Ali Smith There but for the

16 October 2012

Ali Smith: There but for the

There’s a wonderful scene in the film Educating Rita in which Julie Waters, as an Open University student, asks her tutor (Michael Caine) what assonance is. He tells her it’s a form of rhyme, and gives her an example from a poem where Yeats rhymes the word “swan” with the word “stone”. Rita’s comment is “yeah, means getting the rhyme wrong”.  It’s a good joke, but it’s been pointed out many times that this is not an example of assonance, but of dissonance, where the final consonant of stressed syllables is the same, but the vowel preceding it is not. (Assonance is where the vowels are voiced the same but the consonant that follows is different.)

The usual comment is that Michael Caine, or rather the script writer, got it wrong.  Well, yes, but I suspect he intended to get it wrong.  And to me, this is what this book by Ali Smith is about, getting it wrong, misunderstanding, the failures of communication, and there’s the wonderful scene in it where the unbelievably precocious girl, who is also a boy, threatens to assonate the screwed-up Anna K, whose name is really Anna Hardie, like President Kennedy was assonated.  It isn’t just a joke on the similarity between the word assonated, which doesn’t exist, with that other word. There is a deeper meaning. The failure of meaning. The encounter between the girl, Brooke Bayoude and Anna even gets off on the wrong foot, or perhaps it’s the right foot for this novel, when Brooke says her name is Brooke (you have to say it with a Caribbean accent), and Anna thinks she says she’s broke, replies “me too”, and Brooke thinks Anna’s name is also Brooke.

The story is well-known.  A man, Miles, is brought to a dinner party by a guest, although the hosts don’t know the man,  and half-way through the dinner he goes upstairs, locks himself in a bedroom and refuses to come out.  He stays there for weeks: fortunately the bedroom has an en suite bathroom.  Why don’t they break down the door?  Why indeed?  Because the house is elegant, and the doors are magnificent, and they don’t want the door to be damaged.  Another reason develops: the man becomes a celebrity, tourists gather to watch the curtains of his room, and when the hosts stop providing him with food, a makeshift food supply is organised by well-wishers, food hauled up in a basket. Standing in a bookshop I overheard a comment about this book: not much of a story, is it?  Well no, the story isn’t the point.  The point of this novel is the brilliant display of misunderstanding and ambiguity that Ali Smith does so well.

And when you’ve read the rest of the book you discover what the opening chapter, in which a boy prizes metal shutters off the man’s eyes and mouth, is about.  The boy is in fact Brooke, a girl, and this is entirely appropriate for a writer like Ali Smith who has explored issues of gender, most notably in The Accidental and in her retelling of the myth of Iphis, Girl meets Boy.

Another wonderful scene is where the gruesome Genevieve Lee is desperately trying to convince Anna that she, Anna, knows Miles, who has come to be known as Milo, better than she really does, trying to impose her own, that’s Genevieve’s, version of reality on someone else.  We all do that, of course, as every husband and wife knows.  We all listen to accounts of ‘what you said’, or ‘what you did’, and think, it wasn’t really like that, was it?  But you’re never sure.  That isn’t actually true, some people are so confident that they know exactly what happened or was said.  But people who aren’t sure are nicer people.  I hope.

Ali Smith is a subversive.  We need subversives.


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