by Ali Smith (Anchor Books, $13)
PHANTOMS haunt fiction, be they the spectral shapes of authorial influence or the real-life people a writer distills into characters. In Hotel World, a finalist for the 2001 Booker Prize, Scottish writer Ali Smith places this spooky aspect of fiction in the foreground of a dazzling, if at times impenetrably dense, tale about a hotel possessed by the ghost of a teenage girl.
Set in the ritzy Global Hotel in northern England, Hotel World pivots around Sara Kirby, a former swimming star who plunged to her death in the building's dumbwaiter, briefly disrupting the intercontinental bliss felt by the establishment's globe-trotting patrons. As the novel opens, Sarah's ghost soars and flits about. Death has liberated her from punctuation as well as the flesh, and she begins this sad story with a burst of manic take-out-the-period-and-throw-away-the-comma blather:
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.
Eventually, Sara's ghost quiets down after she visits her corpse, rotting away in the cemetery. After much cajoling, the body agrees to tell the story of its death. It's a roundabout way of introducing information, but Smith pulls it off, making the scene both moving and ridiculous at the same time. We learn that Sara was in love with another girl, and that she was lonely. Her death may have been an accident, but it also resembles a suicide.
This scene casts a shadow over the rest of the novel's players: Else, a homeless woman; Sara's sister Clare; a news reporter named Penny; and Lise, the hotel's gloomy receptionist. Cycling from one person to the next over the course of one night, the novel reveals how fragile and surreally aware of each other's vulnerability they are in the incident's wake. In one scene, Penny helps Clare pry open the sealed-up dumbwaiter shaft. Somehow, Penny understands not to ask any questions of the grieving sister. In another scene, Lise offers a room to Else on a cold night.
Yet these charitable gestures lead to acts of ignorance. Else overfills her bathtub and skulks out of the building. Clare rips a hole in the wall and begins dropping pieces of hotel furniture down it to gauge the time it took her sister to fall. And even Penny, with all her reportorial skill, can hardly fathom what Else says half the time. In this way, the novel signals that making personal connections is often more arduous than it seems at first glance.
AS IF TO SUGGEST the primacy of the self and the way it becomes an obstacle to emotional connection, Smith narrates each section in a jazzy stream-of-consciousness prose that lilts and tilts and whirls like an out-of-control Ferris wheel. Each character's interior voice gets its own rhythm and melody. Placed side by side, they create cacophony rather than symphony. Many paragraphs require two and three readings, for the slightest variance in reader attention can disrupt the precarious rhythm of Smith's language.
Like many books of this ilk—Jeanette Winterson's recent The PowerBook comes to mind—Hotel World spends as much energy dialoguing with previous work as it does creating its characters. For instance, a mantra repeated in the book—"remember you must live"—is the exact inverse of "Remember, you must die," the rather frightening message an anonymous caller repeats in Muriel Spark's early novel Memento Mori.
Unlike Spark, who believed that a novelist could play God in the shadow of a greater God, Smith seems to believe that a novelist has no control over her characters—a negation that gets tricky when applied as faithfully as it is here. The women of Hotel World do not grant the easy access that fiction so often requires of characters. They bore us, ignore us, and repeat themselves embarrassingly. At times, it seems as if they've run amok and grabbed control of this novel. And yet, in the end, they haven't. Characters don't write a novel; writers do.
And, a cranky reader is tempted to remind Smith, readers, not just theorists, are the folks who read that novel. Indeed, while there must be a grand design to Hotel World, vast sections feel willfully unreadable, as if the author's scolding the reader for expecting anything so prosaic as plot or punctuation. In the end, as we like our ghosts Casper-white and friendly, it's perhaps true that we like our fiction a little less murky and theory-laden, too.