Une Petite Mort: Death, Love and Liminality in the Fiction of Ali Smith

  • :: 9 Works Cited
  • Length: 5375 words (15.4 double-spaced pages)
  • Rating: Excellent
Open Document

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Text Preview

More ↓

Continue reading...

Open Document

Death, Love and Liminality in the Fiction of Ali Smith


The morbid marriage of love and death is not an original topic to postmodernist writing or to Scottish literature. Diverse forms of literature from Greek myth to Shakespearian tragedies have hosted stories of tragic love and romantic deaths, with varying nuances of darkness and romance. Nonetheless, this paper will attempt to establish a link between Ali Smith’s writing, postmodernist fiction and Scottish fantasy, while looking at the topic of love and death in conjunction with the concept of liminality. Liminality (from the Latin limen: limit) is an intermediate state, it refers to passage rituals and to existence between borders. Stories of love and death often suggest the abrupt interruption of the former because of the sudden occurrence of the latter. Sometimes, however, love and death share the same intermediate dimension between life and afterlife: the liminal stage. As this paper will stress, Smith’s writing deals with love and death in the context of liminality. Characters’ identities fluctuate and sometimes crumble altogether. Rational boundaries of time and space lose coherence. Stories develop in the uncanny limbo left after a death or some other form of disappearance. It is in this liminal dimension that love and death are sinisterly married in Smith’s work.
When asked to comment on the love and death motif in her stories, Smith admitted that the two are closely related. In her words:

Of course love and death are linked, from the French notion of orgasmic small death through the metaphysical poets all the way to something Winterson sums up in the perfect opening sentence, in Written on the Body: ‘why is the measure of love loss?’ (Germanà, p.370)

In Smith’s fiction, ‘petite mort’ is a more complex motif than the French metaphor for sexual climax. In her stories the trope of love and death does not refer only to the erotic sphere of love. In fact, because of its close relationship to liminality, the traditional topic acquires a more metaphysical twist throughout Smith’s fiction. The coexistence of love and death questions the boundaries between life and death, overcomes the threshold of the physical world to reach beyond this limit, and explores all the possibilities in between. In fact, death often seems to be a paradoxical vehicle through which life and love are manifested and asserted. The notion that death may overcome the borders between life and afterlife suggests a deeper analysis of the concept of liminality.

Need Writing Help?

Get feedback on grammar, clarity, concision and logic instantly.

Check your paper »

How to Cite this Page

MLA Citation:
"Une Petite Mort: Death, Love and Liminality in the Fiction of Ali Smith." 123HelpMe.com. 25 May 2018
    <http://www.123HelpMe.com/view.asp?id=40219>.
Title Length Color Rating  
Not in Control of Our Own Destiny: The Movie "Stranger than Fiction" Essay examples - Unwilling changes or turning points are often employed by authors to aid the characters in acquiring better attitudes towards life. In the film Stranger than Fiction written by Zach Helm, turning points are used this way through Harold Crick. Harold’s realization of being powerless to avoid his fateful death provides a turning point that induces Harold’s transformation into a more emotional and passionate individual who lives every minute of his life to the fullest. The turning point is when Harold realizes he cannot avoid his fateful death after his apartment is being unexpectedly demolished by a crane when he is staying home to control his destiny....   [tags: Stranger than Fiction, movies, destiny, Zach Helm] 1038 words
(3 pages)
Strong Essays [preview]
Analysis of Tracy K. Smith´s Life on Mars Essays - Tracy K. Smith’s “Life on Mars” is a collection of poetry dealing mainly in the search for a sense of purpose and the nature of people. The books is something of an elegy as a whole with many poems pertaining to death and the author’s struggle with the loss of her father. The poems are at once poignant and gentle in tone and leave questions than can only be answered in multiple readings. The book is segmented in four parts that travel through different topics and types of poetry. The mood ranges from passionate accounts of Orwellian politics to soft recollections of a lovers embrace; throughout the book Smith brings in references to pop culture, science, and technology that incorporate seaml...   [tags: poetry, sense, purpose, nature, death, loss] 2420 words
(6.9 pages)
Better Essays [preview]
Royal Murders by Dulcie M. Ashdown Essay - Murder mysteries are one of the most popular genres of novels today. More often than not, these books are fiction. Royal Murders by Dulcie M. Ashdown is a non-fiction book about murder. This novel travels back thousands of years and tells the story of murders in royal households, like the Scottish monarchy of 1570 to the evil doings of Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible). Although the book could have gone into more detail, it is interesting and informative because the background information is set out in detail, and book reviews suggest that this book is for anyone who shares a deep love for history and mystery....   [tags: non-fiction historic novel]
:: 8 Works Cited
1137 words
(3.2 pages)
Strong Essays [preview]
Speculative Fiction in Marionettes, Inc. by Ray Bradbury and Tomorrow Tomorrow Tomorrow by Kurt Vonnegut - Think of a story that takes our world and changes it into something we all wish for, or something no one would ever believe happening. This is what we call speculative fiction. It is a story that is pure fiction whether it is about zombies, horror, utopias, or an alternative history. Both stories show speculative fiction well. “Marionettes, Inc.” has two main characters. The characters had both gone out to drink with each other and were returning home. One of the characters is named Barling he is married to a woman he does not love....   [tags: population, fear, technology]
:: 2 Works Cited
726 words
(2.1 pages)
Better Essays [preview]
Essay on Brief Library Summary about Fiction Books for Children - Brooks, Gwendolyn. (2007). Bronzeville boys and girls. Illus. by Faith Ringgold New York, NY: Amistad/Harper Collins. 41 pages. Gr. 3-5. Summary: In the book Bronzeville Boys and Girls there are many different poems about African-American children and their daily lives. The first poem is called Mexie and Bridie, it is about two young girls having a tea party beneath the trees. The next poems are about a boy named Val who rides off on his bicycle, a boy and girl who have their aunts and uncles visit....   [tags: Children, Imagination]
:: 1 Works Cited
1362 words
(3.9 pages)
Strong Essays [preview]
Essay on Love And Hate In Jamestown by David A. Price - Love And Hate In Jamestown by David A. Price David A. Price, Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) As a young child many of us are raised to be familiar with the Pocahontas and John Smith story. Whether it was in a Disney movie or at a school play that one first learned of Jamestown, students want to believe that this romantic relationship really did occur....   [tags: History Jamestown] 1630 words
(4.7 pages)
Strong Essays [preview]
Essay about Harold Crick’s Turning Points to Dramatic Change - In many stories, authors let characters to take actions that allow them to benefit when the seemingly uncontrollable turning points come. In the film Stranger than Fiction written by Zach Helm, turning points are used this way through Harold Crick. Harold’s realization of being powerless to avoid his fateful death provides a turning point that induces Harold’s transformation, which helps him to stay alive at the end. Harold understands his failure to control his own destiny after witnessing the sudden demolishment of his own apartment, which triggers him to become earnest and goal-oriented by playing the guitar, to get rid of his inflexibility by pursuing his love interest Ana Pascal using i...   [tags: Harold Crick, Stranger than Fiction, Zach Helm, mo] 1163 words
(3.3 pages)
Strong Essays [preview]
Love in A.S. Byatt's Possession, Zadie Smith's White Teeth, and the Full Monty by Peter Cuttaneo - Love in A.S. Byatt's Possession, Zadie Smith's White Teeth, and the Full Monty by Peter Cuttaneo As British literature and film seek to sort out the identity crisis that England finds herself in as a post-imperial nation, a variety of views have emerged concerning solutions for Britain’s confusion. One reoccurring theme to these views is love. A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and The Full Monty, directed by Peter Cattaneo, all deal with a traditional, romantic view of true love, whether it is presented as a necessity or a dispensable ideal....   [tags: Byatt Smith Monty Cuttaneo Monty Essays] 1670 words
(4.8 pages)
Powerful Essays [preview]
The Death of Love Essay example - The Death of Love When the man stopped the pickup, I assumed he was letting me out, there on the shoulder of the rain-drenched highway. It had happened that way before, and I knew I’d be stranded there for hours. I started to beg, but he hushed me with a wave of his hand. He got out of the car and walked around to the back. Curious now, I turned to watch him through the back window. He removed the tarp covering the pickup’s bed and threw it on the ground, letting it flutter in the wind. Underneath were all these boxes, boxes full of books and clothing and yellowed pictures in fancy frames....   [tags: Personal Narrative essay about love] 400 words
(1.1 pages)
Strong Essays [preview]
Restraint of Feminine Power in Kubla Kahn, Heart of Darkness, and Death Constant Beyond Love - Feminine power has long struck awe into the very heart of humanity. From modern believers in a single female God to the early Pagan religions, which considered every woman a goddess due to the mysterious and god-like power of the “sacred feminine” to create life, people of various faiths and time periods have revered the powers of womanhood. In traditional American culture, however, women are supposedly powerless and fragile, and men supposedly have both physical and political power. Is this true for modern society....   [tags: Death Constant Beyond Love] 1620 words
(4.6 pages)
Powerful Essays [preview]

Related Searches




Anthropologist Victor W. Turner summarises the crucial essence of liminality with these words:
The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (‘threshold people’) are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in a cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. […] Thus liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness and to an eclipse of the sun or moon. (Turner, p.95)[1]

All these intermediate conditions, the passage between life and death, the blurred state between ‘reality’ and dream, the grey area between presence and absence are recurring features of Smith’s fiction. The ‘seen’ shows different facets and its boundaries with the realm of the ‘unseen’, the non-deciphered, and the unknown, become increasingly blurred.

The channels through which Smith explores the liminal dimension are ‘psychological ghosts’. Smith’s phantoms of the mind can be the witnesses of a past existence or vestigia of an ended relationship. Feelings, casual encounters, dreams and even inanimate objects often hold or create intriguing bonds between a past that is not quite over and a present that is already past. In this context, love and death therefore coexist either because of an established death or because a sinister doom clings to apparently happy relationships. Smith manages to transform the trivial and prosaic daily routine into a metaphysical journey through what lies between boundaries. Because of the flexible nature of the boundaries between the seen and the unseen, life, death and afterlife are inevitably interlinked in Smith’s liminal stories. Similarly, time and space boundaries cease to be fixed. Characters are trapped in spaces that no longer belong to them, haunted by memories and unable to fix their identities. Floating within an undefined and deceptive reality, Smith’s ghosts are the expression of fragile psyches and crumbled identities.

Smith’s two collections of short stories, Free Love (1995) and Other Stories and Other Stories (1999) and her novel Hotel World (2001) are all concerned with psychological ghosts drawn from the author’s fascination with the liminal dimension. In particular, I will focus on the coexistence of love and death, as one of the main channels expressing liminality in Smith’s fiction. Characters are haunted by different kinds of psychological ghosts. These may originate from ‘real’ death and bereavement as in Hotel World, a set of five parallel stories each narrated from a different point of view but all interlinked by Sara Wilby’s recent death. Sometimes, however, death is not as straightforwardly represented in the stories, whereas memories or reflections on the past conceal the darker undercurrents of an apparently happy scenario, as happens in both “Scary” (1995) and “God’s gift” (1999). In “Scary” an innocent visit to an ex-partner triggers a sinister reflection on the fear of death and the necessity of living life in the present, rather than worshipping an idealised past of youth, innocence, and happiness. In “God’s gift”, love and death are subtly merged in the narrator’s recollections of a holiday in Greece and her present situation. Finally, other quirky episodes may perturb an apparently peaceful daily routine, as “Small deaths” (1999) where the discovery of a bug infestation in the house where two partners are sharing a loving relationship, casts a dark shadow on the otherwise idyllic scenario. Whatever the initial trigger, Smith’s stories always stress the indissoluble bonds between the psychological ghosts and the characters’ states of minds. Whatever physical consequences death might produce, the focus is always on the other side, on whatever lies between the characters’ psychological dimension and the unknown metaphysical world.

The inability to accept death and life-changes permeates “Scary”. When Tom and Linda visit Tom’s ex-girlfriend Zoë and her new boyfriend Richard, the atmosphere is awkward from the beginning. Richard’s house is a visual sanctuary gathering hundreds of photographs of film stars. In particular, a giant picture of River Phoenix dominates one of the walls of the old house. Zoë and Richard’s obsession with River Phoenix, whose portraits crowd their house, is made all the more morbid by the actor’s recent death. The survival or denial of death is a persistent theme: “‘This isn’t about his death. Death doesn’t even touch what we feel for him’” (Smith 1995, p.121). The feelings attached to the termination of a life are very ambiguous. Rather than creating bereavement, they trigger extremes of behaviour and talk about a problematic relationship with time and change. The characters cannot cope with time and are determined to cling to their past. Linda believes things were much better during her childhood. Tom is clearly still attracted to his ex-girlfriend. Finally, Richard and Zoë’s obsession with the River Phoenix myth epitomises the inability to accept that the past is over. Phoenix represents the myth of eternal youth, passion, a life lived to its full, as Richard admits:
Because when I see one of his films, when I’m sitting there in the cinema watching him in action, even when I’m watching him on the small screen, I get this feeling that I just don’t have enough senses to cope with what I’m being given. Do you know what I mean? I sit there and I wish I had twice, three times as many eyes, eyes all over my body, I wish I had ears all over me, to be able to take it all in properly, the way it should be taken in.’(p.121).

Like the homonymous mythical bird, River Phoenix conveys the ultimate commitment to life, a vitality that even his death has not been able to spoil. Phoenix represents the survival of death, reinforcing the weak borderlines between life and death. Conversely, his attachment to life is paradoxically defeated by the characters’ attitudes towards their pasts, and their desire to keep them alive forever. In “Scary”, all the characters seem trapped in the liminal space between past and present. Rather than accepting the changes brought by the present, they prefer the stagnant memory of a ghostly past. The persistent references to death undermine the two relationships and the nature of the love behind them. While Richard and Zoë’s relationship is based on their shared obsession with a fragile myth, Tom and Linda’s relationship also appears doomed towards the end of the story. Linda’s final escape on board a new train suggests an unexpected twist in the story. Her journey, accompanied by the vibrant rhythms of Brazilian music, epitomises Linda’s new defiant attitude towards her past. At last, life is re-asserted in the present.

Love and death are persistently linked throughout Smith’s second collection of short stories, Other Stories and Other Stories. Several details from “God’s gift”, the first story of the collection, are evocative of death. Here, as often occurs in Smith’s short stories, details hint at underlying themes. Death is the underground link between past memories and present time. The cats from the neighbourhood are in the habit of donating their prey to the narrator: “When I got back from Athens there were six mangled dead birds and various other dead things, waiting in the garden for me among the newly opening flowers” (Smith, 1999, p.3). Dead birds sit close to the blooming flowers: death and life coexist in a paradoxical love ritual. The morbid bond of love and death is a link established from the beginning of the short story. The cats’ behaviour is explained through the narrator’s belief that they must be in love with her. Moreover, the quirky events trigger the process of recollection, drawing on an episode hidden in the past, involving an ex-lover and a stuffed bird in the narrator’s bed, a morbidly affectionate joke:
She was a sweet love, a sweet lover, my first. I was her first too. Now when I think of her it can be with almost no regrets, with hardly a twinge of discomfort, with positive nostalgia, and it was a stuffed bird she put in my bed, I remember; it was supposed to be a joke. (p.6)

Fear of death makes Smith’s characters realise how tightly they are holding onto life. Later, in the present time of the story, when her lover reveals her fear of dying, the narrator reinforces the importance of small gestures and life-asserting moments. Similarly, in an episode from the past, fear of death is overcome through love. After listening to people talking about death during her trip to Greece, she throws herself into the arms of an occasional lover. The power of the sensual encounter asserts life again and exorcises the fear of death.

The liminal stage between life and death also becomes crucial in the story. Back in the present, when she finds a fledgling still alive, the narrator is concerned to preserve its small life. Its state, halfway through death and life, is significantly linked to the theme of liminality and the passage rituals referred to in the story:
The clay statues of goddesses, their arms out in blessing or cupped in hopeful fruitfulness, and jewellery, valuables, pictures, portraits, cups and trinkets, would be buried with the dead, and the dead would have coins in their mouths, placed on their tongues, to pay their passage to the underworld. I saw rows and rows of those tongue coins in one of the museums. I wonder now whether those particular dead people won’t have their passage paid, will still be standing blank-eyed, at one side of the river waiting for a boat that never comes, since their coins are in museums now and not in their mouths any more. (p.9)

The main concern is not about death. The in-between status, the uncertainty and the entrapment between boundaries, are far more disturbing dimensions. The profound significance of liminality in the story is reinforced at the end. The fledgling’s destiny remains unknown. Whether alive or dead, narrator and reader are suspended in the uncertainty, the liminal space of doubt:
In a moment I will go upstairs and see if the fledgling is still on the glove on the window sill. If I can see a bird still there, then it’s probably dead. If I can’t see a bird on the sill, then it’s probably alive. But it might have fallen off, or been blown off. What if it fell off? It might have fallen the height of the house and be stunned or killed on the ground below (p.12).

In “Small Deaths”, an almost literal translation of the French petite mort, the magic atmosphere of a beautiful summer’s day is abruptly interrupted by an insect invasion, an attack which is made more sinister by its idyllic setting. The narrator and her partner are in a blissful state of harmony with each other and at peace with the world:
Halfway through the summer the weather suddenly got better, hotter. For nearly a week the air was hot, hanging in the house as thick as smoke, hanging around the garden curling and deadening leaves. I love it, you said. I love this weather. I love you (Smith, 1999, p.69).

The peaceful scenario is interrupted abruptly by the appearance of a “small striped insect”, when, after a few days they wake up “to them everywhere in the house” (p. 70). The mass killing that follows is even more morbid than any of Smith’s other death stories. As the first remedy is not wholly successful, however, some of the bugs are still alive, floating in cups of tea and penetrating the narrator’s body: “That evening, while we were watching an old horror film on television, I picked one, black and juicy and healthy, off the inside of my upper lip” (p.73). The image conjured up is again one of death: the narrator’s body is turned into a corpse that the healthy bugs thrive on. Life and death feed off each other. In order to preserve their lives and the lives of their pets, the narrator and her partner become responsible for thousands of ‘small deaths’. Daily incidents are magnified into the expressionist image of a surreal scenario. Harmless creatures are turned into a horrific force threatening life and well-being. Smith manages to multiply the effects of ‘small deaths’ into a sinister massacre: “Down there between the rucks of dust, deep in the shoddy globules of carpet, the choking corpses, the choked hatchings of their eggs” (p.73). An apparently insignificant episode is turned into a sinister event through Smith’s expressionist style. The insects’ deaths are easily dismissed accidents, but Smith’s skilfully accentuates the morbid potential of the otherwise prosaic event. After the bugs attack is over, both the narrator and her partner are much more aware of the precariousness of idyllic love, life and happiness. Death has cast a sinister shadow on the lovers’ house, and even after their deaths, the bugs are turned into ghostly liminal creatures.
Their ‘small deaths’ are likely to haunt the lovers and their house after the magical effect of the powerful insecticide vanishes:

The insecticide, however, if applied properly, would last seven months. […]

Luckily for us out there on the wall, the rain of the past few days had stopped. Luckily, it was quite a dry evening.

You looked at your watch. Twenty-six minutes to go, you said. We sat in the low evening sun and waited for the twenty-six minutes to pass (p.74).

The repetition of the adverb ‘luckily’ and the mention of the number ‘seven’ emphasise the superstitious nature of the ritual, almost as if the effectiveness of the insecticide relies more on the belief in its magic power. The intermediate status in which the insects (and the characters) are trapped is recorded by the typical ending of Smith’s stories. Not dead yet and probably not fully alive, the bugs are in the passage between life and death as narrator and partner wait for the time of reaction to pass.

Psychological and ‘real’ ghosts are prominent in Hotel World. A ‘real’ ghost is the protagonist of the novel: Sara Wilby’s spirit haunts the parallel stories that form the narrative of Hotel World. Liminality is again a central theme: in her afterlife, Sara’s spirit continues to haunt characters and the hotel where she worked as a maid.
References to the liminal dimension precede Sara’s death and her turning into a ghost.
Before her accidental death due to a fatal fall down the shaft of a dumb waiter, Sara has already experienced being incorporeal. After falling in love with the girl at the watch shop, Sara admits that “falling for her had made me invisible” (Smith, 2001, p.23). Sara is already trapped in a liminal dimension before she falls down the lift.
The pun is created by the double meaning of the verb ‘fall’. While adding irony to the story, the play on words stresses the intimate closeness of love and death. Although not yet dead, Sara feels her body disappearing while passing the girl on the street.
Ironically, only as a ghost does she finally attempt to establish contact with her towards the end of her story: “I passed through her. I couldn’t resist it. I felt nothing. I hope it was the right shop. I hope she was the right girl” (p.29). Sara’s ultimate attempt to establish contact with the girl from the shop is annihilated by the nothingness of death and the uncertainty that she could have mistaken the shop.
Nevertheless, death is not a definite event. In Smith’s stories death often leaves its witnesses in a metaphysical dilemma: is this it? The questioning of meaning of life and the mysterious and intriguing possibilities of afterlife are crucial throughout Smith’s fiction. With the ghost of Sara suspended in limbo between the world of the living and an afterlife dimension, the novel starts with a paradox: “Here’s the story; it starts at the end” (p.3). Although not all the chapters of the novel follow the form of a ghost story, the memory of the recently dead haunts it from the beginning, creating several underground links between all the characters in Hotel World.

The ghost’s liminal dimension means that the living are not left in peace but are constantly haunted by the thought of death and afterlife. On the other side, the ghost speaks from her dimension, commenting on and witnessing the world she used to inhabit. Memories of the past obsess Sara, just like they obsess her relatives, friends and colleagues who are still mourning her. Sara’s liminal condition forces her to cling to any detail stored in her mind and to establish a connection with the last few days of her existence. In the desperate effort to remind her own spirit of her physical life, Sara’s trapped soul struggles to keep her memory alive. Apparently unimportant things assume an essential role in the game of remembering: ‘Beautiful dirt, grey and vintage, the grime left by life, sticking to the bony roof of a mouth and tasting of next to nothing, which is always better than nothing’ (p.5). Anything is better than not being. Sara’s ghost keeps tormenting everybody, including her own self, to discover more about her past. Mere details such as the duration of her fall become crucial to her search for clues to fill in the holes of nothingness. These concepts, nothingness, emptiness, and vacuums, are constantly repeated throughout the narrative. In particular, the notion of ‘nothingness’, can turn into something quite ironic, as Else observes in ‘Present Historic’, the second chapter of Hotel World:
Who needs one pence? Fucking nobody who’s anybody. That’s quite funny, the idea of fucking a nobody, just a space there where a body might be, and yourself flailing backwards and forwards against the thin air. (p.35)

Else’s absurd fantasy of a sexual encounter with nobody epitomises the role of liminality in Hotel World. Nothingness is the starting point of the novel, the central issue all characters have to deal with and the underlying philosophy of liminality. Being nothing equals a lack of definition, uncertainty and inability to communicate. Nothing is real and reality is nothing.

The metaphysical undercurrents in Smith’s complex novel are endorsed by its epigraphs: “Remember you must die” (Muriel Spark), “Energy is eternal delight” (William Blake) and “The fall occurs at dawn” (Albert Camus). These short quotations enclose the gist of one of the longer quotations by Charles Jencks: “the cosmos is much more dynamic than either a pre-designed world or a dead machine … each jump is a great mystery”. At the end of the first chapter and at the end of the novel Spark’s quote is transformed:

Remember you must live

Remember you most love

Remainder you mist leaf (p.30; p.237)

Death becomes life. Death asserts love. With these last epigraphic messages enclosing her novel in a circular way, Smith invites the readers to go beyond the ordinary, realistic setting of the parallel narratives. The setting, the episodes and the characters of the overlapping stories are incidental to the metaphysical concepts disclosed in their narratives. The ghost story is thus re-defined and becomes a story of the seen world looked upon from the distorted angles of a spirit, an outcast, a madwoman, a liar or a bereaved girl. Smith turns the order of things upside down and successfully exposes the ‘real’ world to criticism subversively originated from unconventional voices. Ultimately, the ‘real’ world is the focus of the story: its irrational mystery is laid bare in all its beauty.

This analysis of Smith’s treatment of love, death and liminality allows us to make two conclusive points about the author’s relationship to the literary traditions and contexts closer to her work. In this respect, it might be worth mentioning an observation on the ambiguous meanings of the word ‘tradition’ found in a study on liminality in the Hispanic tradition by Gustavo Pérez Firmat:
Tradition implies continuity, linear descent, the orderly transmission of a code of devices, motifs, or attitudes. […] But it is sometimes forgotten that there is another (semantic) tradition in ‘tradition’, for the word’s etymological doublet is ‘treason’. To traduce tradition is to affirm tradition: nothing is more traditional, in one sense of the word, than break of discontinuity, achieved by an act of treason. (Pérez Firmat, p.xvii)

Smith’s writing seems to follow both paths of ‘continuity’ and ‘betrayal’ implied in the definition of ‘tradition’ delineated by Pérez Firmat. Although her fiction might appear difficult to relate to a specific tradition, the author’s persistent fascination with liminality allows us to relate her work to two specific areas of literary tradition: postmodernism and Scottish fantasy. Paradoxical as this might be, for the purpose of this argument, it is Smith’s interest in the intermediate, undistinguished and undefined, that plays the defining role. Indeed love, death and liminality have an essential function in the relationship between Smith, postmodernism and Scottish fantasy. Following Brian McHale’s theories on love, death and the overcoming of boundaries in postmodernist fiction,[2] a link can be established between these aspects of postmodernist writing and Smith’s use of love, death and liminality. Similarly, the uncanny liaisons of love and death in Smith’s fiction lead to a conclusive remark on the author’s relationship with her nationality and the Scottish fantasy tradition.

One of the manifestations of liminality in Smith’s fiction, the co-existence of love and death, suggests a basis to relate her writing to postmodernist fiction. According to Brian McHale, the tropes of love and death epitomise the postmodernist relationship between text, readers and ‘reality’. In particular, McHale argues that in postmodernist writing love becomes a subversive force of metaleptic seduction. The introduction of the pronoun ‘you’ is one of the strategies which manifest the employment of love as a tool for metalepsis. When the person to whom the pronoun is ambiguously addressed can be both one of the characters or the reader, a text challenges the ontological boundaries between author and reader. The ‘shiftiness’ of the pronoun ‘you’ blurs any fixed boundaries between addressor and addressee, as the text becomes itself a ‘liminal’ area which belongs to both:
Postmodernist writing extends and deepens this aura of the uncanny, exploiting the relational potential of the second-person pronoun. The postmodernist second-person functions as an invitation to the reader to project himself or herself into the gap opened in the discourse by the presence of you. (McHale, p.224)

Smith frequently introduces the pronoun ‘you’ both in short stories and novels. Smith’s use of ‘you’ often discloses the author’s will to establish a more intimate relationship between reader and narrator. This can be observed in ‘God’s gift’, ‘Small Deaths’ and especially Hotel World, where an unknown interlocutor is ambiguously addressed at the end of the first chapter: ‘I am hanging falling breaking this word and the next. Time me, would you? You. Yes, you. It’s you I’m talking to’ (Smith, 2001, p.31). Placed at the end of the first chapter, it is not clear whether these warnings are addressed to the reader, whether they are Sara Wilby’s words or whether they belong to the author. Although Smith deliberately leaves these questions open to the reader, perhaps suggesting that there are no safe answers, the questions do establish a relationship with the readers, inviting them to overcome the conventional textual boundaries between author and readers. The absence of an interlocutor in Sara’s monologue in the first chapter inevitably raises questions about the addressee of the warning. Since there is no stated recipient of Sara’s words in the text, those words inevitably revert to the readers. Furthermore, the emphatic repetition of the pronoun ‘you’ stresses the intimate relationship Smith/Sara’s ghost is trying to establish with the unknown addressee of her monologue. If we accept that those words are Sara’s, then the boundaries between the ‘seen’ and the ‘unseen’ worlds have been overcome. From her afterlife, the ghost has managed to tell the living people her own version of the story. However, if we prefer to believe that those words belong to Smith, another set of boundaries, the textual barriers which separate the author from the reader have been skilfully and subtly lowered. In this way, the reader is subtly invited to experience the text through a much more ‘personal’, intimate approach.

As love triggers the overcoming of textual boundaries, death represents the fall of all ontological boundaries in the representation of ‘reality’ in postmodernist fiction. In McHale’s words:
Postmodernist writing models or simulates death; it produces simulacra of death through confrontations between worlds, through transgressions of ontological levels or boundaries, or through vacillations between different kinds and degrees of ‘reality’. (p.232)

One of the implications of the Postmodernist fascination with death is that even the ultimate set of boundaries, those between the ‘seen’ and the ‘unseen’, can be defied in the representation of ‘reality’. This certainly happens throughout Smith’s fiction, which stretches between the seen and the unseen, and often eliminates the barriers which separate the living and dead. As seen in “God’s gift”, “Small deaths”, “Scary” and manifestly in Hotel World, the liminality of death poses metaphysical questions as it leaves characters in the unknown limbo between life and afterlife. The potential death of a fledgling or the ‘small massacre’ of bugs are both triggers of the characters’ reflections upon their own lives (“God’s gift” and “Small deaths”); a relationship between two adults is ambiguously based on the fragile legacy left behind by the premature death of actor River Phoenix (“Scary”); the ghost of a dead hotel maid begins her story after her death (Hotel World). In all her stories, Smith seems to suggest that death is never a confined episode, but opens up new possibilities to the inexplicable sides of life. Her employment of liminality in her approach to death challenges the boundaries between life and death, physical and metaphysical dimension, ‘reality’ and fantasy.

The second area of tradition which Smith’s fiction arguably belongs to is Scottish fantasy. Refusing to limit her work under any specific label, that would narrow her fiction down to a single genre, Smith has often shown concerns about the relevance of her nationality when discussing her work. In her words:
All I know is I’m Scottish and I write. So of course there’s an interconnection. I’m a lot of other things too, like brown haired and nearly forty and right handed and lapsed Catholic and gay and snub nosed and rather bad at cooking and where do you want to stop? what do you want to use? What’s relevant? I’m not choosing. I’m suggesting that relevance is always relative (Germanà, p.370).[3]

The absence of specific Scottish references in her own work, her use of standard English, and her sceptical attitude towards Scottish national identity and culture could suggest a detached, rebellious betrayal of the Scottish tradition. Yet, a link does exist between Smith’s writing and the Scottish literary tradition. It should be clear by now that Smith’s use of liminality sets her stories in the realm of the uncanny. The liminal stage in her stories is conveyed by the psychological states of the characters. It is always through the characters’ minds that the boundaries between the seen and the unseen progressively cease to be of any significance. In this respect, Smith’s use of psychological fantasy bears strong links with the Scottish literary tradition. The majority of Scottish fantasy writing is psychological. In Colin Manlove’s words: ‘In a sense Scots fantasy is inward-looking, concerned to discover something hidden within’ (Manlove, p.11).[4] From the ballad tradition to the classic novels of the doppelgänger such as James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Scottish texts have developed and manifested a focus on the uncanny relationship between the supernatural and the real world, the metaphysical and the physical, the unseen and the seen. Scottish fantasy hardly ever concentrates on ‘otherworlds’ per se. In fact, the emphasis is more often placed on the quirky, inexplicable, uncanny sides of the ‘real’ world and of the human psyche.

This typical closeness between magic and psychology of Scottish fantasy writing is also Smith’s starting point. The surreal nature of her stories does not stem from the existence of a parallel world, or from encounters with marvellous creatures. In fact, the most intriguing aspect of Smith’s stories is the unpredictable marriage of mundane daily routines with unexpectedly sinister twists. In all the stories, different forms of love invariably sit close to death. Whether it is the death of a movie star, the ancient Greek burial customs or the accidental death of a hotel maid, the closeness of love and death leave characters in a liminal dimension, while Smith subtly draw the readers’ attention onto the fragile boundary which separates life and death.

Notes

[1] See also Van Gennep.

[2] See McHale pp.219‑232.

[3] See also Gonda, pp.1‑24.

[4] See also Elphinstone, pp.45‑47.

Works Cited

Elphinstone, Margaret, “Contemporary Feminist Fantasy in the Scottish Literary Tradition”, in Tea and Leg-Irons: New Feminist Readings From Scotland, (ed.), by Caroline Gonda (London: Open Letters, 1992), pp.45‑59.

Germanà, Monica, “Re-working the Magic. A Parallel Study of Six Scottish Women Writers of the Late Twentieth Century”, (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Glasgow: 2003).

Gonda, Caroline, “Another Country? Mapping Scottish/Lesbian Writing”, in Gendering The Nation. Studies in Modern Scottish Literature, ed. by Christopher Whyte (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995), pp.1‑24.

McHale, Brian, Postmodernist Fiction (1987) (London: Routledge, 1991).

Pérez Firmat, Gustavo, Literature and Liminality. Festive Readings in the Hispanic Tradition (Durham: Duke University Press, 1986).

Smith, Ali, Free Love and Other Stories (London: Granta, 1995).

Smith, Ali, Other Stories and Other Stories (London: Granta Books, 1999).

Smith, Ali, Hotel World (London: Penguin, 2001).

Turner, Victor W., The Ritual Process. Structure and Anti-Structure (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969).

Van Gennep, Arnold, The Rites of Passage (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1960).


Return to 123HelpMe.com