But what makes it special is the extraordinary humour, mostly punning word play, which pervades the book; the fabulous set piece dinner party in the centre of the book with its brilliant humour developed from the extraordinary combination of characters, the best party since Abigail's (yes, I know it wasn't really Abigail's) the moments of deep insight; and the utterly brilliant writing skills which Smith brings to her prose.
"She is over there in a ji (a ji: less than half a jiffy)." (p 309)
"She was working at the computer in her office, doing admin, which is short for administration, which is short for migraine-stimulant." (p 316)
"You enjoyed the play, didn't you? Mrs Lee said to Brooke. I found it weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, Brooke said. Mrs Lee laughed. A bit over her head, Mrs Lee said over Brooke's head to Brooke's parents." (p 292)
The book is full of puns, from the dinner party hosts called Gen and Eric (generic) to:
- "A4, like paper? the child said. Or a road that is smaller than a motorway?" (p 55)
- "He's an ethic cleanser, the child says." (p 129)
- "He thinks of himself and Hugo in the bird-watching hut, Hugo behind him, deep inside him, say, you are coming aren't you? Working on it, Mark says laughing, any second now. I mean weekend after next, Hugo said sounding offended even through the effort of love. You are coming to Jan and Eric's?" I loved 'the effort of love'. (p 131)
- "Nasty, British and short." (p 147)
The centrepiece is a wonderful dinner party in which the guests are:
- a right wing racist homophone whose company makes surveillance and military drones
- a gay man (Mark) who assumes his hostess is called Jan (she is called Gen) and the stranger he met at the theatre who has not had a sexual relationship with him (but everyone thinks they are a couple)
- a married man and his wife; the gay man (Mark) has recently had sex with the married man (Hugo)
- a black lecturer in metallurgy who loves musicals (so that the homophobe assumes he is gay) and his wife; they protest about the drones.
"You had to count your blessings, Philip always said. He always said it when he was disappointed. It was how you knew he was disappointed." (p 216)
People obsessed with their mobile phones: "it was like they were all on drugs, cumbersome like cattle, heads down, not seeing where they were going." (p 221)
"Who sees the sparrow fall? Nobody. It just falls ... There's nobody there to see." (p 239)
"This had come out of nowhere and it had no sound, just the muffled thump of May being hit by the dark. The difference was that she'd just gone headlong with her eyes wide open into it, that she'd done it to herself somehow, hit the dark." (p 245)
"When someone shouts like that at you it is like a passenger-carrying hot air balloon filling with the hot air that's supposed to send it into the sky but instead it is being inflated dangerously fast inside a very small room so that its sides and top press against the walls and ceiling which means that either the walls and ceiling will have to give way or the balloon that is in your head will explode." (p 283)
The internet (an old woman calls it "the intimate") gets quite a lot of bashing. The gay protagonist admits "there's a certain charm to being able to look up and watch Eartha Kitt ... but the charm is a kind of deception about a whole new way of feeling lonely, a semblance of plenitude but really a new level of Dante's inferno, a zombie-filled cemetery of spurious clues, beauty, pathos, pain, the faces of puppies, women and men from all over the world tied up and wanked over in site after site, a great sea of hidden shallows. More and more, the pressing human dilemma: how to walk a clean path between obscenities." (p 159)
The word but: "but the thing I particularly like about the word, but, now that I think about it, is that it always takes you off to the side, and where it takes you is always interesting." (p 175)
She watches a young girl crossing a road by herself and "She thought of all the children, literally thousands of them, the same age as that child, crossing the world by themselves right now" (p 56)
A gay man, innocently eavesdropping on a party of school children at the Greenwich Meridian, is noticed by a young boy who makes a comment to his mates. "But even well after the sniggering had died away the boy continued to hold the stare. In it there was a perfectly judged balance of rejection and invitation. The boy was an expert. He looked all of thirteen. He was far too young to be acting so knowing. Mark stilled a wild laugh in his chest." (p 101)
"Wonder ... if we all have our names in there written ... on our foreheads, between the flesh and the bone." (p 158)
"record is a word that means, in Latin, something which returns through the heart" (p 177)
"That's what the babies did, after all, when they were born. They looked a look at the world as if they could see something that our own eyes couldn't, or had forgotten how to." (p 213)
A brilliant introduction to a black child in which he skin colour is not mentioned when the protagonist first encounters her but which you can infer when they ring the doorbell of the house in which the protagonist assumes that the child's mother lives and the text reads: "But it was a white woman ... who answered the door." (p 13)
Another brilliant piece of writing is when we are introduced to Jennifer "4.4.63, 29.1.79" and we immediately know that she has died. (p 215)
I loved the way one of the dinner party guests assumed that the hostess (Gen) was called Jan and called her that in his thoughts until he discovered he was wrong.
I loved the way the gay man's dead mother keeps intruding into his thoughts using couplets.
"Some of the more hippy ones here, say it's because Milo attracts animals to him, like St Francis. But it's the cooking and the bin bags, I'd say." (p 190)
What a wonderful book. December 2016; 356 pages
Ali Smith also wrote the brilliant How To Be Both and The Accidental.
Page numbers refer to the Penguin paperback