Hotel World by Ali Smith

Hotel World
What is the difference between a novel and a series of connected stories? That’s a question I asked myself repeatedly while reading Ali Smith’s Hotel World (a novel), probably influenced by having read connected short stories by her recently. The six pieces that make up Hotel World didn’t seem tight enough somehow, but there is a certain single story arc that I can see makes this different.

Structurally, the book is divided into six sections, each focusing on a different character—all female. The first and fifth sections are told in the first person, in different stream-of-consciousness styles, by a pair of sisters. The middle three sections are in the third person, about three women connected with the hotel where the first narrator, Sara, fell to her death. The sixth, I’ll save.

Sara was a chambermaid, fooling around with a dumbwaiter that gave out under her weight. She fell from the top of the hotel straight to the bottom—but she can tell you that much better than I can:

hooooooo 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.

The whole of the first section is wonderful (at least, if you think that is wonderful, as I do). It’s not just the stream of consciousness thing. Sara is really interesting in death. Before, she was a diver, and is now obsessed with her fall. How long did it take? She forgets the words for things, she can’t remember all of what happened, she goes to visit her corpse underground and get the story from her (“How are you? I said. Sleep well?”). She finds out that just before dying she fell in love.

Sara’s chapter is frantic and poignant but actually happy. She is not sad to be dead. She has lost, but she has gained. She observes outside the hotel:

Here’s a woman being swallowed by the doors. She is well-dressed. On her back she carries nothing. Her life could be about to change. Here’s another one inside, wearing the uniform of the hotel and working behind its desk. She is ill and she doesn’t know it yet. Life, about change. Here’s a girl, next to me, dressed in blankets, sitting along from the hotel doors right here, on the pavement. Her life, change.

These are the women, listed in reverse, whom we will follow for the next three chapters: Else, Lise, and Penny. It’s not just that their connection to Sara is tenuous. It’s that they don’t have her voice or her urgency. We’ve been so intimate with Sara that the third-person sections are most interesting when we get another little bit of her own story, or that of her sister Clare. Who cares about Penny, after all? What we care about is what she witnesses: Clare ripping the cover off the boarded-over dumbwaiter to throw down every object she can get her hands on, to time the fall.

That’s not right, really. The other women are important. They should be. But they don’t fulfill the promise of that first section.

Clare almost does. With her, in the fifth section, we have a really wild stream of consciousness—the consciousness of a young teenager who’s lost her sister, who doesn’t know if it was suicide or an accident, and whose parents can’t bear to acknowledge anything that’s happened. Clare is tortured awfully, leading to her own incident with the dumbwaiter. But in the hotel, a massive symbol of lifelessness and international corporate blandness, she finally finds the people who can help her work through her feelings.

And finally the sixth section. It’s the girl Sara fell in love with. It’s just the right slightly less personal closure, after the deeply personal one Clare goes through. The catharsis of the fifth section is taxing, and here we can come up for air.

Ultimately, Smith does get to show a bit of the difference of the novel’s form, because the emotional trip from Sara to Clare to the end is more than a short story can do, and probably more than just connected short stories can do as well. They have to be things in themselves after all. And the emotional aspect is something that really worked here. But not the best Smith I have read.

The Whole Story and other stories by Ali Smith

The Whole Story and other storiesI don’t know if it’s just because I first read them both because of the Canongate Myths series, but for whatever reason, there is a close association in my mind between Jeanette Winterson and Ali Smith. They do seem to blurb each other’s books, and I feel like they have a bit in common in terms of their writing, though there are definitely differences too. But I’m pretty convinced of the affinity.

There are two epigraphs in Lighthousekeeping: “Remember you must die” (Muriel Spark) and “Remember you must live” (Ali Smith). And the second (sort-of) chapter begins, “A beginning, a middle and an end is the proper way to tell a story. But I have difficulty with that method.” Which immediately put me in mind of Ali Smith again.

“The Universal Story,” the first one in The Whole Story and other stories, starts with a beginning. Then another beginning, and another. It’s the story of a man, no, a woman, no, a fly, no, a copy of The Great Gatsby. &tc. The end winds us back down:

The woman who lived by a cemetery, remember, back at the very beginning? She looked out of her window and she saw—ah, but that’s another story.

And lastly, what about the first, the man we began with, the man dwelt by a churchyard?

He lived a long and happy and sad and very eventful life, for years and years and years, before he died.

Now, on the one hand, this puts me in the mind of what is a somewhat unflattering blurb on the back of my Anchor Books edition, from Elle magazine: “Smith proves herself an experimental writer even your mother could love.” Yeah, this story is in some sense an easy way of being experimental. An easy way of showing how that beginning, middle, and end thing isn’t so simple, and how “The Universal Story” has to be a story about everything it mentions, and how, in the end, what’s the point of the story anyway, when we can just say that once upon a time a man dwelt by a churchyard and he lived and he died?

But then on the other hand this story is funny and smart and Smith has got some truly, truly beautiful writing, and “experimental” in the end is just a ridiculously loaded word.

Several of the stories in this collection are about the same couple, both parties nameless, and they’re done in a style different from anything else I’ve read (though again, there’s nothing new in the world, so whatever) that makes them in their own way some of my favorite love stories ever. The way it works: the stories are in the first person, addressed to “you,” that is, the lover. Then they switch: “you” becomes “I” and vice versa. We get the lover’s quarrel and everything else from both sides. Not evenly, but so, so interestingly.

I came off [the internet] when you called me for supper, then went back on again after supper and came off again when you told me that if I didn’t come to bed immediately so you could get some sleep then you would seriously consider leaving me.

I get some work things ready for tomorrow and call you, tell you as usual that I’m off to bed, that if you don’t come now so I can put the lights out and get some sleep I’m going to leave you.

Here we’re in one of Smith’s somewhat bizarre stories, where one of the lovers has become infatuated with a tree. But later, when some real fight has happened and it may really be the end, when we get the side of the lover locked out of the house and the side of the lover doing the locking out, it begins to feel almost over-intimate. But fascinating, with a pull so strong because it’s hard to imagine an experience more different from the one we have in real life, where that second point of view is what we’re hopelessly cut off from. It makes the moments when the lovers actually leap across the gulf between them very powerful.

There is a good mix between this recurring couple and individual, unconnected stories, and a good mix between stories more and less imaginative or fantastical. They’re all propelled by Smith’s impressive prose: conversational and contemporary, but smart and perceptive. Propelled by her outlook, too, I think—“Remember you must live”—and the idea of “saying yes” to that jump across the divide between us.