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The Accidental - Too Contemporary


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katrina 9th May 2006 09:24 PM

Hey guys, I know most people haven't really enjoyed this book but I still wanted to discuss some aspects of it before this book closes, which is looking likely to be very soon.

I personally found this book far to contemporary and too rooted in this last couple of years. I don't understand how any editor/publisher expects this book to work as a work of literature or in a decades time.

For example, the reference to Richard and Judy's book club (p 80), (Eve wants one of here books to be featured as a book group read) I found screamingly self-referential, its as if Smith is calling out 'PICK ME!!!!! I mentioned you!! just came across as unnecessary and awful. Actually had me underlining the notes I felt compelled to write on this.

I also thought the mention of the recent murders of children (such as Molly and Damalola Taylor (sp?) was just awful, I presume their families would have been warned or asked permission that these references were featured, but to me it just seemed sickening, their names don't need to appear in fiction just to be glossed over. I can understand mentions of war as this is something that crosses time and countries, there's no need to bring individuals into this novel.

Adrian 9th May 2006 09:41 PM

Hey guys, I know most people haven't really enjoyed this book but I still wanted to discuss some aspects of it before this book closes, which is looking likely to be very soon.

The discussions never "close" for a particular book, and even when we eventually move on to another book, you can still post new threads or continue old ones on this or any other previous book.

I'm guessing this is in response to me starting nominations for the next read. I only did so as there wasn't much discussion on The Accidental (even the nominator hasn't posted about it), so thanks for kick-starting the discussion!

I haven't read The Accidental, so I can't comment on your actual post. :tapedshut

Momo 9th May 2006 10:32 PM

As I already mentioned under "First Impressions", at one point I thought, am I reading a novel or is this a movie theatre flyer. She was just quoting the plot of different movies. I didn't recognize all of them but just a few made me realize that the whole chapter seemed to be one movie after another. Couldn't believe it. What if I hadn't known any of the movies. Would I have understood what she was talking about? Well, I didn't really understand what she meant a lot of times but this one was really weird. The same with some other book plots. Is this how you write contemporary fiction, just list the plots of popular books and movies and then you have an interesting story? :thinking: Obviously not.

katrina 10th May 2006 05:17 PM

Hey I also missed out on a lot of those film mentions, were obviously before my time, made it really annoying, and like she was showing off about all the things she could reel off in one chapter - or maybe she just needed to fill a few more pages! Definately not a book that I'll be keeping on my shelf for future reads.

Momo 10th May 2006 11:15 PM

Hey I also missed out on a lot of those film mentions, were obviously before my time.

I don't think they were before your time, the ones I did know were contemporary (like Love Actually, the only one I remember right now without checking back, because she was going on about that one for quite a while).

judemarg 13th May 2006 11:00 AM

I don't think this book is 'too contemporary', it simply is contemporary and to my mind very post-modern with its play with the printed word, for example the chapter heading 'The Middle'. All the sub-chapter following begin with The Middle.

I think the part where the film plots are listed was Amber's thinking. (I think we're meant to be inside the characters minds when they're speaking aren't we?) And the point is that she was conceived in a cinema and its something that her mother (who seems to be as crackers as Amber) probably made her aware of.

I dislike all the characters. I'm only up to page 178-just over half way- but have found nothing to make me feel good. Are there really men like Michael around? For an English professor or whatever he's meant to be his poetry is pretty rubbish. They have no idea of the value of money - who in their right minds buys a 12 year old a £2,000 camera? And Magnus needs a reality check.

The Observer review which is printed on the front of my copy calls it sexy. Well while it is full of sex none of the sex is very sexy most of it comes across as quite sordid.

I will finish it because I'm curious if Ali Smith will do the right thing and give her characters the come-uppance they deserve. It's not getting completely on my nerves either.



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judemarg 15th May 2006 09:50 AM


So I was just thinking some more about the use of film plots and indeed song lyrics to punctuate the characters thoughts.

In our house we do it quite a lot although we tend to do it out loud, as we do actually talk to each other! The usual is 'that's a que for a song' and we can find lyrics to fit situations.


And of course all sorts of people use soap operas to gauge their lives by - 'o that's just what happened to so-and-so in Emmerdale (or whatever)' My sister is particularly good at living her life just like a soap opera. Although I'm sure that Eve and Michael wouldn't dream of sitting down after tea with a cup of coffee and Eastenders - way too working class.


So perhaps if Amber was brought up with films as her constant entertainment, companions, background to her life then she would think of film plots to describe herself.


Getting close to the end now




megustaleer 15th May 2006 02:50 PM


I also found this book 'too contemporary'; was uncomfortable with reference to Damilola Taylor, and not being a movie goer probably missed many of the film references. And yes, the R&J Bookclub? Definitely hoping for a bit of mutual backscratching :D


The question is, do the latest breed of writers care if their books become classics or not?

In these days of instant gratification, and disposability perhaps all they want is massive sales to a contemporary readership, and connecting with the target consumers' everyday experience is a quick way in.


Or maybe I'm just cynical?


There are books of the sixties and seventies that are regarded as classics of their time, but I just think are dreadfully dated...because I was there :o

I expect others find them quaint and historic! :rolleyes:




Flingo 27th May 2006 11:04 PM


I completely agree - there was so much of this that is going to disappear in a couple of years time. Some of it has lost its edge already.


I picked up on the Love Actually reference although I couldn't remember the name of the film (kept thinking of Down with Love!).


I'm not sure the child abduction bit was quite as obvious, and may have a longer shelf-life. In future people will not be able to name the children but will be able to relate to the circumstances and these will probably just seem fictionalised.




tagesmann 2nd October 2006 02:42 PM


I've only just read this book but wanted to add my comments.


I too thought I was going to find the style challenging. But I was quite happy with it and didn't find it interfered with the story (which so often happens). I too was very uncomfortable with the real life references to people like Damilola Taylor and Milly Dowler. In fact it was unforgivable of Ms Smith. There was no need.




Jaybee 17th November 2006 06:23 PM


I have just come across this thread - with only a few pages to go before The Accidental will be the Book of the Month at the next meeting of our local Book Group. I have really struggled with it and almost abandoned it after only a few pages, but remembered it was my turn to lead the discussion.

Post-modern or a contemporary version of our old allegorical friend - the uninvited guest? Haven't we met Michael before - in Disgrace and elsewhere?

As for "innovative, creative writing" I thought stream of consciousness had been around for a very long time ! Sexy, erotic or pornographic - the edges certainly blur in this book.

Many allusions resonate with themes from films of the 1960's - cf. confusion between illusion/reality in Blow Up (Losey 1966); or:- young woman, not as innocent as she seems, enters, uninvited, the home of a University lecturer undergoing mid-life crisis -Accident (Losey 1967). Other example lurk in the text.

The book seems to be about people seeing/hearing or not seeing/hearing only what they choose ; it portrays a society distracted from the reality of the times they live in by random sex , the pursuit of success and "happiness". References to the grim realities of the world they/we live in, like war, the ill-treatment and murder of children may be an attempt to counter balance the prevailing denial and detachment of people from real life, from politics. But readers are free to draw their own conclusions. Although I have not quite finished the book I know I have not enjoyed reading it and am staggered by the hyperbole of the Critics. A case of Emperors New Clothes to my mind!




Flingo 18th November 2006 01:18 AM


Although I have not quite finished the book I know I have not enjoyed reading it and am staggered by the hyperbole of the Critics. A case of Emperors New Clothes to my mind!


What a great way of summing up all our feelings, Jaybee! I think I will file that phrase for future use!


Welcome to BGO as well! Do come back and let us know what the rest of your group thought of The Accidental.




Jaybee 1st December 2006 10:42 AM


Reporting Back


The CRITICS had nothing but universal acclaim for The Accidental but the members of the Book Group I belong to were equally united in their dislike of the work!

As the unfortunate presenter at the meeting, I worked hard, tackling the task as though for an examination. I soon discovered that at least 3 members of the group had followed my own first inclination to toss the book down - somewhere between page 25 and 30 seemed to the point when despair and disbelief set in. Those who had struggled to the end felt cheated and were angry that it had taken up their time. It was agreed that Ali Smith feels strongly that she has important things to say but failed completely to communicate them. Her purpose might have been better achieved by a series of concise, well argued polemical essays.

Final verdict can best be expressed in a quotation from Dorothy Parker -: This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.




Momo 3rd December 2006 03:48 PM


Final verdict can best be expressed in a quotation from Dorothy Parker -: This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.


I love that quote. Will remember it for future use!

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  • 5 months later...
Guest John Self

As suggested by David, I'm posting my thoughts here as I decided in the end that I liked The Accidental. As you can see from this post I wrote immediately after reading it, I wasn't sure to begin with...


(wibbly visual effect to indicate flashback)


It's fairly rare for me to be unable to decide what I think of a book, but I am sitting here having just beppu'd (see The Meaning of Liff) Ali Smith's Booker-longlisted The Accidental and I have no idea whether I liked it or not. For guidance I turned to the newspaper reviews, or those I could find archived online.


The Times

Smith plays dizzying games with her story and language; she bends and buckles her prose, breathes fire into it, lets it cool, swirls it up in unimaginable shapes. This is writing as rapture, as giddy delight. For those who subscribe to the self-flagellating critical orthodoxy that all revolutionary, groundbreaking fiction originates on the other side of the Atlantic, here is a book to make them rethink that position.


The Guardian

The Accidental has an infectious sense of fun and invention. The story goes through some surprising reversals and arrives at a satisfying conclusion, which is also a beginning.


The Independent

To read The Accidental is to be excited from first to last. Smith has produced a page-turner for the sophisticated and literate as well as adherents of the "jolly good story". I can only express my heartfelt admiration for her daring and her courage.


The Telegraph

The Accidental is crammed with such pleasures, all of them conjured from a simple, albeit unsimply told, story. Its striking and thought-provoking riffs mean that reading it is sometimes a vertiginous experience; it seems, on occasion, to promise more, and something of a different order and magnitude, than a novel ought to. Can there be much higher praise than that?


So there you have it: officially a masterpiece, and a cert for the Booker shortlist (which would match it for achievement with Smith's last novel, Hotel World). [EDIT 2007: It did make the Booker shortlist] You will have gathered from these snippets - which we'll no doubt be seeing again on the paperback - that The Accidental is an unconventional book, and for that alone I might be expected to like it quite a lot. And I do: the writing is fractured and poetic and formally experimental (which is not the same thing as original: how many times now have we seen the words split across the page, scattered with long and wide gaps between them, representing a disordered, flailing mind?). Smith has a good command of interior monologue, which she showed in Hotel World, though where that book was all first-person narratives, The Accidental is mostly third-person, but from different points of view.


The four characters whose voices we hear are the Smart family: father Michael, a philandering academic; mother Eve, blocked writer of moderately popular historical 'faction' books; and Eve's children by her first marriage (to, oh yes, Adam): Magnus, who is swamped in guilt over the suicide of a girl whose picture, photoshopped into pornography, he emailed all round the school ("They took her head. They fixed it on the other body. Then they sent it round everybody's email. Then she killed herself" becomes a hynotic refrain in Magnus's opening chapter); and Astrid, a typically irritating and self-involved twelve-year-old. The book is divided in three, with the four voices each getting a hearing each time. And the first section is just marvellous, a masterclass in authorial ventriloquism from which even David Mitchell could learn a thing or two.


In this section the family, on holiday in Norfolk, is joined by a mysterious woman called Amber, with whom they all fall in love in one way or another. (At this point, since all the reviews above did so, I am contractually obliged to point out that this is a retread of Pasolini's 1968 film Theorem, where Terence Stamp took the beautiful-stranger role. Apparently.) In the middle section of the book (helpfully titled "The middle", and where each of the four chapters begins with the words, just as they do earlier in "The beginning" and later at "The end"), Amber takes hold on each family member, and in the third section they are left to face what's left of their lives after she has gone. My difficulty with the book arose here. Once Amber is in full flow, I got the horrible feeling that Smith was forcing her views of the characters on me. Amber, in particular, is presented as though she's a rebellious breath of fresh air, when in fact she's just a self-indulgent 'free spirit' of the most predictable and tiresome sort, hilariously insulting old people, thieving, ****ing immature boys, throwing things around in the supermarket (like, sock it to The Man, Amb!), and generally doing things that would earn her a well-deserved Asbo if the book was set in 2005 rather than ostentatiously in 2003 (with a full complement of Abu Ghraib and Iraq).


When this happened, I think I then became supersensitised to the weaknesses in the book - rank implausibility, for instance - and although the writing may not have tailed off in the final two-thirds, it did feel that way, honourable and soaring passages of brilliance excepted. The characters' denouements were well-handled, if falling generally into patness and predictability (one comes to terms, another makes a new life). Which leaves only the sections narrated - presumably - by Amber (or "Alhambra" in these pages), in between each section for a couple of pages. These are the densest in the book, and make for a curious merging of highly impressive flights of poetry-prose and highly annoying strainings for effect.


In writing this review (such as it is), I've persuaded myself that I liked the book after all, and that it falls over the tricky fence of opinion into four-star rather than three-star territory. It lacks, though, the lightness of touch of Hotel World (even though all the characters in that novel were far more miserable and/or disadvantaged than those in this one), and I'd be surprised if it wins the Booker, being so lacking in immediacy. Still, who knows: accidents do happen.

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Guest John Self

So having given a tentatively positive defence of the book, let me respond to some of the points that others have made.


the reader has to do all the work to make a comprehensible story out of the disjointed clips (to borrow the camera metaphor) of narrative.


I don't think the clips of narrative were all that disjointed, but I don't think there's anything wrong with making the reader do work. A book, I think, should be a dialogue between writer and reader, not a monologue where we sit back and absorb everything without having to think for ourselves.


I dislike all the characters. I'm only up to page 178-just over half way- but have found nothing to make me feel good.


I'd agree with that. But that doesn't mean that the book isn't good or worthwhile. (I'm not saying that's what judemarg meant, but it's not entirely clear.) A lot of my favourite books from recent years are as far from feelgood as it's possible to get: Graham Greene, Richard Yates, Judith Hearne, Light Years, but they're still great, vivid, lively books that are among the greatest literary experiences I've had.


The question is, do the latest breed of writers care if their books become classics or not?


In these days of instant gratification, and disposability perhaps all they want is massive sales to a contemporary readership, and connecting with the target consumers' everyday experience is a quick way in.


Interesting questions. But absolutely not ones that apply to Ali Smith, who has been quietly ploughing her modernist furrow for a dozen years now, and just happens to have been thrown above the parapet into the public eye by being shortlisted for the Booker Prize (and I think The Accidental was also a Daily Mail book club read?). From interviews I've read, she seems a quiet, unassuming writer who is very serious about her work and I feel certain that she would be horrified at the thought of considering readers to be "target consumers" or to seek a "quick way in" - indeed, most of the responses to the book here suggest that if her book was seeking a quick way into people's affections, she could hardly have gone about it more perversely.


In responding to such critical vehemence, I've found myself warming more and more to the book. Time for a re-read to see how it stands up perhaps!

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I don't think there's anything wrong with making the reader do work.
Neither do I - but the results here, for me, weren't worth the effort
I feel certain that she would be horrified at the thought of considering readers to be "target consumers" or to seek a "quick way in" -
Must just be my cynicism then. :)
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      I don't know either what kind of holes belwebb saw in this novel. As Meg already mentions, and we all should consider this, this is a children's book. We cannot expect deep meanings that you will only understand after studying English Lit.

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