The Accidental Artful

A friend recommended Ali Smiths Artful, commenting on its ease of style and sharpness of perception. The novelist, he told me, had taken on serious topics in this work, a published version of a series of lectures, and that she had somehow made theory a pure joy as well as a pure good. Circularity takes over now: our library had the book but could not locate it; as an alternative I took out Smiths Booker Prize Nominee, The Accidental, thinking to acquaint myself with her work. Within two pages of reading, I realized that I had read the novel soon after its publication some years ago. But then, I found the experience of rereading in itself a curious critical phenomenon. By this time, the library found its misfiled copy of Artful which I began, only to find a section on the necessity of rereading. The sense of cycles coiled itself as if a reminder around a finger.First the rereading of The Accidental: what I found odd was the patchiness of my recollection. The pretext of the plot, an apparently benign summer (rental) house invasion by an enigmatic and haunting young woman, I remembered immediately, but not the interlinking stories. The troubling young woman affects deeply, and for the good, the lives of the adolescent children. I recalled little of this, and with the revelations forgotten and rediscovered, there came the odd sense of assurance, almost a form of relief. Id forgot how the philandering husband is continually rebuffed by the guest, and so forced to face his myriad infidelities. Again the fraught encounter and then conflict with the writer/mother of the household almost completely eluded memory; the uncertain resolution to that conflict remains, I fear, deliberately unexplored. Perhaps I had not even faced the implications of that incident in the previous reading. The visitor comes, works both good and ill, and then disappears: and in her aftermath the family finds itself reduced to a new beginning in finding, upon return to the city, their home completely emptied of its contents. What is the connection of this theft to the summer guest/intruder?Here is what strikes me as odd: the wife, partly in shock and partly in need of self-discovery, unexpectedly hurries off to America to locate the home of her bigamist father whose second family he kept in New York State. The abandoned house of the fathers other family, her search for signs of her kin, and her peculiar encounter, replicating virtually that of her own summer intruder, with a country society matron all of this I recalled in detail, with striking visual confirmation as the events re-screened in my mind. I had trod these paths mentally before. This was something like a homecoming.I cannot but reflect on the uniquely uneven pleasure of re-acquaintance with The Accidental. I enjoyed the book more because I could only partially remember it. The effect was a bit like that of an eye examination, when the optometrist moves different lenses before the patients eye asking if one lens or the other is sharper, clearer. And then the binocular clarity of the correct prescription plays into the sudden comprehension of what was blurred before.But then Artful lay before me, offering in its oblique way, chapters on time, form, and reflection in works of art. I am still coming to terms with the books effect: I think of holding some creature, alive and squirming in my hands, full of energy - a force that wishes to take itself and me off in directions it finds compulsive as is its invitation to the holder. I am trying to indicate that the book does not rest with itself, its allusiveness, the collection of images in its appendix, and the strange appearance of the ghost of the writers dead partner make a reader stop, in reading, to consider that nature of the work in hand - but more, to be thankful for the works existence. It is difficult to imagine the book as a series of lectures: hearing Smiths unique tones, her playful confrontation of grief and the structures of art. I should like to have heard her speaking. And as Smith suggests, I am bound by the necessities of art to reread Artful.

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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