Online Edition: Spring 2002

Hotel World by Ali Smith

Hotel World

Ali Smith

Anchor Books ($12)

by Jessica Hoffmann

Try this: judge a book by how many times the words on the page send your face up and out and your breath quickly inwards, in excitement, astonishment, joy, wonder.

It happens every couple of pages with Hotel World, Scottish writer Ali Smith's Booker Prize-shortlisted second novel. For instance: There's the moment when Smith's effervescent ghost (whose "breath, you might say, has been taken" and whose swooping-and-soaring first-person account of lamented life after sudden death opens the novel) begins to lose language, and the author cues the very live reader to fill in the blanks in her/his own silent, invisible parentheses. It's a thrill; it's a call to attention; it's an invitation to action--reading Hotel World, like living, like loving (the doing deeply of both are central themes of the novel) is no passive affair.

Composed of internal monologues by four women and a genderless ghost (plus a more distantly narrated epilogue), Hotel World is given in six voices. Each voice has its own distinct rhythm and vocabulary, and speaks from a different tense. Smith establishes these voices by their distinctness, and then fills the entire work with internal allusions that draw connections between the disparate-seeming sections, thus threading the novel's concern with difference and sameness, separateness and connectedness, into the book's formal fabric. The soil turned for a fresh grave echoes in a later passage in which a bedridden woman senses her own thoughts as "turf being turned up by someone she could make out only on the distant horizon." A teenager collects dust from behind her dead sister's bed, liking to think dead-skin bits of her sister are saved there, a-hundred-and-some pages after a ghost on its way out of this world longs for dust in particular, for how you could "watch it stencil into your fingerprint, yours, unique, nobody else's." Singularity. Relationship.

Smith's fictional hotel chain, Global Hotels--one branch of which houses most of the novel's action--promises sameness no matter the shift in town, nation, continent: "It doesn't matter where you are in the world if you're anywhere near a Global Hotel." Hotel World the novel exposes Hotel World the way of life for what it is--a desiccation, a reduction, a self-deceiving mode of existence in which fabricated sameness secures isolation/insulation. But: the staff spits in the food and there's been a freak-accident death in the dumb-waiter; the seeming-sealed rooms are rummaged through by ghosts and chambermaids and that board on the wall covers nothing but a black hole.

There are hearts everywhere in this book. Racing, fluttering like birds flapping against the walls of their cages, slammed into mouths, pumping, stopped. Also ubiquitous are relationships with language. One character is losing words; another's doing away with vowels and other excess, speaking in a compressed mumble ("spr sm chn?"). Still another types lists of empty superlatives for a living (she writes for the style pages of the World: "That's my job, filling up the grey space every week for people like you and me.") And from their respective beds, one character runs her words together with a string of ampersands and another is inadvertently inventing a vocabulary of her own from the fragments of half-languaged thoughts floating through her feverish mind.

Hotel World works because its author is deeply engaged with both these elements--heart, language. Form and content, thought and feeling, here, are inextricable. Read Hotel World for its linguistic and structural inventiveness. Read it for its distilled and powerful expression of difficult emotions. Read it both ways, at once, more than one time. Hotel World is a delight, and a heartbreak, and a jolt into looking at language and literature and love and life afresh and with appropriate (requisite) wonder.

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Spring 2002 Table of Contents