April 18, 2002

Ghost World

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“It’s all words words words with me,” says Sara Wilby, nineteen years young. In the physical world she was a junior champion swimmer and a hotel chambermaid who left her watch in a repair shop and never had the chance to pick it up, but none of that matters now, does it? Well, it does to her. She speaks from beyond the grave, sometime after passing on in late May of 1999. She’s the centerpiece of this ghost story, the initial narrator, the fantastic phantasm limning her death from some sort of limbo. In Ms. Ali Smith’s Hotel World, the deceased sure do have a way with words.

Sara narrates the first part of this tale in lyrical past tense; four other women, all in the hotel on the night of Sara’s death, are featured in subsequent sections. Each takes a unique perspective, and is narrated in a specific verb tense. Every character is a piece of the puzzle — thoughts define actions, details ravel, tangents intersect, events come into focus — though often, the conclusions are middling, the payoffs not trenchant enough.

“Wooooooo-hooooooo” Sara repeatedly exclaims, onomatopoetic, mimicking her final descent down the Global Hotel’s dumbwaiter shaft, the one that did her in. “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.” What an end indeed. That’s just the beginning. Regrettably, the rest of the novel doesn’t quite live up to the extraordinary pyrotechnics of the first component, let alone this opening passage.

Each of the successive sections revolve around the thoughts, the internal lives of women with some connection to Sara, or with the Global Hotel, a luxe establishment in an unspecified English city, on the night of Sara’s accident. The second section, “Present Historic,” features Elsepeth (Else) Freeman, a down-and-out vagrant who speaks in elision (“Cn y spr sm chn? Thnk y”), who finds her way into a lavish hotel room the night of the fall. Next is “Future Conditional,” telling of Lise, the clerk who checked Else into the Global Hotel, and who is now bedridden with an undiagnosed though debilitating illness. (Her mother and caretaker Deirdre, whom she spends much of the section waiting for, is working on an epic poem titled, “Hotel World.”)

Penny Warren’s thoughts are the focal point of the “Perfect” section; she is the only paying hotel guest among the main characters, a style columnist who writes in cloying journalese. After getting involved in what she thinks are petty hallway hijinks, Penny leaves the hotel with Else, leading to a muddled meander through a London-like city, and a well-wrought series of exchanges where class standing and social hierarchy concerns of English life come to the forefront. Sara’s little sister Clare soliloquizes in a manic, uneven stream-of-consciousness section titled “Future in the Past.” Finally, a roving and omniscient narrative eye provides varied glimpses of people and places introduced in earlier sections, continuing their lives in the “Present.”

Hotel World, the 39 year-old Scottish writer’s second novel (she has also penned two collections of short stories), made its debut in Great Britain in 2001. Garnering shortlist nods from the prestigious Orange and Booker Prize committees, the book finds its way cisatlantic in paperback form. While Smith’s novel merits comparisons to the inventive fiction of two young Americans — Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn) and Mark Z. Danielewski, (author of labyrinthine cult favorite House of Leaves) it appears her most significant influences are themselves ghosts — the Modernist Brits James Joyce and Virginia Woolf –with whom Smith shares a penchant for linguistic and narrative experimentation.

At its best, Ali Smith’s Hotel World charms, highlighting her manipulations of language and the strengths of her varied textual strategies. Passages evoke humor (as during an absurd and telling debate over the limitations of gravitational force), and shrewdly manage time and structure in clever and original ways, such as the “common linear sequence” in the “Future Conditional” section.

At less effective junctures, word games are repetitive, trite, and much of the content of Clare Wilby’s stream-of-consciousness passage is an unremarkable read; it lacks the emotional force it could have delivered.

Though uneven, Ali Smith’s novel is playful and ambitious — an energetic and experimental novel that takes a ghost story premise and extends it well beyond genre exercise. Hotel World entertains and provokes far more often than it fails to, and marks the introduction of a talented writer to the American readership.

Archived article by L. Weiss