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Companion Piece

May 11, 2022

Ali Smith’s newest novel, Companion Piece, wasn’t as much company as I’d hoped. It tells some stories but calls them into question. It raises some questions and doesn’t take its readers very far thinking about answers. Its answers are as unsatisfying as the way it lays out its announced subject, “a meeting between some terrifying aspects of imagination and reality.”

Rather than terrifying, I found most aspects of the collision of imagination and reality irritating, especially the subplot in which the first-person narrator lets an entire family of people she doesn’t know (the Pelfs) into her house in the middle of a pandemic. They say the thing that so many people think and don’t say about Covid-19, which is “we all know each other so no precautions necessary,” as if you can’t catch it from anyone you know. It’s an especially irritating subplot because Sand keeps letting the Pelfs stay in her house, finally even leaving the house herself and going to live her father’s life with his dog in his empty house while he’s in the hospital. But I wouldn’t be so irritated if Smith hadn’t made the characters so real. Towards the end, she takes care to undercut their reality by making Sand admit that “I’m hallucinating Pelfs. I’m inventing the opposite of isolation precisely so that I won’t mind isolation.”

And there are some really good parts in this novel. There’s a detailed explication of an e.e. cummings poem which is printed in its entirety in the text of the chapter. During the process of explicating the poem, the narrator, Sand, gives a nicely succinct explanations of why we refer to the “speaker” of a poem. When her friend says “the poems’ speaker….You mean the poet. Or is there another person meant to be speaking too?” Sand replies “I mean the person who’s there inside your head when you read the poem, when the human thing you can hear through its strangeness, and the meanings you do recognize, even through the fog of the strangeness, all hit your eye and your mind.”

There’s a story about necromancy, about how we long to raise our dead loved ones during a pandemic: “In the story a woman is looking for her own dead child. She is so desperate to find him that she crosses the country from side to side raising the spirits of all the dead and gone children to see if any of them is her boy.”

Sand’s story is interlaced with the story of a medieval girl who is a personification or a vision but who Sand insists is “a person.” I like the way their stories dovetail, but I don’t like the way we don’t get to find out what happens or even why the two should be connected. In a novel that purports to be about companionship, I think there could be a little more connection between characters, especially ones linked mostly by the coincidental fact that they both live in times of plague. There’s a forced feeling about the connection the novelist is trying to make between Sand, who paints the words of poems over the top of the other words so that they can’t be read but are there, and the girl from an earlier age who long ago “went the way of all girls.”

The conversation Sand has with her unconscious father in the hospital is also weighted with a significance that seems forced. Smith was probably writing this novel for company while she was alone and imagining her words reaching someone else, but the way the words come across is more as a lecture on the topic of finding companionship in literature:
“in a poem from a thousand years ago, some of the first written-down poetry in English, there’s a couple of lines where there’s maybe a curlew. The poem’s about a person who’s miles from land, they’ve been at sea in a boat for a long long time, and it’s a sort of prayer about our aloneness and our surviving. All the seasons pass through it, or the poem’s speaker passes in the boat through all the seasons with nothing for company but the sea and the life of the sea. Except dad, and this is what I love about it, actually that speaker isn’t alone at all, because I’m reading or hearing the poem, or you are, if it’s you reading it. A conversation with someone or something that’s silent is still a conversation.”

Smith is at her best when she’s using Sand to pontificate, especially on the topic of immigration:
“What we watched was politicians arguing with each other while people drowned in the narrow patch of sea between here and the rest of Europe. The politicians were making themselves huge, as bloated as barrage balloons, possibly because they wanted to suggest the people in the water were comparatively negligible, too small even to be real people, so that the argument would shift from being about people’s lives and deaths and become instead about which of the barrage balloon politicians would win an argument.”

I love the topicality and experimentalism of Smith’s seasonal novels, especially Summer, but I found her techniques less effective in Companion Piece.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 11, 2022 2:55 pm

    I’m in the holds queue for this at my library and looking forward it. I will just lower my expectations a tiny bit 🙂

    • May 12, 2022 10:24 am

      Yes, my expectations were very high. You might enjoy it more if you temper yours!

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