Thursday, March 03, 2005

Hotel World, by Ali Smith (2001)

I really do not know what to make of this book, which I had to read for my Booker group. It starts off with quite a few challenges. There's a similar level of bad language to that which put some people off Vernon God Little. There's not only a dead narrator pining the loss of her ability to experience physical reality (she dies by squeezing herself into a dumbwaiter on the fourth floor of a London hotel, which causes the ropes to snap and her subsequent plummet) but the fact that she can somehow go back to her corpse and have a conversation with whatever element of the corpse might have stayed behind. There's the sudden falling for another woman. There's the possibility that there are some lascivious thoughts for her own - certainly that's how the sister seems to have interpreted her. So many taboos being skewered in just the prologue.

But it doesn't seem to go very far in succeeding sections. We meet four other women, all of whom have some sort of connection although they don't really know each other. Else is homeless, and has her patch outside the hotel, where she watches this young girl across the road: she doesn't even need to beg:
She doesn't look hard up. Her clothes change. She has more than one coat. She looks like a runaway, but a brand-new, just-arrived-today one. So she gets money easily, of course she does, she looks like the stupefied baby animals looked on the front of the kind of chocolate box that you used to be able to get years ago, if you compared them to a real cat or dog. The only thing about her is that she looks miserable, she looks greyed. She's the colour of ice that's been smashed in over a puddle. Else feels quite sorry for her.
Not enough to stop her going over and stealing the 30 or so pound that people leave her each day, however. Not that it matters to the girl, because she's there on a vigil for her dead sister, rather than to beg. Else has a great imagination, even if it does run away into obscurity: she's thinking that her lungs are outmoded:
Like if someone arrived carrying the the telephone wires all waiting to be connected up, got out of his van and found himself standing outside some fucking great castle wall with thin slits in it instead of windows, and it was in the fifteenth century and there was no such thing as electricity.

Think of him, Telephone Man, standing like something over-evolved out of Darwin, post-Neanderthal in his overalls with his wires in coils on his arms and his van full of great rolls of wire behind him and there he is scratching his head like a monkey because there's no metal grate in the ground he can lift to do the job, and a lady in a wimple peeking out at him through the slit like he's a martian come in a spaceship because its the fifteenth century and there's no such thing as vans.
So - she has these great flights of fancy, which I liked from her section, but the novel was pretty much downhill from there for me. Else is given a room in the hotel for the night by the receptionist, Lise: hers is the next section of the book, and its mostly about her attempts to fill in a disability allowance application form and flashing back to the night she helped Else. Then there's Penny, a journalist trying to write a piece about the hotel on that same night. Finally, in a very annoying section, because there's no punctuation, there is the sister of the dead girl.

I guess I just didn't get this novel. It was Booker shortlisted, but I think I go along with the Complete Review summary that it is a "varied, clever novel, with some excellent flashes". Apparently, the night where the lives all interconnect in the hotel is the last night on earth of the girl ghost, but quite what the significance of it all was is lost on me. Perhaps the Independent
review is worth noting, since they gave this novel an A+:
Those who complain that new writers are not coming to terms with the present day should read Ali Smith. She's bang up to now without kowtowing to fashion, and catches the zeitgeist in a completely individual way.

The lunacy of bureaucracy becomes a weird sort of poetry; a slack shift at the hotel makes of job boredom a Zen-like meander through the moment, as the minutiae of life takes on existential resonance. Smith's work is tough and frank yet gentle, full of love though not in the least sentimental. The humour arises from razor-sharp observation but is never cruel.

Underlying all are grand themes of death, ultimate meaning and time. And of love. "Ah, love," as one of the simple refrains of the book goes. "Remember you must live," is another.
Ah well, maybe by the time my group has spent March chattering about it, I'll get more from this book.


Blogger Morphess said...

Well I'm obviously not 'bang up to date'....I heartily congratulate you on finishing this book, it's one of the very, very few that I just couldn't be arsed to.

If anyone would like my copy (no marmite on the second half) then I'll dispatch it forthwith.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Barry said...

Heh - thanks. I'm extremely impressed with what some of my fellow club members are able to extract from the book, to the point I'm probably going to read it again (it is quite short and individual passages were interesting).

10:39 PM  

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