicate, raw, and timely about the Iraq war as this one.
War typically rears its head first in short stories and poetry, such as Here, Bullet by Iraqi infantry leader Brian Turner, and then in that dirty word nowadays, the memoir. Even civilians rarely write about an ongoing war in novels before men have left the battlefield. So it is pleasantly unexpected that Smith did exactly that in such a subtle, indirect fashion that it might have even happened by accident. But probably not.
Between the Covers is a biweekly book review and publishing analysis.